"God, I hate art," my late friend The Doctor used to say.
The man had his reasons, and he was only half kidding. The Doctor’s first wife had been an artist, and an argumentative one at that. As my friend was also inclined to be rather firm in his opinions, marital debate had a tendency to become spirited.
Once a woman had played the art card, he’d complain, a man absolutely couldn’t win. To persevere rendered him a cad, a bully, and an oaf of deficient sensibility. Particularly when she’d started the fight to begin with.
I was reminded of The Doctor during the recent absurd public controversy over the "Charging Bull" vs. "Fearless Girl" in the New York financial district. Absurd because as in virtually all disputes about public art, inherently subjective differences of opinion led many combatants to become dogmatic and contemptuous toward persons holding different views.
"What mighty contests," Alexander Pope wrote, "rise from trivial things."
The whole thing started last month of the eve of International Women’s Day, when a statue of a little girl appeared in the New York financial district, boldly confronting a six-ton bronze bull long seen as a global symbol of Wall Street. Hands on her hips, skirt blowing in the wind, the child seems to be staring the bull down — exactly as her creator, sculptor Kristen Visbal, intended.
Commissioned as an advertising gimmick by State Street Global Advisors, the Boston-based investment giant, and its New York advertising firm, the "Fearless Girl" statue supposedly symbolizes "girl power."
A plaque at the child’s feet reads: "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference."
"What this girl represents is the present, but also the future," a State Street representative told the New York Times. "She’s not angry at the bull — she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of, and she’s wanting the bull to take note."
Yeah, well at the expense of being a literal-minded bumpkin personally acquainted with a number of actual bulls, let me say this: Bulls do not take note of little girls, big girls nor even Donald Trump. While cattle can be outwitted by people who understand their behavior, you absolutely can’t stare them down or outrun them.
We used to own a Simmental bull named Bernie that my wife — aptly deemed a "bold child" by nuns at "Fearless Girl’s" approximate age — would feed apple slices out of her hand (over the fence only). He was a calm, easygoing fellow with big horns, and weighed around 2,300 pounds. One afternoon when Bernie thought I was being too slow bringing his feed bucket, he slipped up behind me, lifted me effortlessly off the ground, carried me about six feet to the trough and carefully set me down. I never turned my back on the big rascal again.
It follows that in the artistic scenario as depicted, the child is capable of nothing. What "Fearless Girl" symbolizes to me is an act of sheer folly. Somebody needs to sculpt an electrified barb-wire fence before the kid gets trampled. Nothing against women, even Wall Street women, but the deep message of female empowerment is lost on me.
Your mileage may differ.
Of course, bronze bulls can’t move at all. Nor is an artist necessarily an unerring guide to his own work. Even so I can sympathize somewhat with Arturo Di Modica, the Italian sculptor who says that the intended meaning of his (to me quite striking) bull statue — "freedom, peace, strength, power and love" has been irrevocably lost by what he sees as an act of aesthetic vandalism. Alleging copyright infringement, he has asked the city of New York to move the smaller statue somewhere away from his work.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has instead extended its city permit for a year, tweeting somewhat churlishly that: "Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl."
I’m guessing de Blasio, a canny politician, may have glanced at the comment lines in local newspapers, where the debate quickly degenerated into what New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser aptly described as "a kind of feminist Rorschach test."
Scores of commenters assailed the sculptor for the intolerable offense of being a man, and an old man at that. One "Vannessa" wrote that: "Di Modica — like so many men of a certain age — wants the girl to sit down and shut up. Not anymore, dude. Not anymore."
Another went all Bernie Sanders on the poor guy: "Whatever Mr. Di Modica meant the Bull to mean 30 years ago, today it stands a symbol of the corruption, greed and implacable immensity of a destructive financial sector … The Bull now represents something that is fundamentally evil. The Girl is a response to that, a necessary response and counter."
Actually, it’s more on the order of a successful publicity stunt: a three-dimensional cartoon.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.