When it emerged from the night in 1989, Arturo Di Modica's Charging Bull symbolised optimism. The 3200-kg bronze sculpture, featuring testicles that, thanks to constant grabbing, are as shiny as Il Porcellino's snout (no word on whether the tourists who goose the bull are destined to return to New York City), was erected as a monument to strength in the face of adversity and the American spirit.
And then one morning in 2017, everything changed. The bull was no longer a snarling testament to power and perseverance: it was the embodiment of Wall Street misogyny and greed.
Since International Women's Day 2017, the bronze figure of a child has stood facing Charging Bull--calmly, defiantly, hands on her hips, chin tilted upward, ponytail waving in the same static breeze that holds many a superhero's cape permanently aloft. The bull is enormous and aggressive and the newcomer is a mere slip of a thing at 250 kg, but she is unmistakably unafraid. She is Fearless Girl, and for many, she reclaimed the space for feminism in a district overwhelmed by men in suits.
Critics were quick to point out that Fearless Girl was no innocent child--she was a corporate shill, commissioned by an investment firm that offers an index fund of companies with higher percentages of women in leadership positions. The plaque at Fearless Girl's feet references the product. While the vision for corporate leadership is admirable, the sponsorship was read by some as a disingenuous attention grab. But most of the people who pass by to snap selfies laud Fearless Girl as a statement about female empowerment.
This is exactly the problem for Mr. Di Modica, who recently held a press conference to claim that the artistic intent of his work has been violated: it is nearly impossible to imagine Charging Bull as a symbol of hope now that it is mere metres away from trampling a child.
As Wall Street's reputation has suffered over the last quarter-century, the bull has admittedly become more vulnerable to reinterpretation, but placing another artwork in direct interaction with it changes the context enough to fully alter the original meaning. While Mr. Di Modica wouldn't stand much of a chance in a legal battle, the question remains: To what extent is it morally acceptable to alter the context, and therefore the implied message, of a work of art?
Although both creatures are officially temporary, it looks like they'll be staring each other down for a while: Mayor Bill de Blasio extended Fearless Girl's one-week permit to one year, to the chagrin of Mr. Di Modica and the glee of parents of little girls linking arms with their bronze counterpart.