For over 27 years, a bronze bull has been a symbol of, well, bullishness on Wall Street. A gift from artist Arturo Di Modica following the stock market’s troubles in the 1980s, the iconic bull has no doubt fulfilled its mission of lifting traders’ spirits many times over.
For National Women’s Day of this year, State Street Global Advisors installed its own gift to Wall Street: the statue known as Fearless Girl. Hands on her hips and head cocked back, she faces down the bull.
This week, sculptor Di Modica registered his displeasure with the girl. He feels she has made his statue into a villain, robbing his art of its original purpose of portraying “prosperity and strength.”
Much has already been written about this conflict from the perspective of women’s rights. (Mayor de Blasio: “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.”) I’d like to take the conversation down a different path for a moment.
What is the purpose of art? I suppose there can be many purposes but surely one of the highest is to challenge and enrich the audience by bringing them to a place they would not have reached otherwise. Really great pieces of art invite the audience to many possible places. We have all read books of which we say, “I get something new out of it every time I read it.”
Art can be serious or playful, but playfulness has the special virtue of disarming the audience: it slyly strips them of the armor they usually wear against new ideas.
Great art also engages the world, preferably in ways it has not been engaged before.
Fearless Girl has all of these qualities in spades. She engages the bull in the most playful, disarming way possible, morphing him from a serious symbol of “prosperity and strength” to a participant in a game of “I dare you.” She also invites all the daddies and mommies who work on Wall Street to think anew about how their work relates to the daughters they left at home that morning.
Does she diminish the bull by adding a new facet of meaning to him? No; she has no more diminished the bull than she has diminished the parents. Is the father who passes Fearless Girl on his way to another stressful day at the office diminished because he is reminded of his daughter’s potential? Has he become any less of a stock trader? Has he become any less imbued with “prosperity and strength”? Of course not.
Likewise, the bull remains a symbol of market bullishness. Fearless Girl has only enriched him with a new meaning that now exists simultaneously with the original in a giant quantum superposition. As we look at the bull, his meaning flickers between the two now on offer.
Fearless Girl has playfully challenged, engaged and uplifted everyone around her, including the bull. Now that’s great art!