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