Is meaning simply in the eye of the beholder?

When I first saw a photo of the Fearless Girl defying the rampaging bull of Wall Street I loved it!

There she stands – feet apart, back arched, hands on hips – boldly staring down the ultimate symbol of out-of-control capitalism.

Viewed from behind it looks as if she’s stopped the bull in his tracks. He crouches tentatively, quizzically sizing up his opponent, unsure of whether he has the measure of this defiant girl.

How clever to subvert such a masculine symbol of greed and power with a figure of sheer feminine chutzpah.


At least that’s what I thought until I discovered who created each sculpture and what their motives were for doing so.

Charging Bull was created in 1987 by Italian-American sculptor Arturo Di Modica right after the Black Monday stock market crash. He claimed he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people” – like a kind of shot in the arm after the collapse of the financial market.

Interestingly, Di Modica wasn’t commissioned to design the bull and he spent $350,000 of his own money to create it. He trucked it into Manhattan himself and installed it – without permission – right in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It was guerrilla art in the true sense of the word, an unsolicited installation, making a point about the resilience of America.

Two years later, city hall decided to reinstall it in its present location, two blocks south of the Exchange, in Bowling Green, as a permanent artwork.

As far as Arturo Di Modica was concerned, his sculpture depicted the energy and the unpredictability of the stock market. It was designed to give strength to the struggling nation.

That was until International Women’s Day, March 7, 2017.

That’s when Fearless Girl turned up.

And the Charging Bull was emasculated overnight.

Instead of depicting a dangerous beast, the Di Modica’s sculpture suddenly looked subdued, tentative, uncertain.

But whereas Charging Bull was a labor of love, Fearless Girl was actually commissioned.

By an investment firm.

Yep, an investment management company named State Street Global Advisers paid sculpture Kristen Visbal to create the artwork as part of a marketing campaign for their gender-diverse index fund.

Naturally, Arturo Di Modica is furious.

To him, Fearless Girl is just an elaborate advertising campaign, while Charging Bull was his gift to his adopted country.

And this isn’t the first time his sculpture has been appropriated by others. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street launched this Adbusters campaign. By portraying a dancer performing an arabesque on the back of the bull they clearly presented Di Modica’s sculpture as the symbol of American corporate greed.

So, does it matter what an artist or author or composer intended when they created their work? Or is its meaning entirely in the eye of the beholder?

Do we care what Di Modica intended Charging Bull to depict? Since Occupy Wall Street and Fearless Girl it now depicts rampant capitalist greed and unchecked masculine power, something Di Modica never intended in the first place.

Does that matter?

Currently, New Yorkers are debating whether Fearless Girl should be allowed to remain on the square with Charging Bull. And until recently I would have been firmly in the ‘stay’ camp. But knowing that the defiant little girl was commissioned by stock brokers takes some of the fight out of me. I guess it does matter to me what an artwork’s provenance is, and what the artist intended when designing it.

The artist should be the one who determines the meaning of their own work. That’s not to say that those who view it can’t or won’t bring their own interpretation to it, but the greatest art in the world has very specific meaning and context. All it takes is a little research for you to figure it out.

To suggest that art has no meaning at all, other than the meaning imbued by its viewers, well, that’s rarely the case.


But I’m not an art critic. Theology is my stock-in-trade. And this whole incident raises interesting thoughts for me about the way we read the Bible. If we were to think of the Bible as an artwork, we could rightly ask the same questions we have about sculpture.

Do the authors’ intentions matter? Is it important to whom the original words were written and the situation they address? Or is all meaning in the eye of the beholder? If so, we can just flop the Bible open at any page and ask, “Now, what do I get out of this passage?” And any answer would be the correct one.

But would it?

I’ve even heard some preachers do this. Every Bible passage is about them. Or us. But mainly them. Context, original meaning, authorial intent – who cares! I’m not suggesting the ancient documents of Scripture shouldn’t be given fresh meaning in light of our current situation, but can we completely subvert the author’s original intent?

When we do that we run the very real risk of turning the wild and dangerous word of God into a tentative and uncertain bull being faced down by a small child.




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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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5 thoughts on “Is meaning simply in the eye of the beholder?

  1. The girl being added to another persons art is not fair or right.
    Put her in another spot. SHe ruins the original intent of the Bull’s artist

  2. Is the meaning assigned to the artwork controlled by those who appropriate it. We can chose to live in our bias-affirming echo chambers, or we can try to engage in meaningful conversation. Meaningful communication requires us to try to understand authorial intent.

  3. Yes, I care what the artist intended. And it shouldnt be able to be “added to” by another artist without collaboration or permission. Leave the bull to stand alone, as it was intended.

  4. it matters what the artist originally intended, especially if you are going to study art. But it’s also fair to note that art does sometimes “take on a life of its own,” especially public art. It is interesting to find out what the intention of the makers of the girl sculpture is. But I’m not sure it’s going to make people run out and buy stuff from that investment firm. It will be interesting to keep track of the debate.

    1. It’s interesting to me to find out about the intent and timing of the bull sculpture as well. How it gets portrayed and how this whole event played out in the public eye is very challenging to me. I admit that I got a little captured by the depiction of the girl standing up to the bull. As a resident of Vermont, the home of Bernie Sanders, it tugs at the imagination a little bit.

      But, until now, it seems none of it is being publicly depicted as actually took place.

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