“seriously, the guy has a point” — on the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl Controversy

Art conveys significance; however, much of that significance is constructed by the receiver. That’s why I care less about what a work of art “means” and more about what it “does.” Understanding what a work of art does requires interpretation. The context of a work of art can contribute to the significance of the artwork in surprising ways. The reception of a work of art can change over time, which means the way that receivers interpret a work of art can change over time, which is the same thing as saying that the meaning of a work of art can change over time, which is also the same thing as saying that the same work of art can mean different things to different people, and at different times. Sometimes the author’s intentions have very little to do with why a work of art matters (that is, what the work of art does.) This doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equally valid. I often try to make this point when I introduce students to The Merchant of Venice (in which Shylock would have appeared to his Elizabethan audiences as a comic villain, while he is more frequently portrayed today as a tragic victim).

[The “Fearless Girl” sculpture] was commissioned as part of an advertising campaign developed by McCann, a global advertising corporation. And it was commissioned to be presented on the first anniversary of State Street Global’s “Gender Diversity Index” fund, which has the following NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE. And finally, along with Fearless Girl is a bronze plaque that reads:

Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.

Note it’s not She makes a difference, it’s SHE makes a difference. It’s not referring to the girl; it’s referring to the NASDAQ symbol. It’s not a work of guerrilla art; it’s an extremely clever advertising scheme. This is what makes it clever: Fearless Girl derives its power almost entirely from Di Modica’s statue. The sculptor, Kristen Visbal, sort of acknowledges this. She’s said this about her statue:

“She’s not angry at the bull — she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of, and she’s wanting the bull to take note.”

It’s all about the bull. If it were placed anywhere else, Fearless Girl would still be a very fine statue — but without facing Charging Bull the Fearless Girl has nothing to be fearless to. Or about. Whatever. Fearless Girl, without Di Modica’s bull, without the context provided by the bull, becomes Really Confident Girl. —Greg Fallis