Fearless Girl is art. The Wall Street Bull, by the artist’s own admission, is propaganda. (More)

“Freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love”

Sometimes artists admit that they just don’t understand what they do. Arturo Di Modica did that when he declared what his ‘Charging Bull’ statue must mean:

The sculptor of Wall Street’s ‘Charging Bull’ statue on Wednesday demanded the removal of the ‘Fearless Girl’ statue that’s faced off against the bull since last month.

Arturo Di Modica said his 11-foot-tall bull is supposed to represent “freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love” but ‘Fearless Girl’ has turned his work’s message into something negative.

“The girl is right in front doing this, ‘Now I’m here, what are you going to do?'” Di Modica complained.

If that weren’t enough, his attorney made it worse:

An attorney for Di Modica, Norman Siegel, said the 4-foot-tall bronze girl was created as part of an advertising campaign for Boston-based investment firm State Street Global Advisors and its placement opposite the bull exploits the earlier sculpture for commercial gain and negates its positive message.

“The placement of the statue of the young girl in opposition to ‘Charging Bull’ has undermined the integrity and modified the ‘Charging Bull'” Siegel said. “The ‘Charging Bull’ no longer carries a positive, optimistic message. Rather it has been transformed into a negative force and a threat.”

In other words, ‘Charging Bull’ wasn’t a piece of art at all. It was a piece of propaganda.

Slate loves contrarian click-bait, so of course Christina Cauterucci claims Di Modica is right:

There’s no question that ‘Fearless Girl’ derives its meaning from its interaction with Di Modica’s piece. Crafted in the same medium as the bull, the girl stands meters away on the traffic island, making what looks to be direct eye contact with the animal. Without Di Modica’s sculpture, ‘Fearless Girl’ is just a girl. With it, she’s a symbol of women braving the sexual harassment and gender discrimination of Wall Street to rise in a male-dominated field.

Reverse that equation, and you get a good case for Di Modica’s claims. Before ‘Fearless Girl’ came on the scene, the bull was an encouraging representation of a booming economy. Now, charging toward a tiny human, it’s a stand-in for the gendered forces that work against women’s success in the workplace. This isn’t the same kind of contextual shift that might result from a curator’s juxtaposition of two works; the girl is derivative. Di Modica meant his bull to stand alone – now, it’s as if Visbal and New York City have made a solo piece a diptych without his consent.

And her argument only proves my point.

Here’s the thing. An artist doesn’t get to decide what his/her work ‘means.’ If you want to communicate a specific meaning, you’re not making art. You’re making rhetoric, which is something very different. As one of the mail room clerk’s theatre professors explained it:

The purpose of rhetoric is to destroy its own reason for being.

The purpose of rhetoric is to destroy its own reason for being.

The purpose of rhetoric is to destroy its own reason for being.

The purpose of rhetoric is to destroy its own reason for being.

The purpose of rhetoric is to destroy its own reason for being.

The purpose of rhetoric is to destroy its own reason for being.

He would repeat that until someone in the class – or perhaps you, reading this – said “Enough already!”

And that was his real point. With rhetoric, once you understand the point being made, you don’t need to hear that rhetoric again. Ever. Think of some ‘helpful’ colleague or boss explaining, for the eleventeenth time, how to do something that you already know how to do. You tune him/her out or, if you can without getting in trouble, say some version of “I get it. You can stop explaining.”

Art is something else. Great art can draw you in, again and again. It’s not about “getting the point.” It’s about having an experience … getting swept up into the music, painting, sculpture, novel, poem, dance, or drama.

Real art won’t mean the same thing to everyone, because everyone brings something different to that experience, and any given person can bring something different each time he/she revisits that art.

Maybe you usually feel light and joyous when you listen to Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons. But this morning your spouse spent 90 minutes waiting on the phone for a rude customer service rep … and the company used “Spring” as their hold music. I bet your spouse won’t feel light and joyous if you put that music on the stereo that evening. Or maybe that was your former spouse’s favorite classical piece … and he/she left you, or died. “Spring” probably won’t feel quite the same to you, ever again.

Similarly, you can watch a great film again and again, and find different reasons to enjoy it. Maybe the first time you were swept up by the amazing visual tapestry and hardly noticed the depth of the story and characters. Maybe when you watched it as a teenager, you felt empowered by a tale of a lone avenger triumphing over injustice. But as an adult, you empathize as the hero struggles with his inner demons. The film hasn’t changed; each frame and line of dialogue are exactly as they were years ago. But your experience of the film has changed … because you have changed.

Di Modica doesn’t want to allow that. He wants only one possible experience of his work: “freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love.”

And that’s not art. It’s rhetoric and, in this case, propaganda.

Now look at ‘Fearless Girl.’ What do you experience when you see her standing defiantly in front of the bull, in the photo at the top? Does your experience change if you see her face?

FearlessGirl

She is not merely “a symbol of women braving the sexual harassment and gender discrimination of Wall Street to rise in a male-dominated field.” She is also anyone who’s sick of being ignored, shoved aside, or stepped on. To at least one sick twist, she’s a reason to masturbate in public. And to Di Modica, she’s a witless victim. Why else would his attorney claim the bull is now “a negative force and a threat?”

‘Fearless Girl’ is art precisely because so many people experience her so differently.

‘Charging Bull’ is propaganda precisely because the Di Modica demands you experience it only one way. His way.

And now, when I see ‘Fearless Girl,’ I see something else yet again … an artist staring down a propagandist.

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Photo Credit: Mark Lennihan (AP)

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Good day and good nuts