There is a fascinating conflict being played out at the moment. Thankfully, this conflict does not involve fear, death or the might of the industrial war machine. Instead, it's being fought by two works of art and is being fought on the plains of context, history and the present.
If you read any American media sites these days you would have seen mention of the 'Fearless Girl'. That 130cm tall bronze statue that is at times described as, 'corporate feminism', 'an exercise in corporate imaging', as well as a, 'powerful beacon, showing women—young and old—that no dream is too big and no ceiling is too high'.
This sculpture was placed opposite another famous piece of American public art, the charging bull in Manhattan's financial district. This statue was created by Arturo Di Modica in 1989 and represents, in the artist's words, 'My bull is a symbol for America. My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength.'
Obviously, the positioning of the 'Fearless Girl' wasn't accidental. According to artist Kristen Visbal, the piece is meant to be a reminder of how few women serve on the boards of the largest corporations in the United States, which is why the girl has her sights set on one of the most iconic symbols of the American financial system.
Now, the reason that this juxtapositioning of art works is gaining so much air time is because Di Modica is trying to have the 'Fearless Girl' removed as he feels it infringes on his artistic copyright and corrupted its artistic integrity.
In fairness to Di Modica, as an artist, I can't imagine I would feel any differently. His iconic and popular art work has been recast not as the positive tribute he intended but as a malevolent presence threatening a defiant young girl. It's not exactly an artistic reading one would hope for. It is also obvious that the 'Fearless Girl' simply does not work as an independent art work (I'm not that convinced the bull does either) and depends almost entirely upon the context provided by the charging bull.
Yet, as a reasonably progressive person, I am less sympathetic. Firstly, one needs to acknowledge that gender equality in all work places (not just America's financial sector) should definitely be a goal we all want to achieve. It just makes sense and everyone would benefit from it. And the 'Fearless Girl' is a powerful reminder of this.
But from my perspective it speaks much more eloquently to the disproportionate power held by the world's financial institutions and the flawed system that is free market capitalism. In my eyes as a symbol of 'prosperity and strength' and the celebration of Wall Street, the Bull is very much a symbol of the past. Of a time when capitalism could run rampant, when many people became incredibly rich but when many more people were forced into extreme poverty.
This is where the ravages of time become apparent. While it must be distressing to have your most iconic achievement be recast as oppressive one needs to remember that today's heroes can become tomorrow's villains. In this sense I applaud the creation of the 'Fearless Girl'. It is the type of interplay between public artwork that really contextualises societal development and the evolution of contemporary mores. I hope that even if it does get moved that the recontextualisation that it forced will long be remembered.
An excellent counterpoint to this is the 2015 'Rhodes Must Fall' movement in South Africa. While I support the recontextualisation of Cecil John Rhodes from hero to villain I feel an opportunity to create a lasting recasting of Rhodes was lost. The removal of his statue at the University of Cape Town was an attempt to try and erase history and if Joseph Stalin taught us anything, it is that this is an impossible task. Cecil John Rhodes happened. For good and bad he is etched into the earth of Africa. We can't erase this but we can do our best to show him for what he was and that is an opportunity lost.
Which brings me round to my final word on the 'Fearless Girl' facing the 'Raging Bull'. I was disappointed to find out that the ‘Fearless Girl’ was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, part of the world’s third largest asset manager and very much part of the very industry and capitalist system that it speaks so eloquently against. So while she brings awareness to the lack of equality in the workplace, her background means that she can't effectively comment on the larger issue of massive global inequalities and the financial institution's roles in this. And THAT, I think, is an opportunity lost.