Can the 'Charging Bull' sculptor control his artwork's meaning?

Arturo Di Modica says a statue placed in front of his iconic bronze bull has changed its meaning, but can and should artists have control over how their work is viewed? 

Mark Lennihan/AP
The 'Charging Bull' and 'Fearless Girl' statues are sit on Lower Broadway in New York. Since 1989 the bronze bull has stood in New York City's financial district as an image of the might and hard-charging spirit of Wall Street. But the installation of the bold girl defiantly standing in the bull's path has transformed the meaning of one of New York's best-known public artworks.

When a three-and-a-half ton bronze bull was left without a permit in front of the New York Stock Exchange in the dead of night in 1989, its sculptor intended the beast to be a symbol of American strength and resilience in the face of the market crash two years earlier.

Today, that same artist says he feels outraged – that his creation has been turned into a monster by another illegal sculpture placed in front of it last month. Arturo Di Modica and his legal team claim the sprightly, 4-foot-tall “Fearless Girl” violates his trademark, copyright, and moral rights as an artist.

It is inevitable an artwork’s meaning will change over time. From Paleolithic wall paintings in Lascaux, France, to Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel,” to the Statue of Liberty, the environment and culture that surround art influence the way that it is viewed. But the abrupt change to “Charging Bull” has raised age-old questions about who can and should control the way art is seen and interpreted.

The French concept of an artist’s moral rights, or droit moral, aims to protect the special relationship between a created work and its creator, sometimes referred to as an artist’s soul. But should this concept, adopted in the United States under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), enable artists to control the way they believe their works should viewed? What about the individuals or corporations who commission those works of art? And what role should policy play?   

Amy Adler, a professor at New York University’s School of Law who specializes in art and free speech, thinks the evolution of an artwork’s meaning over time should be cultivated through public policy.

“The bull sculpture captured something of that moment [in 1989]. The ‘Fearless Girl’ is capturing something of our moment. I would hope a subsequent sculpture of the future captures a future time,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “The possibility of changed meaning is, unsure, painful for an artist, but also something we should celebrate as a public policy matter.”

“I think that’s exactly what any kind of arts policy ought to encourage,” she adds, “That dynamism of meaning that we see in the evolution of the space.”

In numerous media interviews and a news conference on Wednesday, Di Modica emotionally expressed his belief that his bronze-patina bull should be a positive symbol for the United States and New York City, not a snorting animal facing off against a pigtailed girl, with her hands boldly on her hips. But one of his attorneys says his legal team does not dispute the new symbolism of the bull. Rather, they claim his trademark, copyright, and moral rights have been violated.

“'Fearless Girl' was created for a commercial purpose to promote the [exchange-traded fund] known as SHE to promote State Street Global Advisors,” says Steven Hyman of the New York-based firm McLaughlin & Stern. “Somebody else is modifying his art to create another message they want, which is not his message.”

Mr. Hyman was referring to the Boston-based investment company, which manages about $2.5 trillion in assets, and commissioned Delaware-artist Kristen Visbal to create “Fearless Girl,” according to MarketWatch. SHE is the company’s gender-diversity index State Street created to track companies that are gender diverse, according to The Washington Post. Twenty-five percent of the largest 3,000 US companies have no female directors, State Street has noted.

Hyman and the rest of Di Modica’s legal team contend “Fearless Girl” is a publicity stunt to raise attention to this exchange-traded fund, and that the bull, which Di Modica has copyrighted and trademark, is a central part of this campaign.

“The statue of the young girl becomes the ‘Fearless Girl’ only because of the ‘Charging Bull’: the work is incomplete without Mr. Di Modica’s Charging Bull, and as such it constitutes a derivative work of the Charging Bull,” reads a letter his lawyers sent New York Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this week. “Clearly, a deliberate choice was made to exploit and to appropriate the Charging Bull through the placement of the Fearless Girl.”

But his lawyers also argue the girl is an affront to Di Modica’s moral rights as an artist. In the United States, this right is protected under VARA, and includes preventing “any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.”

Di Modica has sued several other companies in the past for what he described as unauthorized use of his work, including Wal-Mart and North Fork Bank, The New York Times reported in 2006.

In response to the claims of Di Modica and his attorneys, State Street Global Advisors celebrated the sculpture’s reception in New York City and on social media.

“Our goal with ‘Fearless Girl’ was to create a powerful symbol to stand as a reminder to corporations across the globe that having more women in leadership positions contributes to overall performance and strengthens our economy,” spokeswoman Anne McNally said in a statement shared with the Monitor.  

This message was celebrated when the girl first appeared in front of the bull in Bowling Green park in Manhattan on March 8, also without a permit. In addition to praise from Chelsea Clinton and actress Jessica Chastain, two petitions urged the city to keep the statue in its place. New York announced it will remain there until at least 2018.

But Di Modica and his lawyers want the girl statue moved elsewhere, in addition to paying him an unspecified amount in damages. They hope to resolve the dispute “amicably, but if it does go to court, Di Modica’s moral rights could come up as a key question.

Noteworthy examples in the US involving this concept transplanted from France include the infamous “Tilted Arc” sculpture by Richard Serra dismantled without his approval, and a glass-covered condo building that flooded the neighboring Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas with an excessive amount of light and threatening the live trees that had been planted as part of the exhibit.

Ms. Adler at NYU also points to a dispute that reached the Supreme Court in 2009 between the city of Pleasant Grove, Utah, and the Summum Church. The church challenged the city’s ruling it couldn’t add its own religious monument to a public park. While the high court’s decision is considered important for government and art messaging, Justice Samuel Alito also explored an artwork’s transformation in his majority opinion, reflecting on the Statue of Liberty

The statue was given to this country by the Third French Republic to express republican solidarity and friendship between the two countries.... At the inaugural ceremony, President Cleveland saw the statue as an emblem of international friendship and the widespread influence of American ideals. Only later did the statue come to be viewed as a beacon welcoming immigrants to a land of freedom. 

Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento, art lawyer and founder of New York’s Art & Law Program, says it’s important, in the case of the bull and the girl, to distinguish who is dictating their meanings.  

The “Fearless Girl,” he says, wasn’t the product of a student or an independent artist who created a bronze sculpture and erected it as a guerrilla installation in New York.

“Given what is known, this act was by two commercial entities hiring a designer,” he says.

Mr. Muñoz Sarmiento wonders if the commercialization of art in the US has degraded the moral rights some art should have.

“The way that the art market is now, works of art are selling for millions of dollars,” he says. “The courts of law are no longer saying 'This is about pure expression.' This is probably now commercial activity. It’s no different than selling trinkets on eBay or selling goods on Fifth Avenue. Art may not be about expression anymore. It’s about pure commodity.”

But Alfred Steiner, another New York-based lawyer and artist, wonders if any one meaning can be ascribed to “Charging Bull.”

“The artist may have made the work for a particular reason, but they lose control over that meaning over time,” he says.  

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