It’s a shame Jay Nordlinger’s article in the May 1 National Review is only online with a digital subscription (partly because I have a print subscription and will have to type any quotes I use below). He raises, it seems to me, exactly the sort of discussion that art ought to raise.
You’ve heard, no doubt, of Fearless Girl, the bronze statue placed in front of Wall Street’s iconic bronze Charging Bull. Nordlinger acknowledges that, on a visit to the site, he happened upon a “beautify, happy scene” of a family visiting the statues, having fun, and he imagines that happens very often. Still…
Hang on a minute: You see, of course, how Fearless Girl has changed the meaning of Charging Bull. Completely. Before, he was something positive (to those of us who appreciate American capitalism). Now he is something menacing, to be faced down and stood up to…
Game it out with me. Charging Bull can exist without Fearless Girl — as it did from 1989 to 2017. But Fearless Girl can’t exist without Charging Bull, or something like it. Well, it can — but the girl is better off with something to stand up to, or be fearless about. If the city does not take the girl away, I would take the bull away, if I were Arturo Di Modica [the sculptor of the bull]. He owns his sculpture, as I understand it.
Given my political and cultural sensibilities, I tend to agree with Nordlinger. On the other hand, art that is fun and that makes us think and discourse is kinda fulfilling the purpose of art, and what I like about the current layout is how readily it reflects the times and exposes its pretensions.
On the reflecting-the-times part, I think of Kyle Smith’s description of the difference between ’70s movies and today’s hero movies. In the ’70s, movies presented life as a continual struggle, often to be lost, but within which one could shape an identity and find a sort of gritty heroism.
Movies today, though, are calibrated to reach an audience raised with the certain knowledge that self-esteem is the most important trait, that young people will lead the way, and that you can have anything you can imagine, as soon as you can imagine it. Kids identify with childish superheroes who rule their environments. Deadpool, Iron Man, and Harley Quinn kick butt and crack jokes. Harry Potter can come up with a spell for any occasion. Katniss Everdeen is fierce and unbeatable.
Even when today’s movie heroes are in extreme danger, such as Matt Damon’s stranded-on-Mars Mark Watney in The Martian, they’re so cool and confident that quips never stop flowing out of their mouths.
Fearless Girl is fortunate to exist in a condition of a frozen moment. If we were to set the story in motion, it would be immediately apparent that she isn’t “fearless” so much as insanely naive and in a great deal of danger. The statue, that is, perfectly captures the reckless fantasy on which progressivism is built.
Nordlinger provides the context to interpret even more into the statues. The work of art that is Charging Bull was in some regards an expression of its artist’s own act of creation. Di Modica (an immigrant) created the bull quietly, on his own, and in an act of daring expression in response to a market crash placed it in front of the New York Stock Exchange in the middle of the night as an encouragement to the country. When the exchange had it taken away, people rallied and the bull found a permanent home.
Fearless Girl, by contrast, was commissioned by an investment firm (you know, those bad-guy profiteers), leveraging one of those government-promoted self-esteem holidays, International Women’s Day, for self promotion. Like a new tax or a “temporary” welfare program, the statue was placed following the appropriate rules and granted a temporary run, but it immediately became apparent that it would be impossible to remove. One suspects that the public outcry to keep the statue in place was typical of such hashtag-driven “movements” these days, meaning that it hasn’t been grassroots so much as encouraged by insiders and activists with a political ax to grind.
So, what to do? My first thought is to do what adults do when children co-opt some attractive space that they’ve created and what frontier folk do when established elites lock them out of their native economies: Go on to create a new space somewhere else that will express their beliefs and hard work for a time.
My second thought is to keep this artistic conversation going. Somebody should stealthily create and place, off to the side, a bronze statue of an ordinary middle aged man running toward the scene to save the little girl from her imminent peril. I’d love to see how that one goes over in the 2010s.