Fearless Girl vs. The Wall Street Bull

Yesterday’s New York Times features an article informing us that the sculptor of the Charging Bull is insulted by the presence of the statue of the Fearless Girl, the work of sculptor Kristen Visbal that was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and installed in March of this year. Fearless Girl vs. Wall Street Bull

Background to The Charging Bull

The statue has attracted considerable attention since it was placed facing the Charging Bull in a posture of defiance, or, as one commentator has said, of finger wagging.  The Charging Bull was placed in its current location in 1989, having been fabricated by its sculptor, Arturo Di Modica, at a cost estimated at over $3o0,000. The 3.5 ton Charging Bull was initially placed by the sculptor on Broad Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange with no permit and without permission from the city (The Charging Bull) as a symbol of Wall Street’s strength after the crash in 1987. It was impounded by the police and, after some outcry, placed in its current location just north of Bowling Green, with a temporary permit. Thirty years later, the statue seems quite permanent.

Some have argued that the temporary permit granted to the Fearless Girl statue should also be extended. The Charging Bull sculptor apparently feels that the presence of the Fearless Girl undermines the message of his statue, which, he states is one of freedom, peace, strength, power and love. He believes the Fearless Girl stands in opposition to the Charging Bull making its presence a negative one.

Art in Context

This argument raises some interesting questions. Since, as a legal matter, the Charging Bull’s presence is also subject to a temporary permit, it is not clear what rights the sculptor is asserting to the space surrounding his sculpture; or whether those rights are different from or greater than the rights enjoyed by the Fearless Girl sculpture and its sponsors. If the legal right is not the issue, perhaps the issue is more artistic in nature. Does the creator of art placed in a public place have any rights to assert a particular intended meaning? Perhaps, as a matter of information and context. It is not clear that any artist may insist on his or her understanding of a piece of art being of such importance that the context in which the art is located must remain undisturbed by anything that might, in the artist’s opinion, detract from that understanding.

Context is important, but meaning is surely subjective. Once placed in the public domain, any work of art may be subject to as many interpretations as there are viewers. The artist has, in large part, lost control.

The Fearless Girl: Friend or Foe?

It is interesting to reflect on the context of the Fearless Girl. State Street Global Advisors motivation in placing the statue on the eve of the International Women’s March was apparently to represent the power of women in leadership. Among the many comments made in the New York Times piece about whether the statue of the Fearless Girl should stay or go, two are, in the opinion of this author, noteworthy. The first invites an inclusive and contemplative reaction:

“Art is a dialogue. Invite the unexpected. The bull and the little girl, they are already friends. Quiet yourself and listen to what they have to say.”

— Landon Rose, 66, Brookline, Mass.

The second points out that history is forever changed by the juxtaposition of the two statues:

“As a lawyer, woman and minority, I believe that no matter what the outcome, demanding that ‘Fearless Girl’ be removed is a losing battle. If ‘Fearless Girl’ is removed, the bull will become even more representative of men trying to stop women from achieving equality.”

— Elizabeth Veit, 35, Alexandria, Va

Evolution of Meaning

To attempt to claim a continuity of meaning for the presence of the Charging Bull thirty years after its placement as guerilla art seems naïve. Wall Street has changed dramatically over this period. The culture has evolved, its shortcomings well documented in many movies and court cases and its daily routines reshaped by technology. The role of women in financial services and in the broader economy remains a work in process and falls well short of parity. The Fearless Girl suggests that change has occurred and is continuing. The Charging Bull is not humbled or disparaged:

“I do not see the bull in a negative way now that the ‘Fearless Girl’ has shown up. Rather, the bull is now confronted with a formidable counterpoint to an emerging vision of a new kind of power.”

The Nature of Conflict

Is our default state harmony or conflict? A post-Eden view might suggest conflict. We seek harmony but in a flawed way through our flawed selves. We desire closeness in relationships but are inclined to lapse into dysfunction. Until what? What is the contingency that will unravel this Gordian mess?
Consider the ideal state of a market economy: all rational economic actors motivated by their own self-interest magically contributing to an outcome that, in the aggregate (if not for everyone) is beneficial to the whole economy. Out of self-interest comes harmony – benign conflict. The wisdom is in the multiplicity of individuals struggling to optimize their own outcomes. No higher purpose; no overarching social good. Such big picture goals are doomed to fail because not all outcomes are knowable. Strategic goals are like supertankers: slow to navigate obstacles. Strategy architects become invested in target outcomes and are therefore biased against course corrections that undermine the original blueprints.
Alternatively, we need a strategy. Societies and economies are long-term projects. Absent vision and well-thought policies, outcomes are too haphazard and will ignore stewardship of natural assets such as biodiversity and the ability of the planet to absorb carbon dioxide. How does the tragedy of the commons unfold in circumstances where all pursue exploitation of available but exhaustible resources? Rising above immediate self-interest to take an enlightened view of an interconnected economic reality requires an effort of imagination.
Corporations are inherently selfish stewards of their shareholders’ interests – in theory. Notwithstanding their legal personality, corporations comprise self-interested employees whose incentives are diverse. Arguably, as the pyramid broadens, the incentives are less aligned with shareholder interests and more with the maximization of take-home pay and minimizing the effort required to ensure continuity and longevity. C-Suite incentives are typically designed to be different: compensation is higher and expectations of strategic thinking are greater. Moral deficiencies are in sharper focus and can undermine not only shareholder interests but the interests of all stakeholders, destroying the goodwill and trust on which corporate employment is built.
Corporations are larger scale, institutional, individual rational economic actors that have greater leverage in shaping economic outcomes. Politicians are supposed to ensure a level playing field and supervise fair play. Their behaviour does not always reflect this ideal…
Back to conflict. In Congress, State Legislatures, Local Government (Zoning Boards), churches, country clubs, conflict abounds. The nature and extent of this conflict does not correlate to the purpose of the body. It is a function only of the presence of people, the individual agents of conflict. Some find it energizing; most find it stressful, lose sleep, seek to avoid.
The field of psychology holds these truths to be inalienable: people must feel understood, appreciated, be given the benefit of the doubts, be treated as an equal, be treated respectfully and have the freedom to decide. These truths might be described as conflict mitigants. Why are they not more widely used as such? Ignorance perhaps, together with the illusion that imposing one’s will on another is some kind of personal victory. Arguments to justify this behaviour are plenty. Typically, a core belief is cited to justify the end. This might be political philosophy; it might be a core religious or moral belief. If abortion is bad, then stopping abortion is good and all who hold an opposite point of view are also advocating something bad. And so it goes.
In a book called “Living” by Kerry Egan, the author advocates a world view more tolerant of the grey zone, as opposed to a world view that is either black or white. Rarely are difficult and complex issues of human action and interaction black and white. Grey is itself a kind of harmony, a blending of black and white, a denial of either extreme as the defining picture.
The vision of the Garden of Eden was black and white: you may eat of all the trees in the garden except this one. Simple, clear, unattainable. Perhaps mankind was simply not designed for black and white. Black and white is always conflict. The mission is to listen, to blend, to embrace the grey. Respecting the dignity of every human being is challenging. It involves embracing the nuances of individuals and their tendency to go awry. It involves recognizing that the weakness one finds in oneself is likely the weakness that exists in others and giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Our default state is neither conflict not harmony. We are wired for both.