Representations of the Future

The big news today in the art world seems to be “Defiant Girl.”

People look at a statue of a girl facing the Wall St. Bull in the financial district of New York, March 7, 2017.

“Defiant Girl” is a statue by Kristen Visbal of a young girl facing down “Charging Bull,” the iconic sculpture associated with Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. The placement of the statue was facilitated by State Street Global Advisors (yes, they actually spell “advisers” with an “o”). According to the company, which manages almost 2.5 trillion dollars in assets, “Defiant Girl” is a rallying cry for the placement of more women on the boards of financial institutions.

An except from a statement by CEO Ron O’Hanley: “Today, we are calling on companies to take concrete steps to increase gender diversity on their boards, and have issued clear guidance to help them begin to take action.”

The firm negotiated with the City of New York beforehand to ensure that “Defiant Girl” will remain in place for at least a month, and hopes that it will remain in perpetuity (in class today, I will be taking bets at 1:3 that it does).

This story struck a chord, at least in my mind, with a couple of the readings for class today.

First, it reminds me of the Marian Anderson concert performed in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, as both events seek to influence the political and social meaning of an iconic image. Anderson’s concert tipped the scales slightly towards Lincoln primarily as emancipator as opposed to Lincoln primarily as preserver of Union. “Defiant Girl,” on the other hand confronts directly (quite literally) Wall Street’s reputation and legacy as a place dominated by masculinity and testosterone. In a sort of sculptural aikido, it deftly turns “Charging Bull” against itself. It is worth noting here that “Charging Bull” was sculpted by an Italian, Arturo Di Modica, and appeared on Wall Street in 1989, during an era characterized in popular consciousness by hyper-masculine and sub-moral  characters such as Gordon Gecko and Jordan Belfort.

With regards to Doss’ “Memorial Mania,” I see “Defiant Girl” as belonging to the category of public art rather than memorial or monument. In her first chapter, Doss argues that public art and memorials are “practically synonymous”, but doesn’t elaborate much. Later, she contends that the distinctions between monuments and memorials are “tenuous” but proceeds to articulate at length the differences between the two. I would like to suggest one distinction between public art and memorials: while they both are reflective of subjectivity and play to identity politics (as Doss articulates), public art has the potential to look forward, urge change and acknowledge agency, while memorials by definition look backward and remember loss.

I was instantly taken by the straight forward meaning of “Defiant Girl” (achieved, in large part, through the currently out-of-vogue mode of representationality) and I think it has much potential as a piece of art. This potential is due in no small part to its aptness in the current political climate.

Some lingering questions for me:

Is State Street Global Advisors being hypocritical? According to their website, they have 23 men in senior leadership positions and only five women (also, as far as I can tell, all of their senior leadership team, save one, is white).

Considering this organization’s vast financial resources (the amount of assets they manage is roughly on par with GDP of India), what else are they doing? Are they doing enough?

Does the choice to depict a representation of women as a child a child in a skirt play off of existing gender stereotypes or play into them? Would an adult woman in a suit be more appropriate?

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