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Let's Talk About Freedom Of Speech: Artist's Edition

By Victoria McNally | News Stories | April 12, 2017 |


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No doubt you’ve seen a lot of pictures over the past month of the “Fearless Girl,” a sculpture that was placed in front of the infamous “Charging Bull” for International Women’s Day in March. According to artist Kristen Visbal, the piece is meant to be a reminder of how few women serve on the boards of the largest corporations in the United States, which is why the girl has her sights set on one of the most iconic symbols of the American financial system.

Now, however, the Fearless Girl is facing down more than just a bull — she’s also being attacked by its creator. According to The Guardian, Italian-born artist Arturo Di Modica has alleged that the “Fearless Girl” Statue is infringing on his artistic copyright. He also called the statue an “advertising trick” and will be challenging city officials’ decision to extend its permit into February 2018.

First amendment discussions on the internet have made this phrase popular: freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. You are well within your rights to say whatever you like to anyone, but if others react negatively to your words, then in the eyes of the law they are not infringing on those rights — they are merely exercising theirs. (There is, of course, a nuanced argument to be made that not all forms of censorship require government intervention and that backlash can cause a chilling effect towards certain forms of protected speech, but generally that is not the argument most people on Twitter are making. Instead it’s usually, “How dare you publicly disagree with me!”)

I wish to propose a similar theorem: freedom of expression is not freedom from recontextualization. As an artist, you should be allowed to make whatever art you choose, but you should not be surprised if your work inspires others who then chose to engage with it in a radically different way than you intended.

It is entirely within Di Modica’s prerogative to be upset that another sculpture’s presence has altered the significance of the Charging Bull, which he intended to be a symbol of the ”strength and power of the American people’ in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash’ To claim that it infringes on his legal rights, however, is something else entirely. If someone is selling knock-offs of your work or featuring it in advertisements without your approval, that is a violation of copyright. If someone has placed art next to your work that challenges it in a meaningful way, that does not violate anything — except, perhaps, the delicate sensibilities of the offended artist.

Now, perhaps if the Fearless Girl had not been granted permission by New York City prior to being installed, or if it was intended to stay in its current position forever, then Di Modica would have a viable legal argument on his hands. But given that he installed his Bull outside Wall Street in the middle of the night without a permit and it’s only now a fixture in Bowling Green Park thanks to its popularity among tourists, that would be a bit hypocritical, don’t you agree?

In any event, I doubt Di Modica will get much sympathy from city officials.

(Featured Image via @AWilkisWilson on Instagram)


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