A Question of Urbanism: Art in the public square

A Question of Urbanism: Art in the public square

Ayinde J. Stevens

 

Life at Bowling Green was simple. It was a simple park that’s original cling to fame was the site of an equestrian statue of King George III that got torn down so the metal could be melted down for bullets used in the American Revolution. It sat as a simple place to eat lunch in a busy city.

Then a big bull came.

It wasn’t supposed to be there at first, thirty years ago it was dropped off in front of the Stock Exchange at 3 a.m –  7,100-pound piece of bronze placed at the high altar of finance. A gift from the creator, Arturo DiModica, to his adopted homeland, the bull came at the right place at a time when the American Dream was on hold and the economy was still recovering from the Black Monday market crash just two years earlier. It was a big-hearted gesture from a man so in love with America and perhaps most importantly New York, were one can arrive from anywhere in the world and make a name for himself.

 Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

The bull became a beloved artifact by New Yorker’s, it overcame an embarrassed and overzealous New York Stock Exchange. The Exchange, along with the New York Police Department would’ve preferred the statue been melted down, just like King George some 200 years before, and disappear into the haze of history, another beloved New York City anecdote.

Instead, just two days after it was placed, it made its way to Bowling Green where it has remained ever since.. It is hard to remember a time in New York City when it was that easy to place public art, especially in a widely visible place like Bowling Green where millions of tourists flock every year.

For the next two plus decades the bull sat contently at the northern corner of Bowling Green. Soon the bull became a symbol of the city, becomong a major attraction for tourists who would make it into their own. No one knows  who came up with the idea, but  touching the bull’s scrotum quickly became a sign of good luck, with lines at the bull’s rear end often longer than its face. The only time the bull was in any danger was during Occupy Wall Street when some considered having it sing soprano.

Then came a little girl.

Just like the bull, the girl came at the right place at the right time. It came after an election that was billed as the ascension of the first woman president, which didn’t happen. Instead, all the energy that was supposed to dissipate after the election, found itself coursing like a steady ticker on the screen and the term ‘resist’ became a moniker for this feeling and a new chaotic movement.

Then out of the blue, a statue arrived, an idealized version of a girl staring boldly at the bull reminding, nay demanding, that the bull keep that American Dream alive. Reminding the bull that without the feminine there is no masculine. As the title says she is fearless and thus became a symbol of the movement is now cast as in bronze.

However, that joy of sisterhood came with a caveat. Unlike the bull’s ‘guerilla’ approach to fame. The girl came had a corporate benefactor, one that many, this writer included, did not know existed. It’s benefactor, an investing firm called State Street Global Advisors, says the girls celebrates ‘the power of women in leadership’ and to push companies to hire more women in the boardroom. However, the company is already under investigation for fraud just prior to its unveiling, which tarnished the message the girl was trying to convey.

And as for their boardroom, State Street has 3 out of 11 members who are women, or 27%.  The third female member just joined. Add the boardroom to the entire leadership, its 5 out of 28.     

In this current age, everything is scrutinized, every six way from Sunday. Sometimes critiquing is good, it allows us to correct mistakes that can hobble the idea or message. Other times the critiques become the message, and that can hurt the creator or messenger.

It’s not surprising or disappointing that the girl fell a bit short, many of man’s (or woman’s) creations are of the best intentions. Some come out of the process intact, others less so. The girl came through at a time when many wanted to latch onto something, anything positive regarding what has occurred in the last six months. In many ways, the public was less miffed about where it came from but what it meant to them.

And then DiModica came back.

The creator of the bull, who like all fathers, is protective of his child, he has sued those who have profited from the bull’s presence like the vendors across the street to big box stores that have profited from his magnum opus. I would do the same, since the bull itself cost $350,000 of his own money to create it. Now he wants the girl to go because it reflects negatively on his creation and perhaps most importantly his work.

DiModica’s strive to protect the bull is admirable but his position to have the girl removed is foolish. DiModica forgets that it was the public’s largess and willingness to forgive, that allowed it sanctuary. DiModica forgets that they are rules to displaying public art and that his bypassing of the rules does not make him superior or an arbiter who shares his space. And perhaps most damningly, the creator forgets that his vision of the American dream, shown through the bull, looks less realistic today, thanks in part to the very institution that the bull celebrates; Wall Street. The bull may appear perfect but I see its flaws just as clear as its shiny horns. It fools me no less than those who decried the girl as a slick publicity stunt.

Yes, corporate America created the girl, but she also in a strange roundabout way did what the bull was supposed to do all those years ago by encouraging ‘everybody to realize America's power’ as DiModica’s assistant Kim Stippa said to the New York Times.

The one difference is now that while 26 years ago it might have been American but now that power is female.

So, in fact, the bull and the girl are indeed two flawed pieces of art that need each other, sharing a narrow strip of land in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. By all accounts they shouldn’t even be there, one because its unveiling was illegal and the other because it came with too much ‘emotional baggage.’ And yet the public adopted these of pieces of prodigal art. They took the bull as their own 26 years ago just as they will for the girl, who like her neighbor the bull, now has no plaque and can rightfully hold her own.


 

Adam Thalenfeld