Artists don’t get to dic­tate how so­ci­ety should per­ceive their pub­lic art

Toronto Star - - NEWS - Mur­ray Whyte

Fear­less Girl, the cast-bronze sculp­ture on Wall Street star­ing down the leer­ing men­ace of a 7,000-pound bronze bull, has been many things to many peo­ple over her month­long life.

A sym­bol of pay eq­uity and the de­ter­mi­na­tion to achieve it here, in the heart of the most machis­mo­d­renched in­dus­try on the planet; a sane, fem­i­nine re­sponse to the blind ag­gres­sion of global cap­i­tal­ism and its as­sault on the poor; an em­blem of fe­male re­sis­tance in a sud­den, Don­ald Trump-led as­sault on women’s rights; and, fore­most, an ad for a fi­nan­cial firm to pro­mote its in­vest­ments in com­pa­nies with fe­male ex­ec­u­tives. State Street Global Ad­vi­sors paid for the work, by artist Kris­ten Vis­bal, at least partly to boost its “SHE” fund.

Mean­while, here’s what it’s not: avi­o­la­tion of the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights of Ar­turo Di Mod­ica, who made the bull in 1989. Still, that’s the case his lawyer will try to make. That the in­stal­la­tion of Fear­less Girl, and the chal­lenge she makes to Di Mod­ica’s bull, con­sti­tutes copy­right in­fringe­ment.

Di Mod­ica has lamented that Fear­less Girl changed the mean­ing of his work. His lawyer is seek­ing ei­ther fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion or the re­moval of the sculp­ture.

Well, good luck with that. Pub­lic art, it shouldn’t need to be said, ex­ists in the pub­lic realm. To sug­gest its mean­ing can be for­ever fixed to its maker’s in­ten­tion is nar­cis­sism in the ex­treme, and at odds with the na­ture of art it­self.

To be clear: Di Mod­ica’s bull has not been de­faced, al­tered, moved or dam­aged. This is not a case like Michael Snow v. Ea­ton Cen­tre, when, in 1982, the fa­mous Cana­dian artist sued the shop­ping cen­tre — suc­cess­fully — af­ter work­ers tied bright red rib­bons around the necks of Flight Stop, his in­stal­la­tion of a flock of Canada geese soar­ing high in its atrium. The rib­bons not only al­tered the work, but sug­gested it was merely dec­o­ra­tive — a vi­o­la­tion of the artist’s rights.

What Di Mod­ica is ar­gu­ing against, it seems, is the right for an­other artist, or any­one, re­ally, to ex­press their own read­ing of his piece. Think again. Be­ing in pub­lic means be­ing open to the full breadth of re­sponses the pub­lic it­self might bring. Fear­less Girl is just one of those: are­sponse, fol­low­ing a read­ing, of what the bull might stand for.

It would have been in­ter­preted very dif­fer­ently in the ’80s era of height­ened greed than in the more per­ilous cli­mate of 2017. If the work has any value at all, it’s in how its mean­ing has changed, not how it man­ages to be a relic of its time.

Fear­less Girl’s al­lure, and its suc­cess, comes not from its ini­tial func­tion — as a de facto ad — but its abil­ity to tran­scend it. It is, all by it­self, the ex­act op­po­site of what Di Mod­ica is ar­gu­ing for: are­cep­tive, fluid avatar for a breadth of ideas and dreams.

This is what Di Mod­ica fails to grasp. Once an art­work is made pub­lic, it no longer be­longs to the artist — at least not en­tirely. Art, in part, is made to of­fer an idea and then be open to the con­ver­sa­tion it pro­vokes, wher­ever it may lead. En­gag­ing the viewer’s imag­i­na­tion to find their own mean­ing is the point.

If you can’t han­dle the con­ver­sa­tion or di­verg­ing points of view, then keep it in­side. It won’t mean any­thing to any­one any­way.

Di Mod­ica com­plains that the mean­ing has shifted. Well, of course it has. Fear­less Girl just makes that ex­plicit. He in­stalled it in 1989; the world is not a static place. The mean­ing of the work has shifted count­less times al­ready — with every re­ces­sion, stock rally and elec­tion, and with every set of eyes that has fallen on it.

I’m not a lawyer and Di Mod­ica may well win the le­gal chal­lenge; there may be con­trac­tual obli­ga­tions re­gard­ing the space it oc­cu­pies. But the moral bat­tle — over the right of every one of us to have our own re­sponse to a work of art — was lost be­fore he be­gan.


Ar­turo Di Mod­ica holds a model of his Charg­ing Bull sculp­ture dur­ing a news con­fer­ence on Wed­nes­day.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.