True connoisseurs of New York City graffiti, guerrilla art, unsanctioned theater, and all the other forms of illegal public art often neglect what is certainly the most long-lived and even perversely iconic work in this genre: the Bull of Wall St., situated in Bowling Green Park near the stock exchange. This statue is called Charging Bull and it is by Arturo di Modica. Di Modica spent 360,000$ of his own money to forge and illegally deposit the monumental sculpture under a Christmas tree in front of the stock exchange, on the night of December 15th, 1989.
The city initially planned to remove the monstrosity, but public outcry protected it for posterity. That same year on March 15th, 1989, the same public outcry tore down Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc from its place by Foley Federal Plaza, dismembering the post-minimalist artwork. A number of people had complained about the way Serra’s artwork acted as an obstacle to passage, sight and convenience, unconvinced by the art historical argument that it was doing this on purpose. Locals discussed the very existence of Tilted Arc as “insane,” prompting a psychiatrist to testify in its’ favor. Tilted Arc fell, but Charging Bull remained. We can thus readily rule out the consistent love of the New York people for public art as the cause of the survival of Charging Bull.
Cynics might naturally assumed that the Charging Bull was a provocation: a literal Golden Calf to taunt Wall St. with its pursuit of false idols in the middle of holiday season. Not so! Di Modica claims he created it to assert the “strength and power of the American people,” and deposited it as a Christmas gift to New York City, handing out fliers to the public the next day.
After gifting it to the people of NYC, Di Modica retained the rights to the sculpture, and has previously tried to sell them, on the condition that the bull remain in its’ current location. He has also sold what wikipedia describes as a “younger” and “stronger” version of Charging Bull to Shanghai.
While Di Modica is evidently a Michelangelo of horrible business art, the ideal artist that Jeff Koons has always aspired to become, always falling short, very little is known about the man behind Charging Bull. Except for a few interviews, there are no monographs of Di Modica, and while the statue’s webpage unironically calls it “the most famous work of sculpture anywhere” very little has been written to explain the sort of person who would do such a thing to a city.
What is known, is that Charging Bull is beloved. A 2002 Washington Post article writes “People on The Street [sic.] say you’ve got to rub the nose, horns and testicles of the bull for good luck”, and visiting the Bull today will readily reinforce the popularity of this view as those parts always gleam, having been polished by a steady stream of pilgrims.
The symbolism of Charging Bull would be less obscene, had either Di Modica or the City of New York, or Wall St. had the good sense to commission a bear to stand beside the bull. Then the implication would be different, it would be something like “ha ha, get it? Bear and Bull because of Bear and Bull markets? The sculptures are reifying concepts for a laugh!” rather than “Worship me, and I shall grant you wealth beyond measure!”, which is how I would approximate the current message of the sculpture.
Standing alone, without the bad-luck Bear, the Bull is idolatrous. People rub it because they hope to attract a bit of the wealth and fortune that the idol represents. It stands by Wall St. for the same reason. It is literally, not metaphorically, an idol of a bull promising wealth and fortune to supplicants, made out of expensive metals, and placed in the economic center of the city. It is not making a reference to the Golden Calf, it just is one!
The bull’s solitude turns the absent bear into a devil, lurking in poverty and darkness opposite the gilded bull. The sculpture, its guerrilla origins, its perverse message, and its absent, lurking twin are all deeply, unconsciously surrealist, in the vein of Salvador Dali’s notion of “paranoid-critical method”.
Dali developed the “paranoid-critical method” long before he was expelled from Surrealism as a traitor to their Revolutionary cause. Nevertheless, his complex ideological shift from a member of an unambiguously communist movement to a successful, self-described business artist is a helpful framework when discussing the aberrant art of Wall St.
Dali’s paranoid-critical method was his contribution to the Surrealist attempt to confront the object, and especially the art object, with the convoluted and irrational subjectivity of the artist or spectator. Dali described it as the “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena”, alluding to the near-universal experience of finding meaningful shapes in the grain of wood or in clouds. Dali represent such experiences as a model for the radical expansion of artistic vision to encompass irrational but true knowledge, shattering the conceptual consistency of the artwork, and opening it to new and surprising meanings.
If clouds or wood grain accidentally prompt the paranoid-critical method, Dali sought to prompt it purposefully. He was not alone in pursuing such experiments with unconscious meaning within Surrealism: for instance, Max Ernst’s practice of “frottage” relied on a very similar principle. Ernst would dip crumpled cloth in paint, and apply it to canvas, preserving the chaotic patterns that resulted and developing them into figurative images within the work. Within surrealism, such experiments were motivated by a desire to destabilize conventional frames of mind and experience. The surrealists didn’t just want to “Épater la bourgeoisie,”they wanted to to fundamentally alter normative perception, irrevocably changing society through their art.
However, if the surrealists around both Andre Breton and George Bataille largely agreed on the revolutionary nature of this project, and sometimes even on its affinity with the Soviet experiment, Dali’s expulsion from the movement and declared affinity for capitalism created an interesting dilemma. If surrealist works of art could still prompt the paranoid-critical expansion of irrational but true meaning, even when divorced from a revolutionary project, and explicitly married to a capitalist project, what did this really say about the unconscious? After all, the basis for the surrealist expectation of causing a revolution through art was their assumption that the unconscious was already on “their” side: on the side of the revolution, artistic, sexual or political.
Drift around Wall St. Treat it as a surrealist exhibit. It has numerous works that can pass muster as surrealist. By a bus station, there is a massive metallic and vaguely cubist guitar embedded in the pavement. Some giant Picasso dropped it, heedless of the human beings scurrying for public transit, a few feet over and it would have crushed them, pulverizing human bones under its’ cyclopean weight. What other meaning could it have? Could one really read it naively, as a celebration of music, or an out-of-place Picasso reference?
Across the street, there is an olive tree cast in opaque white plastic. It isn’t merely dead, it is the tree of death, a tree killed and transformed the medium that most signifies cold distance and inhuman materiality. The embodiment of the transformation of a vital beautiful thing into something dead and mass-produced. And yet, the over-long artist statement tries to convince you that the work represents vitality and a beautiful moment in time captured for your enjoyment. That this embodiment of death is supposed to be a celebration of life. Is anyone fooled? Does anyone overlook how sinister this work appears?
Search Wall St. and around Wall St. Metal containers crushed into meager, ruptured pancakes and strung together. Grotesque whitish mushrooms bursting from the middle of a square. Massive murals celebrating global mobility, set behind glass in a corporate lobby.
Wall St. is packed with art, all of it intended, by patron and artist alike as a positive symbol of something universal, a celebration of life, a captured moment in time, a testament to the generosity of the corporation and the virtuosity of the artist, and each and every one silently screams something disturbing.
The motifs of death, wealth and horror are too obvious to be ignored, much the way the iconic Raging Bull obviously reproduces the Old Testament idol without referencing it. That is what is so perverse about Wall St. art works: they don’t prompt the paranoid-critical intentionally, they embody the surreal, unconscionable, and transgressive meanings they contain accidentally, like clouds or Dali’s wood-grain.
If taken as unintentionally surrealist, the art of Wall St. testifies to a core of surrealism often neglected by its’ scholars: its’ affinity for the cultic, idolatrous and occult, its’ desire to harness art and the unconscious as species of magic, and the realization and perhaps even terrible success of their venture in the art of Wall St. and especially in Raging Bull.