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Staring down the bully: Charging Bull vs Fearless Girl

In a corner of Manhattan, two works of art articulate a modern debate

Arturo Di Modica, the artist of the ‘Charging Bull’ statue, considers the ‘Fearless Girl’ an attack on his art. Photo: Getty Images
Arturo Di Modica, the artist of the ‘Charging Bull’ statue, considers the ‘Fearless Girl’ an attack on his art. Photo: Getty Images

The Charging Bull has been part of the landscape of the southern tip of Manhattan for so long that you might not even notice it. The bull is aggressive and menacing, as if he is about to attack. And the bull is very much a “he", given his posture and stance.

He is trying to scare off an unseen bear—for the bull stands as the metaphor for Wall Street, which was reeling from a stock market collapse in 1987. On 19 October 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had lost nearly a fifth of its value, falling more than 500 points, and the mood was grim and glum. Sculptor Arturo Di Modica placed it in front of the New York Stock Exchange, but the exchange authorities didn’t find it amusing and had it moved near the Bowling Green park, where it now stands.

Nobody had commissioned the bull, it was a political statement. Di Modica had installed it without seeking anyone’s permission to inspire the markets and investors licking their wounds.

The large, bronze-coloured sculpture—it weighs 3.2 tonnes, rises to 11ft and is 16ft wide—lifted the mood, and eventually, markets revived. The bull remained as a reminder, his presence increasingly taken for granted.

When I visited the spot on a recent Sunday, there was a vast crowd near the bull but the people weren’t looking at him. They were rather charmed by a smaller sculpture a few feet away, placed in March, of a girl who is not yet a teenager. She stands as if at the shoreline, with the breeze sweeping her hair back, her frock swaying lightly, her arms on her hips, staring the bull defiantly in the eye. Fearless Girl, she is called. And fearless she looks. Older women, young men, and younger girls took photographs by her side.

The bull had a larger purpose, which he served; now it is the girl’s turn. She was placed there—with time-bound permission—as a statement by the investment fund State Street Global Advisors, which has been campaigning to increase the number of women on corporate boards in the US. According to the 2015 Catalyst Census of American corporate boards, only 19.9% of board members in America’s largest corporations are women, up from 9.5% in 1995. That is progress, but not fast enough.

Di Modica considers the Fearless Girl an attack on his art. He says that he is not against women, but the girl unfairly makes his bull look like a male chauvinist. He complains that the Fearless Girl was part of a corporate campaign, missing the point that he had originally placed the bull to revive the spirits of corporate America. Di Modica felt that his artistic integrity was being questioned.

But when I saw the fearless girl standing firm and casting her unrelenting gaze, she seemed to be turning the tables and showing the bull for what he was—a bully. After all, then, as now, the economy was a male construct, owned, managed, measured, and counted as a male enterprise.

The aim of art is to make us think, and this is how works of art speak to each other.

The bull represents strength while the girl represents courage. Ernest Hemingway wrote of a different kind of courage when he wrote of a man facing a bull—the courage of the matador, of grace under pressure, aware of the mortality that was ever-present. In her 2000 work, On Bullfighting, A.L. Kennedy wrote of the toreador who knows he might die. Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins titled their book on El Cordobés, the Spanish matador, Or I’ll Dress You In Mourning.

The Fearless Girl doesn’t gore the bull; she faces him with her gaze. Which is why she is eloquent and powerful.

The week after I left, another artist, Alex Gardega, placed a tiny dog next to the Fearless Girl, its leg raised as if it was urinating on the girl’s legs. Gardega says the Fearless Girl was part of “corporate nonsense". “The bull had integrity," he says, any pun probably unintended.

Gardega’s response was petulant, if not nihilistic. His peeing pug was ridiculing the girl, showing her powerlessness.

The pug was removed—the girl stands, no longer humiliated.

When the markets wobbled feebly after the crash, Di Modica injected masculinity, invoking the unrestrained power of the bull. When a brave girl stared back, he got annoyed, complained, and threatened to sue, wanting the obstacle—the girl—removed. When that didn’t happen, Gardega decided to ridicule the girl. That discourse became a metaphor, a teaching moment.

Not entirely coincidentally, Di Modica and Gardega are men. The artist who cast the Fearless Girl? Kristen Visbal, a woman.

Let the girl stand and stare back.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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