Sunday, May 7, 2017

One more comment on Fearless Girl and Charging Bull

My brother-in-law Craig posted a link on Facebook to this piece about the Fearless Girl.  Since I haven’t posted here for very long time I thought I’d post my response to it.  I’ve been following the “Fearless Girl” discussion in WaPo and elsewhere, thinking it’s all a bit off topic…I like both statues, and I think their current positions make a clear statement that’s relevant right now, but it’s not any of the statements that other people seem to see.

The Charging Bull artist does have a point that the Fearless Girl changes the meaning of his sculpture---but he misses the point too, possibly because he's so captured by the meaning he originally intended.

The Bull had already changed its meaning, though, long ago.  When he sculpted the bull I think Mr. Di Modica saw Wall Street as a meaningful symbol of the economy in general: a prosperous Wall Street was an indication of a healthy economy. That was not true even then for much of the country, but I think it was what he meant, and the bull was intended to restore all of our spirits after the financial catastrophe in 1987. But since then we’ve had decades in which Wall Street prospered and much of the rest of the country stagnated. The financial sector simply sucked up all economic growth. In 1950 the financial sector was 2.8% of GDP; by 2006 it was 8.3%. In 1980 the average employee in the financial sector earned about the same as employees in any other industry; by 2006 they earned about 70% more than average. (from “The Growth of Finance”, Robin Greenwood and David Scharfstein, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 2013). And the industry, with its high salaries, took the best minds from the best universities and sat them down to pore over spreadsheets. All of this might have been worth the cost if the industry had become more efficient: instead, productivity in the financial sector was at best stagnant.

And then in 2007-2008 the banks and investment houses collapsed, and Wall Street collapsed with them, and the lot of them dragged the world down in the undertow. Wall Street began to be seen as providing the country with little value and enormous risk---not for them, but for us. When the economy was good we got nothing and they got everything. But when the economy failed they still got everything: they got bailed out, and we had to bail them, and the managers who were the builders of the great collapse got single year bonuses the size of our lifetime incomes. The banks played us for suckers in many ways: as Bernie Sanders once said, Wall Street is a place where fraud is their business model.

As labor productivity rose inexorably from year to year and wages stalled, or even went backward, as hedge fund managers and bankers and the financial industry in general sucked in all the growth in the economy and left crumbs in their wake for the rest of the country, we who live in the economy began to see the Bull as representing that culture of fraud and greed. That tarnished the Charging Bull and changed its meaning long before the Fearless Girl came along.

So the Fearless Girl was a response, not to Mr. Di Modica’s original image of hope for recovery, but to the message of blind greed that Wall Street has projected for a very long time. In this case, art is not the unchanging statement intended at its first creation: the older art’s meaning evolves and new art replies. It is a conversation, and one that I think we desperately need to have.

But the Fearless Girl also has a very different meaning than its sponsors intended. Women everywhere have been uplifted by her, to them she is a statement about the need for women to be admitted to the highest levels of management in the financial world. I’m glad for the uplift, and agree with the egalitarian principle, but I’m not sure I see the value for the rest of us out here in the non-finance world if the men at the hedge fund conference tables whose hearts have been grievously damaged by greed are supplemented with a group of women whose hearts have also been damaged by greed (or why would they even want to be part of the industry as it stands?) It’s not really uplifting for women to reach the heights of an industry whose business model is fraud, and whose driving motivation is a covetous lust for personal wealth.

State Street, who commissioned the Fearless Girl, says her importance is not just her gender but also her age: she is a young girl, they say, and so she represents hope again for a better future. I see their point. But to me the most important thing about her is not that she is a girl, or that she is a young girl: the important thing is that she is an ordinary young girl. Look at her: nothing about her says “rich” or “hedge fund” or “executive”. She is a girl we’ve all seen, in city and country, all over the world. Is she stubborn and defiant? Lord, yes, but as a parent who raised a daughter I can tell you that is not an attitude unique to the Fearless Girl sculpture. Girls everywhere are capable of stubborn defiance, even in places where defiance is dangerous, and particularly dangerous for girls.

So I see her---because I like to see her---as representing not only the defiant demand of women for equality of opportunity, or the defiant demand of the young for a future they can look to with hope, but also of representing all of us who are ordinary, who want, defiantly, to say, not to the Wall Street that Mr. Di Modica saw in 1987 but to the Wall Street we see now, to stop all the blind charging, and to come down and live with the rest of us. It will be hard, I know. You’re addicted to your greed, and addiction is hard to kick. But the human world is out here. We work all our lives to create value, and the statistics on productivity say that we create more and more value every year. It’s time for all of us, women certainly but men as well, to share some of the rewards.

I understand Mr. Di Modica's resentment, and I do think he has a point.  But I think Fearless Girl needs to be where she is for the moment.

Eventually, if we can re-attach wages and productivity in the economy, I'd like to see her standing next to the bull, both facing the same direction, and both moving defiantly into a common future.

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