Who Owns Meaning?

I shared an article recently on Facebook about how the artist who made the Wall Street Bull sculpture is upset about the sculpture of the little girl that has been placed in front of the bull. He claims it “fundamentally corrupts the integrity” of his art. “Fearless Girl” was added this year on International Women’s Day. To this woman and aspiring fearless girl, the image of a young girl, standing resolutely in the face of giant power, is inspiring and powerful.

The “Charging Bull” and “Fearless Girl” statues on Lower Broadway in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

I hope the irony is not lost on anyone that a man who placed his sculpture in the middle of the night, and without authorization or permission, is upset that other people have opinions about how things should be? And that the image of a big strong bull could somehow be threatened, let alone “fundamentally corrupted” by the presence of a girl?

Really. These illustrations of male fragility just write themselves.

What has been most interesting to me was that strangers jumped into the conversation about it to tell me (and others) how we are wrong in interpreting art. He told us how the artist’s feelings were hurt and how we should have empathy for him.

The idea that choosing a different interpretation of a public piece of art is somehow hurting the artist’s feelings is laughable. Are we really to believe that this artist needs the defense of others’ opinions? How fragile is he if he forces his art on the public but then gets offended when the world might see it differently?

If you’re my Facebook friend, I encourage you to check out the conversation about the article. It’s actually led to a good conversation (minus the guy yelling at the women who dare to interpret art). My friend Megera wisely observed:

It’s interesting to me to consider this as an immigration analogy also. The bull immigrated to that space illegally, but people liked it and so it was allowed to stay. The girl is a newer immigrant and the older immigrant doesn’t like her because she is changing the existing status quo. Just as the older immigrant did, but people are already accustomed to that change. There’s more going on here, of course, but isn’t that also a story of America?”

My friend Slats made this comment, echoed in many of the other comments:

“Owning the copyright to the art is not owning people’s interpretation of the art. I have always understood what the charging bull has meant, but that has never been how the piece has affected me, personally. I saw it plenty–lived in NYC for years, where I studied art. I always saw it as somewhat crude and aggressive. I of course come from a different context. I don’t like Wall Street and all it stands for. I think a laissez faire market is dangerous. So the charging bull has always meant something different to me because people always view art from their own context. I can appreciate the artist’s intention while still holding my own interpretation.

A work of art keeps living when it is engaged with not merely as a historical piece but as the context changes around it. It’s possible to hold the tension of “this meant one thing in the 1980s and can mean something different now”. And yes, I think all of us who call ourselves artists need to be able to handle and hold that tension, because art comes alive in the relationship between art and viewer, and we can’t micromanage that relationship.”

This is exactly what art is for–creating conversation about meaning, value, and experience.

Whether we are talking about a sculpture on Wall Street, the latest album by Beyonce, a painting hanging at the Louvre, a novel or poem we read, or, (dare I say) a sermon we hear preached, art is bigger than the artist. It is always, and forever will be, a vulnerable act to create art that is shared with others. (I wonder, actually, if it is “art” if it is never shared?)

Art comes from the mind, experience, and talent of the artist. It then interacts with the community in which it resides. The artist doesn’t get to control that interaction, or the alchemy that somehow makes the art bigger and more expansive than the artist could have intended.

I learned long ago that people will hear things in my sermons that I never said. I can’t tell them, “you didn’t hear that” because they did. Somehow. It doesn’t matter what I actually said because the words were filtered through their own lives, with their own experiences, needs, and hopes to give them the message they needed. I’ve learned that all I can say, with a fair amount of humility, is “thank you”.

It’s why I put all of my sermons on the blog, and not just the ones I thought were “good”. I’ve learned I’m not the best person to interpret my own “sermon art”. It’s better for me to put it out there and let people have their own experience, even if that means my sermons could face critique, dispute, or rejection. I have to be willing to be wrong. I have to be willing to be judged (and here I confess it is as difficult for me to have my sermons complimented as it is to have them critiqued).

Mongoose at Sunset, Number 5, by Alden Glass, aged 5 (from the private collection of Marci and Justin Glass, used with permission)

The art my children has made for me is some of my most valued treasure. Not because the subject matter of “mongoose at sunset, number 5” is dear to me (which is, I swear, the name Alden gave to one of his paintings when he was 5).

Displayed in our home, in frames, you will find my kids’ art. On shelves, next to carvings and paintings we’ve acquired over the years, you will find their pottery. It is treasured by me because it is all a vulnerable gift. It is born of their own talent and experience and vision, and offered to me in confidence it would be received as valued gift.

representative sample of art created by Alden and Elliott Glass, Eric Williams, Dori Marshall, and others.

I’m grateful for “Fearless Girl” and the conversation and controversy she brought with her. I’m even more grateful for the people that sculpture bring to my mind, people who have stood, with seeming fearlessness, in the face of impossible odds, overwhelming power and force.

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