where the light is

I noodled around the Des Moines Art Center with some friends a couple of days ago. It had been a while since I’d visited the art center, and I’d forgotten just how visually engaging its architecture is. I’d brought a camera (a real, actual, no-nonsense camera), thinking I might shoot some photos of the artwork. And I did. I shot three frames with the camera — all of the same Calder mobile. I spent far more time shooting quick black-and-white snaps on my cellphone. And very little of that was of the artwork; almost all of the photos I shot were about the building.

Stairs in the Meier wing

The history of the architecture of the Des Moines Art Center is sort of interesting. Well, it’s interesting to me. The original design was the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. He’d won a competition in 1939 to design the Smithsonian Gallery of Art. But Congress being Congress, they decided to deny funding for the construction. Happily, the folks in charge of creating a new art museum in Des Moines saw Saarinen’s plans for the Smithsonian and said, “Dude, slide on over here and build us a museum.” And he did. He cobbled together a structure that was an esoteric combination of Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. They finished construction in 1948.

What made it unique, though, was the decision NOT to construct a standard museum gallery. Saarinen’s design also included spaces for practice and instruction, making it both an art gallery and a teaching center. And hey, bingo — we had us an art center. Pretty cool idea.

Sunlight through a curtain (with incidental Giacometti bronze)

In the late 1960s, the art center folks decided to expand the building to include a space large enough to hold an auditorium and display really big sculptures. They got I.M. Pei to design it. It’s hard to do better than Pei. But his design revolved around a sort of massive block building that would tower over the existing structure. It was necessary, of course, but the design would have clashed with the low, ground-hugging Saarinen design. So Pei said, “Dudes, not to worry. I’ll sink the block into the landscape, easy peasy, lemon breezy.”  And hey, bingo — we had us a fine addition to the art center.

I.M. Pei window (with incidental Debora Butterfield painted steel horse)

By the 1980s, the art center needed another new extension — a space to house more contemporary works. This time they landed Richard Meier as the architect. Meier is one of those Pritzker Prize geniuses whose work is fairly idiosyncratic. The guy is totally smitten by structures designed around very white geometric patterns. Nothing at all like the designs of Pei or Saarinen. The advantage of being a Pritzker genius is nobody’s going to force you to adapt your aesthetic to fit in with your predecessors.

Meier’s addition to the art center is basically what he’s known for — white geometric patterns. It sort of looks like it was designed by a member of the Borg Collective who’d gone to an architecture school in Minecraft. That sounds more harsh than I mean it to. It’s really a very smart, clever, and very very clean design. Just different from the rest of the art center. But hey, bingo — we have us a space for contemporary artwork.

It speaks to the design, I think, that the only time I felt the need to shoot a photograph in color was in the Meier wing.

Mobile — Calder, Meier wing.

The fact is, I really didn’t make any thoughtful, considered photographs. I just walked around and took quick, square format, b&w snapshots using an app I’ve configured for black-and-white photography. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos (there were only 18 of them) that I realized most of the photos were of the building itself rather than the art it houses. Art figured into some of the photos, but they were accents incidental to the photo rather than the subject of it. If that makes sense.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the art; I did. I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, I’d often put on my glasses and get really close and try to figure out exactly how some of the work was done. I mean, how did George Wesley Bellows manage to paint a human face (it is, I’ve decided, humanly impossible — maybe Bellows was an alien)? I looked at the sculptures and admired the sketches and appreciated the paintings and watched a couple of works of video art. By the way,  some of the video art? Incomprehensible and (is there a polite way to say ‘stupid’? — no, I don’t think there is) stupid. But then there was this piece by Michael Najjar. Sublime.

Spacewalk — Michael Najjar

I looked at just about everything and I enjoyed most of it, but in the end the primary reason I’d shoot a photograph had most to do with the way the building interacted with the light. The way the light and the structure worked together seemed to infuse some sort of extra meaning to both. For example, I was very much taken by a chair (based on an Eames design) partly because I mistakenly thought I was in the Saarinen wing (the Eames brothers were students of Saarinen). I was actually in the Pei wing — irony gone awry.

Unironic Eames chair

Some of these photographs, I know, probably won’t appeal to anybody but me. Like the chair above. It’s just a chair the guards sit in. Or this view out a window to the street. What’s that about? There was something about the geometry that appealed to me, though I couldn’t say what.

Looking out on Grand

I actually spent more time on this stupid photograph than all the others combined. I wanted to get that tree in the right spot, and the reflection of the window’s crossbar just the right angle. Then I probably stood there, trying to be still and hold that view, for a couple of minutes, waiting for the passing cars to line up properly. Silly, I know, but it seemed worth it at the moment. Still does.

It’s a wee bit embarrassing to visit the art center and return home with nothing but a handful of black-and-white photographs. All that amazing art, and here’s me with some photos of curtains and stairways and chairs and random views out of windows.

Some random curtain

But what can you do? That’s where the light was.

the comments

Don’t read the comments. This may be the most frequently shared piece of internet wisdom. If you value your sanity, do NOT read the comments. The comments aren’t healthy. They’re not safe. They’ll sap your will to live. They’ll shred your already loose grasp on reality. The comments will steal your soul. Whatever you do, do NOT read the damned comments.

The comments — they’re what this generation has instead of Vietnam. It’s where you lose your innocence and youth.

“Never get out of the boat,” Chef says. “I didn’t get out of the goddamned eighth grade for this kind of shit.” Never get out of the boat and don’t read the comments. Sounds like good advice. Or…you can read the comments, ignore the damned boat, abandon your innocence, and explore the heart of darkness.

Last week I wrote something about the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl that generated a metric ton of comments. I didn’t read them all. I couldn’t; who has time to read a metric ton of comments? But I’d set up this blog so new commenters must be approved (I rarely get a lot of comments; an approval process wasn’t expected to be a chore), so I was forced to glance at each comment long enough to determine if it was legit or if it was an opportunity to date Russian models or buy genuine Michael Kors handbags for 80% off.

Now that things have slowed down, I’ve been dipping into the comments. And you know what? Some of them are brilliant. Some — surprisingly few, really — are stupid and/or offensive, but for the most part the comments are composed by folks who sincerely want to express a point of view. There really wasn’t much heart of darkness to be found. It was more like the scapula of darkness, with moments of the raised middle finger of darkness.

But here’s the thing — and I think it’s a wonderful thing: people are arguing about art. I’m going to repeat that very slowly, because it’s not something you hear very often. People. Are arguing. About art.

“The girl must go!” “The girl must stay!” “She is an affront to Capitalism!” “Patriarchy must die!” “Your argument is not valid!” “If YOUR argument was valid, it would be easier to find images of women fighting with swords!” “I have no response to that, but I will continue to argue!” “I shall argue on as well! Have at you, varlet!”

They’re thinking about the purpose of public art, they’re forming opinions about the legitimacy of various forms of artistic expression, they’re debating the pros and cons of commissioned art, they’re arguing about depictions of gender in art, they’re reflecting on how context shapes the meaning of art, they’re having passionate disagreements about the intersection of art and economic systems, they’re fighting about what constitutes appropriation and what qualifies as guerrilla art. People — lots of people — are arguing about art. How cool is that? Very cool, is how cool.

There are a lot of recurring topics in the comments that I’d like to address, but I don’t want to turn this into Greg’s Fearless Girl vs. Charging Bull blog. So I’ll just natter on about two of the more prevalent comments.

Lots of great works of art have been commissioned.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel was often mentioned in the comments. But here’s the difference: Michelangelo’s contract to paint the ceiling specified some of the elements to be included (the 12 apostles, for example), but he insisted on the right to interpret how to present those figures. The Pope, for example, didn’t approve of Michelangelo’s decision to include nude figures, but he painted them the way he wanted to paint them. In contrast, as noted in AdWeek, the design of  Fearless Girl was predominantly market-driven.

We were so meticulous with Kristen about designing the girl’s look. It was super important to us, and to everyone at McCann, that she feel relatable to all kinds of girls and all kinds of women…. Every tiny detail of that pose, and particularly the face, and her tilt and angle, was so carefully designed to articulate a really specific message.

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with that. Commercial art IS art, and commercial artists have to be exceedingly talented to turn a marketer’s concept into a piece that works as art while still selling a product. That’s not easy. But it’s important to distinguish between a commissioned work of art in which the artists has the agency to interpret the design and a commissioned work in which the design is largely presented to the artist.

Nobody reads the plaque / nobody knows Fearless Girl is/was a marketing tool

The plaque has actually been removed. In fact, it was removed before I wrote my blog article. A new plaque which doesn’t mention SHE is in its place. Here’s the new plaque:

Fearless Girl was placed in New York City’s Financial District, in honor of International Women’s Day 2017, to celebrate the importance of having greater gender diversity in corporate boards and in company leadership positions. She also stands as an inspiration for the next generation of women leaders”—presented by the New York City Department of Transportation Art Program and State Street Global Advisors

It doesn’t mention SHE, but it acknowledges State Street Global Advisors. More, it suggests Fearless Girl was created to honor International Women’s Day. Again, the decision to install the statue on that date appears to be as much of a marketing strategy as anything else.

“[T]here was a lot of discussion with State Street about the timing of this, because it was so important and meaningful. Launching it on the cusp of International Women’s Day really provided so much fodder for people to emotionally react to her.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this — aside from the misleading impression that the primary purpose of the statue is to honor International Women’s Day. I do believe the marketing team is sincere about honoring that day; but they’re professionals and they knew the statue would have more impact because of the date it was released. It was a clever, deliberate, calculated decision AND it also promoted a feminist perspective.

It’s also true the great mass of people are unaware that Fearless Girl was a marketing device — but the great mass of people weren’t the target audience. They were targeting the folks who make investment decisions. And hey, it worked. According to Fortune, SHE ‘has received $3.2 million in new inflows since March alone, half of its total inflows in 2017 so far.’

Fearless Girl is a very effective tool for increasing inflows — which I assume means money (I have to acknowledge that I’m a dolt about matters of finance; Fortune also pointed out that SHE is listed on the NYSE ARCA exchange, not the Nasdaq, as I claimed — and while I’m sure the distinction is important, I haven’t a clue what it means).

Let me repeat this one more time: there’s nothing wrong with running a successful marketing campaign. The problem I have is with the repeated suggestion that Fearless Girl was first and foremost a work of art rather than a very clever and rewarding advertisement for financial services.

~

I still love Fearless Girl. And I’m still bothered by her backstory. I still think Arturo Di Modica has a point — that the installation of Fearless Girl has both appropriated his work by making it an essential aspect of the new statue, and it’s altered the original perception of his work. And I still don’t know what should be done about it.

But I know this: people are talking about art. We’re out of the boat. And this is exactly what I got out of the goddamned eighth grade for.

seriously, the guy has a point

I got metaphorically spanked a couple of days ago. Folks have been talking about the Fearless Girl statue ever since it was dropped in Manhattan’s Financial District some five weeks ago. I have occasionally added a comment or two to some of the online discussions about the statue.

Recently most of the Fearless Girl discussions have focused on the complaints by Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor who created Charging Bull. He wants Fearless Girl removed, and that boy is taking a metric ton of shit for saying that. Here’s what I said that got me spanked:

The guy has a point.

This happened in maybe three different discussions over the last week or so. In each case I explained briefly why I believe Di Modica has a point (and I’ll explain it again in a bit), and for the most part folks either accepted my comments or ignored them. Which is pretty common for online discussions. But in one discussion my comment sparked this:

Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.

Which — and this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m okay with saying the obvious — is a perfectly valid response. It’s also one I agree with. As far as that goes, it’s one NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio agrees with, since he said it first (although, to be fair, probably one of his public relations people first said it first).

But here’s the thing: you can completely agree with the woman who responded to my comment AND you can still acknowledge that Arturo Di Modica has a point. Those aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory points of view.

Let me apologize here, because I have to do some history — and for reasons I’ve never understood, some folks actively dislike history. It’s necessary though. So here we go. Back in 1987 there was a global stock market crash. Doesn’t matter why (at least not for this discussion), but stock markets everywhere — everywhere — tanked. Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., responded by creating Charging Bull — a bronze sculpture of a…well, a charging bull. It took him two years to make it. The thing weighs more than 7000 pounds, and cost Di Modica some US$350,000 of his own money. He said he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people”. He had it trucked into the Financial District and set it up, completely without permission. It’s maybe the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.

People loved it. The assholes who ran the New York Stock Exchange, for some reason, didn’t. They called the police, and pretty soon the statue was removed and impounded. A fuss was raised, the city agreed to temporarily install it, and the public was pleased. It’s been almost thirty years, and Charging Bull is still owned by Di Modica, still on temporary loan to the city, still one of the most recognizable symbols of New York City.

Arturo Di Modica (the one in the beret)

And that brings us to March 7th of this year, the day before International Women’s Day. Fearless Girl appeared, standing in front of Charging Bull. On the surface, it appears to be another work of guerrilla art — but it’s not. Unlike Di Modica’s work, Fearless Girl was commissioned. Commissioned not by an individual, but by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. That’s serious money. It was commissioned as part of an advertising campaign developed by McCann, a global advertising corporation. And it was commissioned to be presented on the first anniversary of State Street Global’s “Gender Diversity Index” fund, which has the following NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE. And finally, along with Fearless Girl is a bronze plaque that reads:

Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.

Note it’s not She makes a difference, it’s SHE makes a difference. It’s not referring to the girl; it’s referring to the NASDAQ symbol. It’s not a work of guerrilla art; it’s an extremely clever advertising scheme. This is what makes it clever: Fearless Girl derives its power almost entirely from Di Modica’s statue. The sculptor, Kristen Visbal, sort of acknowledges this. She’s said this about her statue:

“She’s not angry at the bull — she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of, and she’s wanting the bull to take note.”

It’s all about the bull. If it were placed anywhere else, Fearless Girl would still be a very fine statue — but without facing Charging Bull the Fearless Girl has nothing to be fearless to. Or about. Whatever. Fearless Girl, without Di Modica’s bull, without the context provided by the bull, becomes Really Confident Girl.

Fearless Girl also changes the meaning of Charging Bull. Instead of being a symbol of “the strength and power of the American people” as Di Modica intended, it’s now seen as an aggressive threat to women and girls — a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

In effect, Fearless Girl has appropriated the strength and power of Charging Bull. Of course Di Modica is outraged by that. A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art. That would piss off any artist.

See? It’s not as simple as it seems on the surface. It’s especially complicated for somebody (like me, for example) who appreciates the notion of appropriation in art. I’ve engaged in a wee bit of appropriation my ownself. Appropriation art is, almost by definition, subversive — and subversion is (also almost by definition) usually the province of marginalized populations attempting to undermine the social order maintained by tradition and the establishments of power. In the case of Fearless Girl, however, the subversion is being done by global corporatists as part of a marketing campaign. That makes it hard to cheer them on. There’s some serious irony here.

And yet, there she is, the Fearless Girl. I love the little statue of the girl in the Peter Pan pose. And I resent that she’s a marketing tool. I love that she actually IS inspiring to young women and girls. And I resent that she’s a fraud. I love that she exists. And I resent the reasons she was created.

I love the Fearless Girl and I resent her. She’s an example of how commercialization can take something important and meaningful — something about which everybody should agree — and shit all over it by turning it into a commodity. Fearless Girl is beautiful, but she is selling SHE; that’s why she’s there.

Should Fearless Girl be removed as Di Modica wants? I don’t know. It would be sad if she was. Should Di Modica simply take his Charging Bull and go home? I mean, it’s his statue. He can do what he wants with it. I couldn’t blame him if he did that, since the Fearless Girl has basically hijacked the meaning of his work. But that would be a shame. I’m not a fan of capitalism, but that’s a damned fine work of art.

I don’t know what should be done here. But I know this: Arturo Di Modica has a point. And I know a lot of folks aren’t willing to acknowledge that.