Monday, April 24, 2017

The Art of Fearlessness

Everyone's a critic.

This statement has never been truer than it is in today's face-paced digital age of instant outrage. We live in a time when throngs of people scream with incredulous outrage over an overpriced, colorful liquid sugar beverage while many of those same people laugh and point fingers at more than half a nation outraged at the fact that their leader is a toxic dimwit suspected of treason. But make no mistake, regardless of where their
 criticism is directed, their opinions will be plastered all over the internet a heartbeat before they even finish their thought.


And then we have the world of art.

I don't know if a work of art is "good" or not, I simply know if I like it, and I suspect this is true for most people. Where I differ from a lot of other folks, though, is that I am also a creator. The written word is my medium, and if I know one thing, it is that a piece of writing is near the top of the list of things people will criticize.

Whether I am pouring my heart and soul onto the page and exposing my flaws and vulnerabilities, or writing something that only opens tiny windows into my life that people need to squint and strain to see through, what you are getting is a part of me. My metaphorical DNA is woven into everything I write but I give it to you freely and with full knowledge that feedback may not be favorable.

However, if someone takes my words out of context, or attempts to change their meaning without my consent, then we are going to have a problem. You see this happen all the time with political attack ads, where an opposing candidate takes an out of context partial a quote from their rival and plasters it all over the television insisting "the other candidate" is a  terrible person. This type of forced context switching is commonplace with written and spoken word and it turns out that the visual artistic realm is not immune either.

Take a recent dust-up involving the famed Wall Street Charging Bull statue and its new counterpart Fearless Girl.

Wikipedia

Fearless Girl materialized on March 7, 2017, and initially had a plaque at its base which read, "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference." Why is "SHE" in all caps," you ask? Good question. 

A fellow by the name of Greg Fallis wrote a good piece breaking that down. The summary is this: SHE is the stock ticker symbol for a "Gender Diversity Index" fund held by State Street Global Investors and, working with the advertising company McCann, commissioned the artist, Kristen Visbal, to create the statue.

But here's the thing. Fearless Girl was placed in front of and facing Arturo Di Modica's statue Charging Bull and when Di Modica became aware of this he expressed displeasure. He asserts that with the presence of Fearless Girl that the meaning behind his sculpture has been lost. He created it as a symbol of a strong and powerful America and now that symbol has been distorted.

Greg Fallis's article was well researched, well written, and made solid arguments in favor of Di Modica's stance. He also got thoroughly roasted for having the nerve to share his thoughts with a public that salivates at the opportunity to dig their incredulous teeth into a good controversy.

I read one particularly good response to Fallis's article written by Caroline Criado-Perez. She highlights the existing patriarchy within the art world, particularly with regards to sculptures scattered about the UK. You should read what she has to say about it. It will be time well spent. In a nutshell, her argument is that Fearless Girl being placed in front of Charging Bull
 simply calls it out for its patriarchal representations.

Essentially, Fearless Girl exists to force you into feeling something very specific about Charging Bull - and society in general.

Criado-Perez argues that this is a good thing and in doing so she is criticizing Di Modica for creating a male-centric piece of art, she is criticizing the city of New York for allowing its continued presence on a busy cobblestone corner, and she is criticizing everyone who has ever made the decision to display a male-centric piece of art instead one depicting women.  

Her message is clear: Fuck you, Charging Bull, and the patriarchy you rode in on. 


Wikipedia

I find it difficult to disagree with her, but when I view it through the eyes of Charging Bull's creator, what I see in Fearless Girl is a highly effective piece of viral marketing attempting to alter the DNA of his work. I have no attachment to Charging Bull. I didn't know its history until Greg Fallis pointed it out. But I do know Charging Bull existed just fine on his own for three decades and Fearless Girl appears to have been put there to alter its meaning. To me, it marks a distinct difference between art and marketing. Had it been done in any other way I am sure I wouldn't even be writing this post.

It is this blurred line between art and marketing that is what's tripping me up. It seems to get into all sorts of conversations about intent and interpretation and I don't happen to think there are a lot of answerable questions in that realm.

Just to be clear, I love what Fearless Girl is and what she represents. I don't love that she was created as a marketing tool at the expense of someone else's art. I also don't love the fact that the company who brought Fearless Girl to life, with its message of greater corporate gender diversity, has a mere 5 female executives out of 28 and only 3 out of 11 board members who are women. Is, "Do as I say not as I do," really the message here or are they making a mea culpa statement and State Street is simply the best of a sad lot?


At the heart of it, I feel manipulated and I suppose some will argue that that is what art is supposed to do. I honestly don't know if it is, but it seems to happen whether or not artists intend it to. At the very least it got me thinking, and that's a good thing because where there are people thinking there are also thought experiments. I spent my formative late high school and early university years studying physics and a powerful tool used in that discipline were what Albert Einstein called "gedankenexperiments". 

Gedankenexperiments is the German word for "thought experiments" and they are essentially a way of thinking in hypotheticals to assist in organizing thoughts around a particular problem. I came up with one to help me clean up some of the jumbled thoughts I had on the topic of Fearless Girl versus Charging Bull. It goes like this: 

Someone places a statue in front of Fearless Girl. That statue depicts a mother standing on her own with a sort of perturbed stance and equally perturbed look on her face. This woman is holding out her hand toward Fearless Girl as if to say, "Give it to me" or "We're going home, now!" The new statue is given the title Frustrated Mother.

The questions this scenario raises are plentiful. How would the creators of Fearless Girl feel? How would the supporters of Fearless Girl feel? How would the creator of Charging Bull feel? Would Fearless Girl become Petulant Child, Defiant Girl, or Stubborn Youth or would Frustrated Mother be viewed as a parent trying to protect her child, one who is unaware of the dangers of the world, from Charging Bull?

Let us take the thought experiment in another direction and further say that at the same time Frustrated Mother is installed, Charging Bull is removed. What happens then? Frustrated Mother can exist on her own without Charging Bull but she can't exist, not in the same way at least, without Fearless Girl. On the other hand, Fearless Girl has always needed something else to realize its full impact. 

Unless that is, you turn her around.

Turn Fearless Girl and have her face the other direction, towards nothing in particular, and it doesn't matter what is going on behind her, whether it is Charging Bull, Frustrated Mother, Donald Trump or some other catastrophe. Fearless Girl becomes Fearless and Independent Girl and no matter what is going on around her, the look of determination and confidence on her face would scream, "I got this."

To that, all I would have to say is, "Hell yes she does!"

~ Andrew




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