From time to time in this blog, I’ve written about art or, more specifically, how easy it is to convince “cultured” people that various stuff is art, even if it’s only a canvas dipped in black paint or the bed you slept in last night.
To my thinking, fine art has six possible functions:
- To express the artist’s feelings (especially important if the artist’s medical insurance doesn’t cover mental health).
- To create beauty, which, as you know, is in the eye of the beholder, which still doesn’t explain the painting at right, which is actually in a museum*
- To make the viewer experience something in a new way. On velvet, for instance.
- To make the artist a few bucks to buy more paint.
- To cover the hole you made when you were practicing your golf swing in the living room.
- To make a statement.
It’s this last one I want to talk about today, particularly what happens when one artist’s statement disagrees with another artist’s statement.
Just such an art argument is going on right now in a very public way in the financial district of Manhattan. On one side of the debate is a 7,000-pound bull. On the other is a 4-foot tall schoolgirl with an attitude.
In case you have a life and haven’t been following this story, there’s this bronze sculpture called “Charging Bull” that’s been charging through the Bowling Green of lower Manhattan for almost three decades now. The work captures the bull just as it is about to gore a hedge fund manager in the wallet, assuming the hedge fund manager keeps his wallet in his back pocket. The bull has always been a big tourist attraction because people who don’t have the nerve to go to Pamplona consider this a safer alternative.
Then on March 7 of this year, a little girl showed up out of nowhere to face down the bull. This statue is called “Fearless Girl,” but when you see the two statues together, she looks like “Stupid, Stupid Girl” because she is totally defenseless and doesn’t even have a red cape.
But she instantly became as popular as Taylor Swift…if Taylor Swift was four feet tall, made out of bronze and had a death wish.
Okay, so that’s the set-up.
Now the bull’s sculptor, an Italian immigrant named Arturo Di Modica, is screaming to whoever will listen that this poor little girl has fundamentally corrupted the artistic integrity of his work. While others believe “Fearless Girl” is a symbol of female empowerment, Di Modica says she’s nothing but a publicity stunt, an opinion that has some degree of validity because she was commissioned by the advertising agency for the investment firm of State Street Global Advisors, which was not shy about making sure its name was on the plaque at Fearless Girl’s feet.
Di Modica has asked the city of New York not to extend the young lady’s permit to stand in front of his bull, which is interesting, since he originally installed his bull without a permit of any kind.
He says he put the bull there for art’s sake. “My bull is a symbol for America,” he announced. “My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength.”
His bull also comes with a bit of an Italian accent, if you get my drift.
In fairness, though, he definitely has a point. The juxtaposition of the new statue clearly alters the meaning of Di Modica’s. The bull is now seen as menacing rather than strong. It has become representative of the assholes on Wall Street who go charging forward without regard for who they trample on their way to obscene profits. The Fearless Girl’s parents lost all the money they had put aside for her college tuition because their financial advisor had “a few good ideas” that his firm was pushing, and now she’s standing up to the bull on behalf of all the “little people” who are tired of the way big business has ruined America and particularly women who will no longer be bullied by snorting, horny men.
Or something like that.
On the other hand, how much control should artists have over their work’s environment once it’s out in the public? I mean, if you create outdoor statuary for New York City, you have to minimally expect that its integrity will be altered by several layers of pigeon poop and some gang tags. If a museum decides to place Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” opposite Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it could certainly be said that Munch’s subject is now horrified at the wild goings-on in Bosch’s piece, rather than whatever was causing the terror in the first place. But does that mean Munch should sue the museum, which would then be quite frightened itself since Munch has been dead for over 70 years?
Of course, the situation on Wall Street is fundamentally different. For one thing, Di Modica technically still owns his work, so if he doesn’t like what that little girl says about it, he can take his bull elsewhere.
See you soon.
*Although the museum it is in is the Museum of Bad Art in Boston, which is a real thing. This particular work, “Two Trees in Love,” is acrylic on canvas, and the artist is Julie Seelig. The painting was donated to the museum by Sally Seelig, the artist’s mother, possibly because she wanted to get it off her refrigerator.**
**But the more I look at it, the more I kinda like it.