Fear Herself

fearless girl

Fearless Girl, the Wall Street sculpture by ad agency McCann New York on behalf of a financial services firm that currently manages some $2.4tr, takes part in several different artistic traditions, all of them vital to understanding this controversial work of public art.

Most prominently at the moment, of course, it is an act of vandalism, radically changing both the mode and the meaning of Sicily-born immigrant artist Arturo Di Modica’s statue Charging Bull so that Di Modica’s original work becomes a symbol of heedless capitalism athwart an image of a young woman staring down a charging bull many times her size, confident that her girlhood will protect her from the forthcoming trampling.

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio tweeted an edict in support of the statue, saying that “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl” in response to Mr. Di Modica’s demand that McCann end its use of his artwork in its client’s brand-awareness campaign. In another tradition, specifically that of demanding gratitude from women for whatever gesture uses the language of feminism, no matter how craven the context, a petition sprung up around the statue, demanding it be made permanent. For Mr. De Blasio, Mr. Di Modica’s maleness is evidence of his antifeminism; a statement provided by McCann’s client, which has three women on its 11-member board, explaining the meaning of Fearless Girl – “the power and potential of having more women in leadership” – presumably demonstrates that company’s commitment to destroying patriarchal institutions.

The newer statue, sculpted by Kristen Visbal for McCann, also holds a prominent place in the decades-long tradition of advertising agencies insultingly pillaging the work of career artists without credit. The first victim is of course Mr. Di Modica himself: According to Michelle and James Nevius’s New York City history volume Inside the Apple, the artist installed the original statue on 15 Dec. 1989 under cover of darkness, placing the three-ton bronze symbol of a thriving market under the Christmas tree outside the New York Stock Exchange, a symbol of hope presented to a city dependent on the financial sector and thus devastated by two crashes, one two years before, when Mr. Di Modica decided to begin designing the statue, and one in October of that very year – Black Monday and Black Friday, respectively.

McCann also put up its statue without fanfare, but it did obtain a permit to use the space legally through 2 April. Now the agency also takes part in the rich tradition in American business of demanding that temporary public courtesies extended to corporations – tax cuts, subsidies due to sunset, the unfettered use of public land – extend indefinitely.

The creators of Fearless Girl also seem to have borrowed in abundance from another work of art, the poster published in the July 2011 issue of Adbusters of a ballerina atop the bull, which was used by the anti-advertising publication to promote anticapitalist protest movement Occupy Wall Street. Kalle Lasn, co-founder of the magazine, said he felt there was “some kind of magic about” the original image. Indeed, the Occupy protests moved thousands to demand accountability from the financial services sector that helped to crash the US housing market and badly injure the largest economy in the world, and also to commission Fearless Girl.

Finally, and most effectively, though, the McCann statue is a masterly entry in the tradition of art that performs the inverse of its stated goals, like a horror movie so poorly executed it becomes a comedy or a memoir that begs for sympathy so aggressively that it invites contempt: No small girl, fearless or not, can survive an encounter with a charging bull. She may be made of bronze, but so is he.

It now seems likely that Fearless Girl will be allowed to stay, with the mayor in its corner and the Lovecraftian vastness of its sponsor’s wealth a bulwark against any other opposition. Its popularity with tourists and with media give it a voice far louder than than Mr. Di Modica’s; the safety of its feminism protects it in turn from feminism. In this way it is in fact a magnificent symbol of everything that befalls the unsupported individual foolish enough to confront reckless capitalism: tragic, grisly, absurd, fatal.
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