Barry Day notes in the introduction to his edited version of The Letters of Noël Coward (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, Hardback edition) that the legendary playwright:
. . . would not have been well pleased to become a gay icon at the expense of his work or to observe, for instance, a generation of young gay directors giving us Coward plays ”as darling Noël would have produced them”
Day offers an opinion which stresses that despite homosexuality being an important, private, aspect of Coward’s life, one should not be tempted to imprint the ‘what-if’ scenario: the change in nature of Coward’s output if homosexuality were not as taboo and his works were thought of today by a modern apparition of The Master. Changing Coward’s plays and their plots according to a new, liberal milieu—for that surely would have been what he would have meant, and would have written— is a reverse anachronism and a fallacy, because on the balance of probabilities such a change is fundamentally a different work by a different author. Interpretations come and go, but there is always the original meaning; the possibility that there is something more discerning to be had than the reader’s interpretation at a given point in time.
At any rate, if one is tempted to offer a specific interpretation to a work based on a particular social and historical context—and one is confident that this interpretation is correct—then rework it to fashion something inspired, rather than to change the original yet keep the name (a prime example would be the traditional comparison of Romeo and Juliet vs Westside Story; it would be absurd to claim that Shakespeare would have written about Puerto Rican immigrants should he be alive today).
Note I do not mention whether a reader might be ‘right or wrong’, I merely state that there is the possibility of ‘lost detail’ when reading—the idea that the reader may have missed something no matter how small the nuance, a nuance which lends itself to the whole in an important, yet non-obvious way. A nuance which may then be destroyed should a rework of the original take place by modern impressions. Reinterpretations can then be embroiled in other rows in other rooms, such as the refusal of the estate of Edward Albee for an actor of colour to play the rôle of Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf . The rights to the play were denied for a version by director Michael Streeter to go ahead. This was based on a premise given by the estate’s spokesman that:
“…it is important to note that Mr. Albee wrote Nick as a caucasian character, whose blonde hair and blue eyes are remarked on frequently in the play, even alluding to Nick’s likeness as that of an Aryan of Nazi racial ideology”
The porte-parole’s statement gives rise to a question: would Albee have written the same story, with the addition of a character of colour, should he have written the play today?. The perception of the saliency that he might derives from the fact that since people of colour are no longer as disenfranchised as when the play was originally written during the Civil Rights movement in 1967 then it is conceivable that he would have written about a black character should the conception for the play have occurred today. Albee may have written a different play if he had written it today, but it wouldn’t then have been Who’s Afraid, but something else. The glimpse into history through culture is also lost by the suggestion of altering an author’s previous work.
If Mr Jaggers’ character were altered in Dickens’ Great Expectations, this might remove the historical possibility that Dickens actually met someone who habitually bit the side of their forefinger; this would then remove part of a creative record of human behaviour.
A sculptural equivalent arose in March of this year in New York. Since 1989, Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull has stood in the Financial District of Manhattan; whether in deference to the nearby bullish work on Wall Street, or in mockery of testosterone-fulled aggressive trading I cannot tell. Regardless, this year saw Kristen Visbal’s work Fearless Girl placed en face to the bull. Presumably the context behind the piece being the desire that women should achieve equivalence with men—both in stature and in pay—when occupying similar high-powered jobs. I say presumably, not because I baulk at the idea, but because I cannot be fully sure what Visbal meant. As with any artist and with any interpretation I state this not as a fact but as an opinion with humility.
I have no problem with an artist re-working an original and making it their own i.e. this was inspired by that, however to directly utilise an original piece of work to complete the meaning of one’s own is a rather cheap shot. To explain the nuance, I consider that Fearless Girl would have been lent more parodical strength if it were placed elsewhere (yet still in a prominent location) with a replica of the bull but at a greatly reduced size—I suspect, however, that the current arrangement prevents litigation from intellectual property and copyright lawsuits.
In agreeing to the placement of this work in this way, it’s almost as if Visbal believes that this is what Di Modica would have meant should his work have been created in the throes of the contemporary feminist movement, when in actual fact I cannot think of any justifiable interpretation of Di Modica’s work which says anything about feminism, least of all anything negative about it which would require a robust artistic defense, in a challenging posture, in front of it.
Fellow artist Alex Gardega then took offense at the placement of Fearless Girl opposite the Bull and decided to place his own (colloquially named) ”Pissing Pug” next to Visbal’s work, with this arrangement creating the appearance of a dog urinating on the Girl’s leg.
Whereas Fearless Girl spoke of ‘yes I can’, Gardega hit back with what was interpreted as a ‘no, you can’t’. But in principle, Gardega did nothing different from Visbal when her statue was placed opposite Di Modica’s work in the first place: in effect it was the arrangement of Pug that caused the offense, relying on Fearless Girl to complete the message. On its own, Pissing Pug wouldn’t have been so offensive. Arguably crass, yes.
Messages such as these aren’t new, with viral images of people placing inane objects in conceptual art galleries only to have other people stand and take pictures—thinking that said object is part of the exhibit—but this doesn’t seem too clever anymore. In short, the Fearless Girl and Charging Bull faux-controversy says very little about art and more about the egos that create it.
Cover photograph: MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS