When the story first broke about the “Fearless Girl” statue, I didn’t pay it much more attention than I had ever given to the “Charging Bull” that the girl now faces in her defiant, wind-blown pose. I always assumed the bull simply represents the financial industry the same way I assume “The Garment Worker” statue on Seventh Avenue represents the fashion industry. Then, when “Fearless Girl” arrived, I figured somebody was making a dual statement—one about women in business, the other about voracious capitalism—and my reaction was somewhere between ambivalence and supportive amusement. I liked the spirit of “Fearless Girl” on first impression but had little interest in all the discussion about it.
Of course, one of the most intriguing aspects of art—and perhaps this is even more pronounced with public art—is that context changes everything. Appropriation art is usually meaningless without context, and there is an extent to which “Fearless Girl” is an appropriation. Credit for making me think about this goes to author/photographer Greg Fallis, who wrote a blog post after getting some social-media flack for saying that “Charging Bull” sculptor Arturo DiModica “has a point” in requesting that “Fearless Girl” be removed from its installation.
This is of course the outer layer of context: once a work is in the public eye and has been imbued with a particular significance (in this case feminism tinged with anti-corporatism), then any complaint or comment about the work is apt to be distorted by that lens. And woe to the critic as a result. Mayor DeBlasio’s office, in response to DiModica’s request to remove the new statue, tweeted “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.” On this point, I agree with Fallis that the Mayor’s statement is both true and perhaps entirely beside the point with regard to the nature of DiModica’s complaint. You may not be surprised that it has something to do with copyright. (And spoiler alert: I don’t think he has a case.)
I didn’t know until reading Fallis’s blog that Arturo DiModica owns “Charging Bull” and that he produced and initially installed the work at his own expense of roughly $350,000. An Italian immigrant, inspired by the kind of patriotism unique to immigrants, DiModica began working on the bull in response to the malaise that followed a major financial markets crash in 1986.
The bronze, three-and-a-half-ton work took more than two years to produce; and in the early morning of December 15, 1989, DiModica and his friends “dropped” the bull on Broad Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange—a gift to the city that was, as Fallis eloquently writes, “…maybe the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.” The NYSE did not appreciate the gift and had the bull removed; but citizens, the Parks Commissioner, Mayor Koch, and the Bowling Green Association worked to place the “Charging Bull” where it has stood ever since, at the northern end of Bowling Green.
For DiModica, “Charging Bull” was not so much a statement about the swaggering bronze balls of capitalism but was meant, according to the artist’s website, as a “gift of encouragement to New York and the world.” As symbols go, one might consider that the southern tip of Manhattan—originally colonized by the Dutch—is the birthplace of America’s more entrepreneurial, culturally diverse, and free-spirited nature. So, the bull charging northward out of this part of the city can certainly be considered in a broader context, but let’s face it: an eighteen-foot bronze bull standing in the heart of the Financial District can no more escape its capitalist connotations than it can run to the Upper West Side to shop at Zabar’s.
Enter “Fearless Girl,” which was made under very different circumstances. In short, she is an advertisement for a socially-conscious investment product called SHE, offered by State Street Global Advisors with over $2.4 trillion in assets under management. The girl standing up to the bull was commissioned by this Wall Street firm, conceived by advertising giant McCann, and purposely “dropped” in front of the bull the night before International Women’s Day. So, it’s guerrilla art-ish—if corporate backing, ad-agency planning, and city permits count as guerrilla.
What Are DiModica’s Rights?
The commercial nature of “Fearless Girl” may or may not sully her relevance in the eyes of the public, but it is central to DiModica’s complaint and desire to have her removed. Placed in defiance of the bull, DiModica contends, that the girl changes the meaning and intent of his work from something positive to something negative. In this regard, “Fearless Girl” is appropriating “Charging Bull” by changing the context of the original work; but because this appropriation has been done to promote a product sold by SSGA, attorneys for DiModica are considering whether or not to file suit under a law known as the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).
Passed in 1990, the VARA is part of the Copyright Act, §106(A), and it primarily concerns the right of an artist to protect his/her reputation by preventing the misuse of his/her name. Rights pertaining to reputation of the artist rather than those solely focused on the works are referred to as “moral rights,” and they are a particular subset of intellectual property. The part of the VARA statute that would theoretically pertain to DiModica’s complaint would be the artist’s right to the following:
(A) to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right.
According an article by Isaac Kaplan about this possible legal case, attorneys for DiModica will look at both the commercial aspect of “Fearless Girl” and at the fact that the city apparently allowed for an extension of the cobblestone foundation to accommodate the new statue.
If the cobblestone base can be considered part of the original work, this would potentially implicate the VARA statute prohibiting “modification,” but that modification has to be “prejudicial to [the artist’s] honor or reputation,” which sounds unlikely to prevail to this layman’s ear. Moreover, the original circumstances pertaining to the installation of “Charging Bull” in 1989 appear to indicate that only the bull itself belongs to DiModica but not any vision of placing it on a cobblestone base at the tip of Bowling Green.
I suspect the commercial nature of “Fearless Girl” would also be unlikely to persuade a court that the work infringes DiModica’s rights under VARA, though this argument certainly gets into an area that could theoretically harm an artist’s reputation. In this case, DiModica’s attorneys would presumably have to demonstrate that the appropriation negatively alters the original “meaning” of the work to the extent that it reflects negatively on the artist himself.
On the one hand, it seems like a difficult argument to make that VARA can protect any artist’s originally-intended meaning in any work; and this seems especially tricky with “Charging Bull.” Once a work is placed into public view, the artist no longer gets to decide how it is perceived; and as indicated above, I think any reasonable person who first encounters “Charging Bull” will make the same assumption I always have—that it is very much a celebration of unbridled capitalism.
If this were not the case, “Fearless Girl” would probably never have been conceived as either “pure” art or advertisement. SSGA, artist Kristen Visbal, and McCann are all clearly relying on a general interpretation of “Charging Bull” as a symbol of aggressive capitalism in order to provide a context for “Fearless Girl” to be saying anything at all. And it seems clear from public response that this is the context in which “Fearless Girl” has been interpreted.
On the other hand, DiModica’s reputation is linked to how people perceive “Charging Bull,” and it would be tough to argue that “Fearless Girl” is not at least a bit of a fuck-you as well as an ad for a corporation. But, commercial or not, is the work truly a gesture at the meaning DiModica originally intended, or is it a gesture contemporaneous with evolving feelings about capitalism and the role of women in the market? I would argue that it’s the latter and that any artist who puts a sculpture into a public space cannot hope to control how that sculpture may be viewed against the backdrop of history.
Still, if another corporation were to make a more outlandish alteration of the bull for commercial purposes—like a steakhouse chain paints the classic cuts of meat outlines on the bull’s bronze skin and photographs it—that would certainly seem to be actionable under both traditional copyright infringement and VARA statutes. Not to mention city ordinances prohibiting vandalism.
As Fallis points out, DiModica could take his bull and go home; it is his physical property as well as his intellectual property. This would leave “Fearless Girl” standing up to the southern tip of Manhattan for no apparent reason, although the fun part of that hypothetical scenario is that viewers would begin to apply new and various meanings to the work as a stand-alone piece. So, in this regard, “Fearless Girl” is not purely a work of appropriation.
For all the fuss, there is at least a whiff of (yep) bullshit about the fact that “Fearless Girl” is defiantly marketing a product for a giant investment firm. Of course, advertising can be art and vice versa, especially in America; and one could make an argument that, for better or worse, this blend of culture and commerce is part of the same spirit DiModica was tapping into with “Charging Bull.” I can certainly sympathize with the artist’s feelings even while I am dubious about his legal standing under VARA. Moreover, it turns out that I had a lot to say about a story that didn’t initially grab my attention. Context changes everything.
© 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.