A tale of two sculptures
There’s a new girl in town — in New York City, that is. Her name is Fearless Girl, and she’s facing, and standing up to, a charging bull. The girl appears to be about six years old. She’s just over four feet tall. And she weighs about 250 pounds — which isn’t much, for a bronze sculpture.
Her hands are on her hips, and she wears a bold, confident expression. She is indeed fearless. Her skirt is blowing, but not like Marilyn Monroe’s, bawdily. Her hair is done in a ponytail. And on her feet, there are old-fashioned, high-top, lace-up shoes. She’s a beauty, this girl. And she was sculpted by Kristen Visbal, of Lewes, Del.
Did Visbal sculpt the charging bull, too? No, he was sculpted by Arturo Di Modica, born in Sicily in 1941. He had an early interest in art, especially in sculpture. When he was 19, he went to Florence to study. He stayed there for twelve years, learning his art, displaying his wares. Then, in 1973, he crossed the ocean to America. He set up shop in SoHo, one of the neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, not far from the Financial District.
Flash-forward to 1987 — when the stock market crashed. In response, Di Modica decided he’d make a bull — a great bull, meant to symbolize “the strength and power of the American people,” as he said. Remember that, on Wall Street, a bull is someone who is optimistic. Its opposite is a bear: someone who is pessimistic. At times you’re bullish, at times you’re bearish.
Di Modica worked on his bull for two years, spending his own money — more than $300,000. Charging Bull is 11 feet tall and 16 feet long. A bronze, it weighs more than 7,000 pounds. The sculpture is rippling, dynamic, awesome. It conveys an unstoppability.
In the early morning hours of December 15, 1989, Di Modica and some friends plunked Charging Bull right in front of the New York Stock Exchange. They had no permission. This was an instance of “guerrilla art.” Immediately, the sculpture caused a sensation. It made news around the world. But, before the day was through, it was gone. The Stock Exchange had the bull carted off, and consigned to an impound lot.
The next day, the New York Post ran a classic front page: “Bah, Humbug! N.Y. Stock Exchange grinches can’t bear Christmas-gift bull.” (“Bear” and “bull,” get it?)
In favor of the bull, a public cry went up. And city officials decided to place it in Bowling Green Park, not far from the Stock Exchange. There it has remained, for these almost 30 years. It is an icon of Wall Street — a symbol of capitalism, around the world.
Day in, day out, people mob it. They rub the bull’s nose, and his horns, and his . . . well, testicles. These are great balls o’ bronze. People crouch down to have their picture taken with them, grinning sheepishly (neither bullishly nor bearishly).
In 2004, Adrian Benepe, who was then parks commissioner, made a statement about Charging Bull: “It’s become one of the most visited, most photographed, and perhaps most loved and recognized statues in the City of New York. I would say it’s right up there with the Statue of Liberty.”
Arturo Di Modica has a website, which says that he conceived of Charging Bull as “a way to celebrate the can-do spirit of America and especially New York, where people from all over the world could come regardless of their origin or circumstances, and through determination and hard work overcome every obstacle to become successful.”
Like many immigrants, Di Modica is more pro-American — and certainly more pro-market — than the native-born. Among his awards is the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
On March 8 of this year, something curious happened: Fearless Girl appeared, in front of Charging Bull. March 8 was International Women’s Day (as every year). Fearless Girl was supposed to make a statement — about gender equality in the financial industry. She was placed there by State Street Global Advisors, an investment firm.
And she immediately caused a sensation, like Charging Bull in 1989. People loved her and flocked to her. Unlike the bull, the girl had permission: She was supposed to stay a week. But, right away, there was a demand that she be made permanent. An online petition was started. Fearless Girl got an extension — to 30 days.
But that wasn’t enough. Indeed, 30 days was insulting. A veritable movement was being formed. And its spirit was captured in a tweet by Letitia James, who holds the position of “public advocate” in New York. “Empowering women shouldn’t be temporary,” she wrote. Therefore, Fearless Girl “must be a permanent piece of NYC.”
The girl got another extension — to March 8, 2018, the next International Women’s Day. The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, made the announcement standing next to the sculpture itself. He spoke of the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the fears attending it. Then “this miraculous girl appears,” said de Blasio. “Sometimes a symbol helps us become whole, and I think Fearless Girl is having that effect. She is inspiring everyone at a moment when we need inspiration.”
Hang on a minute: You see, of course, how Fearless Girl has changed the meaning of Charging Bull. Completely. Before, he was something positive (to those of us who appreciate American capitalism). Now he is something menacing, to be faced down and stood up to.
The Associated Press interviewed a young woman from Romania, visiting the statues. “The bull represents men and power,” she said. So Fearless Girl is “a message of women’s power and things that are changing in the world right now.” The borough president of Manhattan, Gale Brewer, has weighed in with her own interpretation: “It’s possible to take on the bull.”
Understandably, Arturo Di Modica is none too happy about this. He has said that Fearless Girl, opposed to Charging Bull, is tantamount to an act of vandalism. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a mustache on the Mona Lisa — a lovely mustache, to be sure, but still a mustache, and vandalizing Mona Lisa.
Di Modica has become a bad guy in the press. Articles dismiss his objections as “fuming” — as something like sour grapes. For her part, Fearless Girl’s creator, Kristen Visbal, protested, “I love Charging Bull! But women are here, and we’re here to stay.” Okay. But what does that have to do with Di Modica and his work of art, and the warping of it — the subversion of it — by Visbal’s?
Fearless Girl is a political object, and she’s fast approaching totemic status. Listen to a professor of art history, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor: “The statue has power. It is a Latina girl defying the establishment that has denied women hiring and power. . . . Among women, minority women are regularly the most disenfranchised, so Fearless Girl speaks for all women, while reminding the spectator that even the most disenfranchised, minority women can stand their ground.”
Wait, what? Where did this Latina stuff come from? Well, Visbal has told the press that her sculpture had two models: a friend’s daughter (ethnicity unspecified) and “a beautiful Latina girl.” So — this is an all too contemporary American story, complete with identity politics. Great.
On a recent evening, I visited the two statues. People were mobbing them — people of all kinds, young and old, and from all over the world. Little girls loved Fearless Girl. But they loved Charging Bull, too (though perhaps not as much as the boys did). “Andiamo,” said one Italian father, who had had enough. Let’s go. But his three children — two sons and a daughter — wanted to stay. His wife seemed to agree. So they all lingered.
It was such a beautiful, happy scene, there in Bowling Green Park. I imagine it’s repeated every evening, every day. What’s the harm? Who am I to spoil the people’s fun, by crying against Fearless Girl? The answer is, she’s out of place. She has turned Charging Bull into the villain of the piece: one piece, one work of art, the girl facing off against the bull. And this is BS.
If Kristen Visbal and her backers want a girl to face off against a monster — be it a bull or King Kong or Godzilla or what have you — they can jolly well sculpt their own monster. Instead, they have appropriated someone else’s work of art — and spoiled other people’s fun.
Now, let me ask you a question: Come March 8, do you think the city will cart Fearless Girl away? Can you imagine the hue and cry? The “optics”? Tearing a beautiful little symbol of female power — and a Latina! — from her place? You can see the crowds surrounding her, protecting her, chanting, standing up to the Man. Who’s going to win this fight? The Empowering Latina or a beastly symbol of capitalism?
Already, “stand your ground” has become a mantra. Visbal, for example, has said that her sculpture should “encourage today’s working woman to hold her ground, no matter what challenges may come barreling down the pike.”
Game it out with me. Charging Bull can exist without Fearless Girl — as it did from 1989 to 2017. But Fearless Girl can’t exist without Charging Bull, or something like it. Well, it can — but the girl is better off with something to stand up to, or be fearless about. If the city does not take the girl away, I would take the bull away, if I were Arturo Di Modica. He owns his sculpture, as I understand it.
Someone in the Financial District will want the bull, on private property. And Fearless Girl — a truly lovable being — can fearlessly make her own arrangements. Can make an honest woman of herself, so to speak.