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Russell Smith: Fearless Girl, Charging Bull and the problems of public art

The bronze statue of the little girl, erected in the financial district of New York on March 8 to stare down the famous Charging Bull sculpture there, was instantly massively popular. Images of it circulated the globe, and it has become a tourist attraction. There are lineups of people waiting to be photographed beside it. It was a clever idea at the right time: a symbol of female defiance in the face of a still overwhelmingly male financial establishment, timed to coincide with International Women's Day. And it's cute, in a Disney way.

Then came a skeptical backlash: It turns out that the artist, Kristen Visbal, was commissioned by an investment company called State Street Global Advisors, and conceived by an advertising company they hired. A corporate logo adorns the little plaque at the girl's feet. A handful of columnists pointed out that State Street Global Advisors' parent company has been in trouble with the U.S. Justice Department for defrauding clients. And its own leadership team has five women among 28 people. This "corporate feminism," said critics, is simply an exercise in image rehabilitation; all show and no change.

This is a fascinating debate, but I am even more interested in the objections of the artist who created and donated the huge snorting-bull sculpture, Arturo Di Modica, because it touches on thorny issues of artists' rights. He told the online financial magazine MarketWatch that he resents this unsolicited intrusion on his art: "That is not a symbol! That's an advertising trick." He then went on to explain that his own work was genuine: "My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength." He unfortunately added, "Women, girls, that's great, but that's not what that [my sculpture] is."

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Di Modica may not have retained the best PR team to help him with his statements, but his complaint does represent a problem that many creators of public art face.

Their work may be modified by their owners, defaced by the public, or simply interrupted by new things sprouting alongside them. In this case, the girl is staring directly at the bull, representing a confrontation that the artist never desired. Her presence makes the bull look sexist. And it looks as if the two pieces are one work. That does change the meaning and impact of Di Modica's famous piece.

In Canada, we have had such disputes actually go to court. In one famous instance, in 1981, the artist Michael Snow had made a flock of sculpted geese that were hanging in the great atrium of the Toronto Eaton Centre. At Christmastime, the mall decorated them with red ribbons around their necks, and the artist flipped out. The court sided with him, agreeing that the artist had a right to maintain the work in its original state.

More recently, again in Toronto, a controversy arose over a big public sculpture – a giant tape measure embedded in the sidewalk, in the city's former garment district – that had been painted, without permission, in bright colours by another artist. Public opinion was largely with the defacer in this case, as people had grown to love the colour. In the age of constantly iterating memes, a new understanding about originality and its value had arisen. As I argued at the time, the idea of the artist as heroic sole creator of a work of art is eroding.

There are some ironies to Di Modica's outrage too. His piece was itself a proudly guerrilla work of art: It was installed without permission, without a licence, under cover of night. Di Modica paid for it himself. He intervened in a public space to make his statement. Then someone else did it to him. That's the game. The court of public opinion was on his side then – and it appears to be against him now.

Because you know what? That bull is kind of sexist. Bulls are a symbol of virility. The annoyance of many frat-boy traders at the subversion of this has been demonstrated, in recent weeks, by some rude behaviour around Fearless Girl. One superfunny guy became a YouTube star by pretending to hump the statue. (I'm sure he has been awarded his own network comedy show by now.) Their resentment about the girl just proves its point.

But what about the question of corporate marketing versus individual statement? I think this is a murky opposition as well. In the United States, corporations are the new – sometimes the sole – patrons of the arts. You may approve of this medieval system or not (and as a pinko Canadian, I tend to not), but it is the way that country works. Under the new administration, public funding for art will be even less than it was. Sculpture in bronze is an expensive business; it needs patrons. Patrons get to use commissioned art to advance their own causes and names, just as medieval popes and Renaissance oligarchs did. Objections to the bank's involvement are largely objections to capitalism itself, and the freedom that wicked banks have to advertise themselves, which is part of it.

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Even government-funded art tends to be driven by political agendas; it, too, can be propagandistic. The upcoming spate of art events we are going to see for our country's sesquicentennial is going to demonstrate this.

Arturo Di Modica is not without his financial interests either. He tried to sell the artwork in 2004 for $5-million. (He did not.) He has profited from its popularity and has made and sold replicas of it to other cities. He is a business himself. And that business, now that the area around his sculpture is even more popular with tourists – possibly for all the wrong reasons – is hardly going to suffer.

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