A crowd gathers to take pictures of the Fearless Girl statue across from Charging Bull in Manhattan's Financial District
Is this selfie spot art, advertisement, or some fraught combination of the two? Craig Ruttle/AP

Experts in both fields weigh in on how the Fearless Girl statue illustrates—and collapses—the distinctions.

The Fearless Girl and Charging Bull statues have been facing off in Manhattan’s financial district since March 8. The optics are still startling: a girl, fists on her hips, ponytail swaying, stares down a 7,100-pound bull, which stands 11 feet tall and 16 feet long in the heart of one of the world’s most powerful economic centers.

While many hailed Fearless Girl’s message of girl power, the backlash also started at once, and much of it centered on the statue’s uneasy relationship with advertising. Naysayers argued that the installation—produced by the ad agency McCann New York and artist Kristen Visbal for the asset management company State Street Global Advisors—was simply big business deflecting attention from its misdeeds with feel-good corporate feminism. (At first, the sculpture’s base included a plaque promoting SSGA’s Gender Diversity Index Fund; it’s since been removed.) Fearless Girl’s defenders remain legion, arguing that the statue’s potential to empower young girls matters more than its corporate origins. But all of these debates highlight a tension between the worlds of public art and advertising, and the thin line between the two.

Fearless Girl properly is properly described as experiential advertising, a nontraditional way brands reach audiences in public spaces. “It really engages consumers and encourages them to participate in the real world, the physical world,” says Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer and partner at San Francisco’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the agency behind the “Got Milk?” campaign. “More often than not, it’s something that has never been done before.” But the emotional connection Fearless Girl inspires and the dialogue it creates with Charging Bull are more reminiscent of public art.

The term might bring to mind war memorials and abstract statues, but professionals see public art as a field of inquiry. It asks questions about where we live by creating interactions with space and helps us understand locales and history. For public art, a city block is raw material for an artwork just as much as steel, spray paint, or stone.

“People bring their own experience to the artwork,” says Penny Bach, executive director and chief curator at the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia. “We like to say that public art is art for everyone, any time. So to the extent that you don't need to buy a ticket, you don't need to get dressed up, you don't need to fit in, the artwork really is there for exploration.”

“[Fearless Girl] is a great example of public art as a chemistry experiment,” says Jack Becker. He’s the founder of the Minneapolis nonprofit Forecast Public Art and director of its community services program. “What will the reaction be, the chain reaction, if I put this in front of this at this point in time? Fearless Girl is a publicity stunt. It's also a kind of public art. It's also a kind of advertising art. And it's also something that taps into a social consciousness around women and women standing up to the male-dominated corporate bull.”

Whether as process or product, public art and advertising don’t overlap completely, or totally comfortably. Advertising often aims for clarity, convincing or entertaining the audience in order to create a specific external action, whether it’s buying Doritos or shifting your loyalty toward Airbnb. (“Our job as advertisers is to entertain and to get our audience to play with us and interact with us,” Johnson says.) Public art hopes to inform its audience about an environment, to reveal context for spaces and spur internal discovery. It wants to help viewers feel smart or contemplative or proud of where they live. Professionals from both disciplines told CityLab that their own specialty, as opposed to the other, was about creating a shared experience, about participating in the physical world and pondering an idea. Both highlighted their field’s “authentic voice” and agreed that artists and agency clients alike relinquish control of a message once the public engages with a work.

Like Fearless Girl, many public art installations, including The Gates, installed in Central Park by the artists Christo and Jean-Claude, have an expiration date. (Kathy Willens/AP)

While experiential advertising shares space with public art, the two have very different relationships with time. Not all public art is permanent or permanently accessible—consider murals obstructed by new buildings, or the temporary installations of Christo and Jean-Claude, such as the Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin or the Gates in New York. But advertising concerns itself less with longevity than culture’s bleeding edge. Last summer, McCann London created a billboard for X-Box in which contestants survived the real conditions of a video game. Even Fearless Girl is largely about capturing a contemporary zeitgeist. It all happened quickly: the statue was conceived and created in six weeks, and though she was originally meant to remain on-site for a week, the city has extended her lease through at least early 2018. “To have people fighting to keep the girl in the space longer than it was ever intended to be is pretty incredible,” Johnson says.

“Sculptures collect meaning because the circumstances around them change,” says Bach. “You see that in the South now, in terms of the [Confederate monuments] that are now being taken down.” She also points to originally reviled or controversial works that became beloved, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “When you think about images from the past where people are looking at them anew, it means that they care about the public environment and the messages that are being conveyed.”

The rules of advertising say you don't think much beyond the initial impression—maybe it spurs you to buy something, but you probably don’t mull it over. With public art, you have that initial impression, and then you keep coming back to it over and over and over again as you live your life.

Ultimately, public art can teach us something about what Fearless Girl actually accomplishes. Take the simplest application of that discipline and examine the statue’s placement. Positioning Fearless Girl opposite Charging Bull implies confidence and defiance, but situate her next to the bull and it becomes her ally, her colleague, or her tool. Her mastery over the bull becomes more explicit if she stands behind it, commanding its charge; these combinations also question whether Fearless Girl is part of Wall Street or taking it on herself. The clearest challenge of the financial establishment separates Fearless Girl from the bull entirely. Imagine the statue facing the New York Stock Exchange, or challenging investors by blocking its entrance. Fearless Girl’s sponsor, SSGA, seems unlikely to intend anything so subversive. Visbal, the artist, has only offered interpretations of the statue as female empowerment; McCann declined to comment for this story.

Even if she’s installed on the commons, Fearless Girl’s intended audience is not women in general, but corporate boards and C-Suite leadership. That the public latched onto her is an advantageous secondary feature. Still, as Bach puts it, “revealing the stories behind the sculpture has a public benefit.” While it’s not Fearless Girl’s job to comment on Wall Street or capitalism, she certainly has, despite her creators’ stated intentions. As for how she affects her audiences, as in public art, time will ultimately tell.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect that McCann London, not GS&P, created the X-Box billboard.

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