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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Art has to be flexible with the times

It’s 1989.

The American stock market has crashed again, and Arturo Di Modica drops his nearly 4-ton bronze statue of a bull under a Christmas tree in New York City without a permit. 

Embraced immediately by the public as a symbol of strength, persistence and optimism in the face of economic disaster, the “Charging Bull” earns an official permit and stands in the financial district of NYC for the next 30 years. 

Now it’s 2017. Donald Trump has just been elected president after a brutal and highly controversial campaign against Hillary Clinton, and it’s the eve of International Women’s Day.

Kristen Visbal, commissioned by Wall Street firm State Street Global Advisors, plants a 4-foot-tall bronze statue of a young girl merely 20 feet from the “Charging Bull”, facing him with hands on hips and chin held high. Originally licensed only to stand for a week, the “Fearless Girl” will now stay through 2018. 

Though adored by millions, the “Fearless Girl” seems to already have stepped on many toes in her short life. Di Modica has claimed adamantly that Visbal’s piece infringes upon his copyright by using his work as part of a new message. He feels his art has been derailed from its intended purpose as a beacon of hope, and turned into a very negative symbol of sexism and male aggression. Because Visbal’s art and message rest so heavily upon the interaction with Di Modico’s pre-existing piece, it is certainly a viable legal complaint, though no official lawsuit has yet been filed. 

But here's the thing — public art must be flexible in order to last.

It must adapt with the times and the community in which and for which it is displayed. A statue that might have been erected to stir up confidence in a dejected and populace can easily come to represent more than only that group. In the 1980s, Di Modica's piece represented the Wall Street corporations that rallied and rose to greatness after the recessions of the 1980s, before promptly betraying the public and begging a government bailout. 

Some of these same businesses are infamous today for inherent sexism, among other discriminatory policies, and the current political and social climate does not perceive corporate America in the same light as it once did.

If the “Charging Bull” was designed to represent the American economy, why should the “Fearless Girl” not be allowed to bravely point out what’s still missing from that picture? And what's missing is female leadership, equal pay for equal work and general respect for women in business (and in the world).

The best art is that which invites conversation, inspires introspection and incites change — so if an old statue must be turned on its head to do so, then in the name of great art and social progress, I say let it be done.

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