Statue Wars: Competing Narratives in the Public Landscape

Image: Chris Li

Thursday 24th August, 2017

Philip Seargeant and Korina Giaxoglou

The recent violent protests by white supremacists in Charlottesville were triggered initially by a dispute about a public monument – one memorialising the Confederate general Robert E. Lee who, for many people, is a symbol of the country’s racist past. The issues have since expanded far beyond this to embrace a painful soul-searching about the identity of modern-day America, and troubling questions over the moral response of its leaders. But the nature of the initial trigger is a stark illustration of the symbolic power that public monuments have as visible emblems of particular ideologies.

In the last few years statues and other public monuments have increasingly become a focal point for political struggle, and arguments about removing or retaining them have become arguments about the nature of history and identity more generally. From the #RhodesMustFall movement addressing the racist legacy of colonialism, to campaigns such as that by the activist Caroline Criado-Perez to counter the underrepresentation of women in public memorials in the UK, to the recent events in the United States, the everyday environment is understood to communicate a specific and influential political narrative about society. In this article – based on an on-going research project – we explore the ways in which social meaning is created and contested in such contexts, by looking at another salient example of this type of social storytelling: the accumulating statues that are in ‘conversation’ on Bowling Green in the Wall Street area of New York.

The first of these statues, the Charging Bull was secretly installed, initially outside the New York Stock Exchange, at the end of 1989. It was meant as a symbol of what its creator termed, ‘thestrength and power of the American people’ following 1987’s stock market crash. At the time it was an act of guerrilla art, installed without official permission, but it has since become an emblem of the city, as well as a major tourist attraction. Almost two decades later it was supplemented, in March this year, by a statue of a small girl with hands on hips and defiant stance, known as the Fearless Girl, which was erected directly in front of it. Designed by Kristen Visbal, and created for International Women’s Day by the investment firm State Street Global Advisors, the stated intention of this second statue was to draw attention to the fact that women are in a minority on the boards of big US corporations.

As a piece of creative advertising the Fearless Girl has been incredibly successful. In June it won three Grand Prix awards at the Cannes advertising festival, and has apparently led to a 347% increase in the size of the Gender Diversity Index fund, awareness-raising which was one of the purposes behind the statue. It has also gone on to influence other projects: in May 2017 a similar statue was erected on the top of the headquarters of the Democratic Party in California. But it has not been without controversy.

A few months after its appearance a third statue was briefly added to the Bowling Green conversation – a small dog urinating up against the leg of the Fearless Girl. The sculptor of this, Alex Gardega, explained that it was an expression of his objection to the corporate provenance of the Fearless Girl project; to his mind such a publicity stunt has nothing to do with feminism, while it also disrespects the integrity of the Charging Bull as a piece of artwork.

Both these issues had been part of the debate prior to Gardega’s intervention. The sculptor of the Charging Bull, Arturo Di Modica, protested that Fearless Girl violated his artistic copyright by changing the dynamic of the original work, and he is currently suing State Street Global Advisors for trademark and copyright infringement. His response was viewed by many, including New York major Bill de Blasio, as evidence of a deep-rooted sexism rather than being primarily an issue about artistic integrity. As de Blasio tweeted ‘Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl’.

The provenance of the statue – i.e. the fact that it is part of an advertising campaign for a large banking organisation – has also become part of the debate about the type of feminist symbol it provides. An article in the New York Times, for instance, drew attention to the poor record that the firm behind the statue itself had in terms of promoting women to senior management positions. Likewise Helena Fitzgerald has written in Rolling Stone that underpinning the feminism of the statue is the idea that the goal for women, as for men, is simply to make more money. ‘Putting more women in more executive jobs addresses none of the numerous systemic inequalities under which women suffer’ she argues. In this context, she continues ‘pissing on capitalism, literally or figuratively, is itself a great and noble tradition in art’.

Yet for others the symbolism of the urination has more direct connotations. Jennifer Wright in Harpers Bazaar suggests that Gardega has inadvertently created a perfect metaphor for the experiences that ambitious women have to endure today. ‘You want to exist? You want to be seen? You want to inspire other women? You want to stand for something? Some remarkably mediocre man is going to come along and insure you get pissed on’. And as Helena Fitzgerald continues, whatever one thinks of corporate provenance of Fearless Girl, it’s ‘still literally an image of a little girl, and the dog is still literally an image of a pissing dog’.

Ultimately then, what this chain of public interventions illustrates is not only how the public space can be used as a dynamic arena for the debating of politics – even when the means are something as conventionally ‘permanent’ as statues – but that the debate is primarily in the interpretation of the symbolism of the statues, their provenance and placement. Which in this case produces competing discourses of gender politics as they relate to the social context of 21st century western feminism.

It also illustrates how the meaning of an artefact can be modified by subsequent interventions. Meaning, in this ‘conversation’ between the different statues, is being generated not just by what is depicted, but by the way the monuments are positioned, and particularly their relationship to one another. One of the contentious issues about the Fearless Girl is that it takes its meaning from facing off directly with the Charging Bull – and in doing this it alters the meaning of the Charging Bull itself, foregrounding the gendered nature of it as a symbol of aggressive capitalism. This is an interesting example of the recontextualisation of an act of communication. Typically recontextualisation takes place where an utterance or image is removed from one context and placed into another, thus having its meaning modified. In this case however, the context itself is being reconfigured, which alters the meanings of the artefact (the Charging Bull) without it otherwise having been moved or transformed at all.

Another important aspect is that meaning is generated and amplified through the media discussion that the battle between the statues provokes. These days, interventions such as the both the Fearless Girl and the urinating dog are designed to attract attention from the media almost as much as they are meant to become real-world physical attractions.

What does all this indicate about the role that public art plays in contemporary political debates then? In this case what is of interest is the way that they feed into broader discourses about capitalism, artistic practice, and gender, with people highlighting or downplaying the relevance or importance of these depending on the points they wish to make. Their meaning is emergent, in other words, with the statues acting not simply as emblems but also providing prompts for a wide-ranging discussion about social issues.

The Wall Street statues are possibly better characterised as public art rather than public monuments, in that their purpose is not primarily to memorialise a person or event, as is the case with the Confederate statues. But this is far from being a clear distinction – after all, one of the arguments mobilised against the removal of Confederate monuments was their aesthetic value; Donald Trump himself, for example, tweeting of them in terms of ‘the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks [which] will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!’ Here again then, the distinction is as much to do with the discourse around the statues as it is with the original or primary purpose behind them. And their ‘artistic’ worth becomes co-opted into arguments about their social meaning, often as a way of trying to imbue them with added cultural value. Examining how artefacts such as these regulate space and encode ideological meanings, therefore, can offer interesting insights into the organisation of society, as well as the way power is circulated and contested within it.

Philip Seargeant is a senior lecturer at the Open University, where he specialises in language and communication. He has published several books on topics ranging from social media to linguistic creativity and English around the world. His most recent titles include Taking offence on social media (2017, with Caroline Tagg and Amy Aisha Brown) and Creativity in language (2016, with Zsofia Demjen). He tweets at @philipseargeant.

Korina Giaxoglou is a lecturer in the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Her research interests include (mediated) narrative analysis, discourse studies and social media communication. She tweets at @anthrostream.

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