The uplifting, but ultimately cynical saga of Fearless Girl
Amy Werbel, Associate Professor of the History of Art at the Fashion Institute of Technology at the State University of New York, discusses a public sculpture controversy in Manhatttan.
Wall Street is no stranger to controversy, and especially now that America has a business executive President who has allegedly used generous loans from investors to finance such dubious enterprises as bankrupt casinos, suspicious condos, and a sham university. Situated within this bastion of controversy, a 50-inch high statue of a Fearless Girl hardly should raise an eyebrow, but this is public art, installed without permit or warning in the heart of New York’s Financial District. Everyone has a hyperbolic opinion – there is no neutral ground on which to stand. This is even truer now that #MeToo and #MeAt14 stories and pictures have gone viral on social media than when Fearless Girl first made her appearance on Women’s Day, 8 March 2017. The question is, now that she is standing tall and attracting both praise and derision, should she stay or should she go?
The saga of Fearless Girl began in 1989 with another act of guerrilla art, Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull. The feat of installing the work, weighing in at 7100 pounds or 3200 kg, across from the New York Stock Exchange in the middle of the night shocked and delighted city residents. Di Modica stated that his massive sculpture of a ferocious beast was a Christmas gift to New York celebrating the can-do spirit of America in the wake of the 1986 Wall Street crash. The sculpture also was a publicity stunt: Di Modica offered to sell versions of the work to other cities, and the trick paid off. In New York, the Charging Bull was so popular that the city let it stay, albeit relocated further down the street.
Fast-forward to 2017, and American politics in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. Worldwide participation in Women’s Marches to protest his inauguration is estimated at five million people. Taking advantage of this moment to call attention to ‘the lack of gender diversity of boardrooms’, and of course to their own righteous indignation, State Street Global Advisors commissioned sculptor Kristen Visbal to make a counter-sculpture that would assert female power, standing directly across from New York’s most virile male symbol – Charging Bull. Visbal’s defiant embodiment of a young girl, standing firmly with hands on hips and head held high, struck a chord with business women, female politicians, tourists and locals alike, who praised the statue as a powerful symbol of women’s insistence on having a place at every table. For many, she seemed like a cathartic salve for those whose hopes were dashed for America to have its first female President. In light of her popularity, Mayor Bill de Blasio decided Fearless Girl could stay for at least a year. But then, things got complicated.
Seven months after its installation, news spread that State Street paid five million dollars to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit that had been brought by senior-level female employees well before Visbal’s commission, which had been suggested by an advertising agency. Was Fearless Girl a ‘bunch of bull’? Another more intellectually interesting argument for removal is that her presence disrupts the intended meaning and significance of the sculpture she is positioned to face. Within a month of her appearance, Arturo Di Modica had hired an attorney who claimed the statue was an advertising stunt that infringed Di Modica’s rights as an artist by changing the meaning of his work, by turning the bull into a villain. In May, an obnoxious supporter of this argument named Alex Gardega installed a sculpture of a dog peeing on Fearless Girl, thus sparking a new round of debate and disgust. Gardega soon removed his sculpture named Pissing Pug, but not before photographs of it, too, went viral.
Di Modica’s claims are headed nowhere in court, although many artists agree with him on the right to protect their work from counter-installations which destroy their intended meaning. Perhaps the most compelling argument for her to go is that she is an unasked for publicity stunt, concocted as a form of pinkwashing for an opportunistic financial services company. But Fearless Girl has lots of fans around the world, and if Mayor Bill De Blasio orders the work removed in February 2018 as he promised last March, he may well face a serious backlash from the legions of women for whom she is an icon of defiant girl power, at a time when American women are running for office and mobilising politically in epic numbers.
In the immortal, paraphrased, words of The Clash, if she goes, there will be trouble, if she stays it will be double. Agree or disagree?
3rd Dimension update: On 10 December 2018 The Fearless Girl was moved to a new permanent position facing the New York Stock Exchange in Lower Manhattan.