My Male-Pattern Stupidity and Fearless Girl

I’m finding myself caught up in several conversations about Fearless Girl and Charging Bull. You know what I’m talking about, right? The statue of the little girl standing defiantly in front of the Wall Street bull and the flack that came about when the original artist, Arturo Di Modica, complained that her appearance altered his art. “My bull is a symbol for America. My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength,” Di Modica said in a Washington Post article. He’s charging what is essentially copyright infringement, and he wants Fearless Girl removed.

The stuff really seemed to hit the fan when Greg Fallis posted a conversation titled “seriously, they guy has a point.”

Among the responses to this I saw was by Caroline Criado-Perez, titled “On Fearless Girl, women & public art; or, no, seriously, the guy does not have a point.

The whole thing is fascinating.

On one hand, you can have some very technical conversations about copyright law. This part is interesting to me because I’m not particularly adroit when it comes to how copyright works in visual art. It’s also interesting to me because to my uneducated experience this situation appears to be unique to sculpted art. I’ve tried to equate the idea of placing two sculpted figures together to things like music sampling or call-and-response forms of literature, but it seems a different beast. Sampling and call-and-response works build on top of each other, or happen as a result of each other, but the existence of a sample or response does not keep one from enjoying the original on its own merits.

That’s the argument, right? That Fearless Girl makes it impossible to see Charging Bull on its original merits? Actually, no. That’s not quite right. As consumers of the works, we are free to view and interpret them as we wish. The argument Di Modica is making, however, is that Fearless Girl actually changes the meaning of Charging Bull.

This is where the whole thing steps into the more charged questions of artistic intent, artistic merit (which included the twist that Fearless Girl was paid for by corporate commission), and, eventually, into the idea of what a piece of art is in context of the audience who absorbs it. In other words, your thoughts on the situation say as much about you as they do anything else.

As I wrote on a Facebook comment discussing the argument:

To be simple, this seems to boil down to:

DiModica says: “I’m upset because this new art has changed the original intent of my work! Move your work or suffer my wrath!”

Fallis says: “The guy has a point, and oh, by the way, Fearless Girl was paid for by a company so it doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

Criado-Perez says: “No, the original art already contained the message brought out by Fearless Girl, it’s not our fault that you couldn’t see it until Fearless Girl showed up…and, by the way, it doesn’t matter who paid for it. Please put your big-boy pants on.”

At the end of the day, I find it tempting to say that this is one of those topics on which rational people can disagree, and leave it at that. It is, after all, true that rational people are disagreeing here. But it is also true that something being rational, or logical, does not make it true. It is, after all, logical to think the Earth is flat if you only look at the question from one perspective. Alas, however, the Earth is not flat. This means that a rational person is not always right.

If one allows me the consideration of being rational, my own journey through looking at this situation is indicative.

When I first saw the argument, I thought the guy really did have a point. I thought Fearless Girl completely changed Charging Bull, meaning the original intent was gone. After a muddled but oddly emotional discussion with Lisa, and after using another evening to silently mull it over, I came to the view that I was wrong. Di Modica’s original intent is still there—it’s just that his original intent is rife with the existence of oblivious privilege. In this sense, my own process of taking in the piece was a perfect example of why Fearless Girl works. I was oblivious at first, then slowly able to pivot to a different way of seeing it. I’m taking to calling this initial reaction my Male-Pattern Stupidity anymore. I think I’m a good guy at heart, but sometimes it takes me a little while to think through things and get to a healthy view of any particular situation. This process is, in several ways, the exact definition of privilege as applied to me. To never need to see (or be forced to see?) the full depths of meaning inherent in Charging Bull makes life easy in a particularly insidious way.

So, anyway, my first reaction to the piece was that the artistic content of Charging Bull was totally changed.

Similarly, copyright: First I thought Fearless Girls’ creators were in trouble, then I spent time reading about past cases and came to the conclusion that no, even if the existence of Fearless Girl did change the meaning of Charging Bull, it is unlikely Di Modica can win a copyright case on the technical merits of the situation alone. The arguments for this made total sense to me. But as I came to understand that the intent of Di Modica’s piece has not actually been altered so much as “more fully” exposed, the copyright argument pretty much vanished completely.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no lawyer. I assume the case will make it through the courts, and that the courts will decide however they decide. I am, however, now of the opinion Di Modica has a very steep hill to climb.

Regardless of how any court will decide, however, for my tastes Fearless Girl is an interesting piece of art specifically because her power comes out more fully as I think through the nuances of her relationship with her surroundings. For me, she does not change the original intention of Charging Bull as being about strength and power inherent in America so much as she comments upon it. Fearless Girl was created (with help from its corporate sponsors) as a view on representation, after all. She would work in that fashion anywhere she was placed, but the aspect of representation in Fearless Girl’s presence is brought out even more fully when you place her in front of Charging Bull, just as it would be if she were placed in front of the White House, or an all-male country club, or….

In this sense, Fearless Girl’s comment on representation doesn’t change, nor does she change anything inherent in the object she is placed in front of. Instead, she points out something specific that is already within that target’s original meaning and she holds it up for people to see.

How a person sees that specific something seems to be the deciding factor in how that person will react to the situation.

So, yes, I see that Di Modica is upset, and I understand the logic for why he is. I get it. I’ve felt it myself. It’s totally logical he would feel that way.

But the fact that his discomfort is logical does not mean he has a point.

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One Comment

  1. As an informed lay-person (in other words, not an attorney), I agree that there is no copyright case here. Copyright is related to the prohibition on copying the work of another, in part or in whole, or creating a derivative work that borrows significantly from the original to the point that the derivative work could not exist without the presence of the original being incorporated into the derivative work.

    Copyright is directed only to the actions of the accused infringer in the act of copying. In other words, as long as the infringer does not perform some sort copying, copyright infringement pretty much cannot occur.

    The argument made by Di Modica is silly, at best. By his argument, putting a painting in a frame would amount to copyright infringement because the frame can affect the interpretation of the painting. Fearless Girl did not change the bull sculpture, or even touch the bull sculpture. At most, Fearless Girl gave the bull a context, and it is that context to which Di Modica objects. He can object all he likes, but it will change nothing, and a reasonable court will likely agree. Indeed, it is doubtful the case will get very far, because it is unlikely that Di Modica will be able to convince the court that he is likely to prevail. I see an early motion to dismiss, and a likely grant of the same.

    Fearless Girl is an amazing sculpture that would provide an interesting context to any environment. Congratulations to the artist for creating an effective piece of art.

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