Art History
Julia Poppy

Creative Practice and Financial Crises in Contemporary America

Charging Bull and Occupy Wall Street

  • Faculty Advisor

    Rebecca Zorach

Published On

July 2018

Originally Published

NURJ 2017-18
Honors Thesis


Despite its continued cultural resonance, and its anomalous story in the history of public art, Charging Bull (1989) has escaped in-depth art historical scholarship. In this thesis, I examine the history of Charging Bull, from its origins in the 1980s through its interactions with Occupy Wall Street’s activist and visual culture in 2011. I ultimately consider how this sculpture became embedded in discussions about the relationship between art, politics and capitalism. This research relies on various transcriptions of history, most prominently in the form of historical accounts and newspapers. Furthermore, I have relied on the broader critical tradition of analyzing artworks and images within their specific economic and political frames. By examining the history of this sculpture, I argue that Charging Bull offers a staging ground for defining American capitalism through creative practice, and for asserting the role of art in such an economic system.

Taking the Bull by the Horns: Occupying the Site and Image of Charging Bull

There is a strong similarity between Wall Street in the 1980s and the early 2000s. While the Internet had shifted the financial landscape in the 2000s, and new companies had come to the fore, the dominant culture of Wall Street still encouraged risky pursuit of short-term profit. A highly speculative exchange of commodities reinforced and expanded the global casino economy. An inanimate witness to this development, Charging Bull (Figure 1) served as a potent symbol of unrestrained capitalism — an image reminiscent of the wild ‘80s on Wall Street, and resonant with the unrestrained system in the early 2000s. While these historical moments displayed similarities, the respective financial crises of the late 1980s and 2008 led to varied creative responses within New York City’s financial district. When Wall Street’s practices led to another financial crisis in 2008, there was no Yuletide gift, as there had been in 1989. Rather, the district was greeted by a type of performance artwork: thousands of protesters camped in Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011. This anti-capitalist movement was dubbed Occupy Wall Street (OWS). During OWS, “Charging Bull,” both the physical sculpture and its image, became a site of ideological action, articulation and conflict. While OWS artists appropriated the image of a bull image for anti-capitalist aims, the sculpture’s physical location served to materialize the protection of Wall Street by the federal government.

Photo by Sebastian Alvarez,

Arturo Di Modica, Charging Bull, 1989. Bronze, 11 feet 2 inches tall and 16 feet 1 inch long. Bowling Green Park, New York, New York.

The 2008 financial crisis had its roots in the 1980s. The process of deregulation begun by the Reagan administration, and continued by subsequent administrations, spurred highly risky practices, the creation of banks deemed “too big to fail,” an assortment of crimes ranging from bribery to money-laundering, and the use of corporate credit cards to pay for prostitutes. [1] The risky money-making practices of the 2000s was the securitization chain, in which predatory lenders signed people to subprime mortgages and loans, which were then sold to investment banks, whose “financial engineers” would combine mortgages with other loans and credit card debt to make collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Rating agencies would then give these CDOs artificially high ratings as a signal that they were as safe to buy as US Securities, allowing investment banks to sell these CDOS to investors. [2] This securities chain was full of exploitative and fraudulent practices. People with checkered credit histories received these subprime mortgages. They often did not have a sufficient income or assets to receive any loan, according to standard operating procedures. Neither lenders nor bankers took up this risk personally, so bankers gave out as many subprime mortgages as possible. The more they sold, the more they made. [3] Rating agencies were also “far too generous in their assessments” of these CDOs, a result of the fact that banks paid ratings agencies for these assessments. Ratings agencies also had to compete for the banks’ business. [4] Thus, a AAA rating often belied the actual contents of a CDO. The practice of using subprime mortgages infiltrated many levels of investment. The proliferation of subprime loans also fostered a real estate boom. As one journalist put it, this “[c]reative finance lubricated the developing boom, making it easy for buyers to take on more mortgage debt than they could otherwise handle, driving prices skyward.” [5] As a result of this perceived boom, the period of 2002-2007 earned a spot in the top six “bull markets” in the S&P 500’s history. [6]

1. Mary Williams Walsh, “J.P. Morgan Settles Alabama Bribery Case,” New York Times, November 4, 2009,; Matt Taibbi, “Gangster Bankers: Too Big to Fail,” Rolling Stone, February 14, 2013,; Courtney Comstock, “Some of New York’s Wealthiest Might Get Charged in The Wall Street Prostitution Ring,” Business Insider, July 21, 2011,; Inside Job, directed by Charles Ferguson (Representational Pictures, 2010.), Video.

2. Inside Job, Video, (Representational Pictures, 2010); “The origins of the financial crisis: Crash course,” The Economist, September 7, 2013,

3. Ibid.

4. “The origins of the financial crisis: Crash course,” The Economist.

5. Peter Goodman, “This is the Sound of a Bubble Bursting,” New York Times, December 23, 2007,

6. Lu Wang, “The U.S. Is in the midst of a Historic Bull Market,” Bloomberg, April 27, 2016,

This risky profit-driven system led to a financial disaster. Around 2008, the securitization chain imploded, leaving a global financial crisis in its wake. [7] Once the housing market began to fall, defaults and foreclosures set off a chain reaction that tore through the financial system. This resulted in the collapse of many financial institutions, and a $700 billion government bailout. [8] Due to the financial crisis, millions of people lost their jobs, savings and homes. [9] Many people were drowning in debt, and unemployment rose to 10 percent by October 2009 –– double what it had been in December 2007. [10]

7. Inside Job.

8. “The origins of the financial crisis: Crash course,” The Economist; Mike Collins, “The Big Bank Bailout,” Forbes, July 14, 2015,

9. Inside Job.

10. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Spotlight on Statistics: The Recession of 2007-2009,” Last modified February 2012,

The ramifications of this crisis, and the systematic inequalities that it revealed penetrated the cultural consciousness. Executives kept the obscene bonuses that they made off exploitative practices, while the almost every other person seemed to lose something. [11] The distrust in the financial system also led to a distrust in the government, which neither appointed a special prosecutor, nor charged financial executives at the banks deemed “too big to fail” for criminal activities before 2011. [12] Out of this moment of disillusionment grew OWS. OWS took aim at the neoliberal system and capitalist-validated ethos of greed.

11. Inside Job. For instance, the top five executives at Lehman Brothers kept the many millions of dollars they had each made off of an exploitative system. Michael Corkery, “Executive Pay and the Financial Crisis: A Refresher Course,” Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2009,

12. Inside Job; Chris Isidore, “35 bankers were sent to prison for financial crisis crimes,” CNN Money, April 28, 2016,; Jesse Eisinger, “Why Only One Top Banker Went to Jail for the Financial Crisis,” New York Times, April 30, 2014, A few smaller executives have been charged with crimes, however. A Credit Suisse executive was later charged.

One of OWS’s central tools of resistance was its artistic practice. Within the vibrant visual culture that OWS developed, “Charging Bull” served as a visual, physical and symbolic locus of action. OWS derived its name through a campaign from the Canadian counterculture magazine Adbusters.[13] This original “Occupy Wall Street” campaign peaked when designers at Adbusters released the now iconic image of “Charging Bull,” accompanied by a ballerina inside their 97th issue, which hit newsstands in July 2011, and online as a meme. [14] Within the rectangular frame of the meme, a foggy haze obscures the location. From this background emerges nondescript images of individuals wearing gas masks and brandishing unclear tools. Caught in the throes of movement, these figures lack identity, name, gender and race. Within the gray haze, two figures stand resolute: a ballerina, mid-arabesque atop a charging bull. The absurdity expressed in their placement within the dystopian setting disrupts the “Charging Bull’s” typical environment. “WHAT IS OUR ONE DEMAND?” is printed in red on the top of the poster. Below the bronze bull, white letters spell out: “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET/ SEPTEMBER 17TH./ BRING TENT.” [15] In addition to the textual articulation of its aim, the meme visually expresses an abstract, militant energy and, quite literally, directs it at Wall Street as embodied by the charging bull.

13. Kalle Lasn, email message, March 13, 2017.

14. Lasn, email message, March 13, 2017.

15. This question was later posed by pundits and members of the public to the OWS. OWS and this interest in a single demand was even fictionalized in an episode (Season 2, Episode 1) of the television show The Newsroom that premiered in 2013.

In its disruption of the Bull’s iconic paradigm, the meme crystallizes a moment of anti-capitalist sentiment. The Adbusters designers did not alter the bull’s appearance. Rather, they stitched together a realistic, yet absurd photomontage, and used the bull as a signifier. The placement of the comparably calm and lithe ballerina on the bulky bull redefines and “absurdifies” the sculpture and what it represents. In addition, the associations of a ballerina — artistry, deceptive strength, and the deployment of the body as a medium for conceptual movement — the dancer atop the bull suggests a lively, artistic occupation of Wall Street. This symbolic occupation stands before the promise of a physical occupation. In the flyer’s background, the crowd looms as a physical occupation of Wall Street. In this new world that the meme knits, the bull tells the viewer that the occupation will take place on Wall Street, both the site, and the idea. In its photorealism, the meme utilizes both the symbolic and physical connotations of “Charging Bull.”

This meme also had practical implications. It gave individuals in New York City a name with which to identify themselves to others, and a place to meet. In contemporary life, Wall Street extends beyond the actual street. The phrase refers to an amorphous network of financial institutions. Thus, “Charging Bull”offered a location to meet that resonated with the broader financial system. A month after the meme’s release, a general assembly gathered at “Charging Bull” to discuss how individuals might respond to Adbusters’call to action. A small group formed behind the bull, and began a conversation about how they could respond to the Adbusters meme. This dialogue “would evolve over the subsequent month into the full-fledged plan to set up camp a few blocks north of the bull at Zuccotti Park.” [16]

16. Yates McKee, Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (London and New York: Verso, 2016), 92.

When OWS officially began on September 17, 2011, thousands of protesters descended on “Charging Bull. After the group met at the sculpture, which was barricaded by police, activists decided to go to “site number two,” Zuccotti Park, from a predetermined list that a tactical scouting team had created earlier. [17] At Zuccotti Park, the group set up camp. Before their eviction from Zuccotti Park on November 15th, OWS implemented their utopian model of living within the symbolic heart of the global casino economy. As one protester said, “What’s new with this movement is that it’s not just protesting, but creating a small replica of what we want society to be.” [18] During OWS’s occupation, the movement used several tactics to make visible a culture standing against capitalism, and the inequality it breeds. First, general assemblies fostered a sense of community, and allowed individuals to share their stories. This horizontal system of governance gave rise to other occupations across the world within a month of OWS’s residency in Zuccotti Park. [19] Yates McKee has analyzed the movement as a performance artwork, outlining its socially engaged actions that both reflected and generated artistic impulses. [20] Second, occupation made this anti-capitalist protest visible by co-opting space, while generating some news coverage. Third, pithy slogans captured the anti-capitalist ethos of the group. For example, the notion of the “99 percent” and the “1 percent” was arguably one of OWS’s greatest successes. This language successfully penetrated the American vernacular as a way to talk about income inequality. Finally, artwork both propelled the movement –– the Adbusters cover –– and grew from the movement.

17. McKee, Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy, 99.

18. Leslie Scrivener, “The Origins of an Occupation,” Toronto Star, November 5, 2011, accessed September 25, 2016, EBSCOhost.

19. It spread to many places within the United States and then globally. Sources for such occupations are plentiful, but for an overview and images see Alan Taylor, “Occupy Wall Street Spreads World Wide,” The Atlantic, October 17, 2011,

20. McKee, 100.

Within the sea of images OWS produced, including hand-crafted signs and memes, several artists appropriated the emblem of the dominant capitalist system. OWS “took the bull by the horns,” so to speak, by dismantling the monument to capitalism that had been part of the movement since the beginning: “Charging Bull.” Revolutions often destroy the monuments of the system they overthrow, an act rich in both symbolism and catharsis. Iconoclasm has a long history, but there are various examples in recent record: the spectacle and controversy over the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad in 2003 demonstrates a political strategy behind these actions. [21] Whether or not this action was staged by the United States government, it was nonetheless exploited toward public relations and propagandistic aims, revealing how symbolically resonant such iconoclastic moments can be. [22] OWS was not given the chance to physically destroy “Charging Bull” during its residence in Zuccotti Park. It turned instead to the virtual realm in order to enact symbolic intervention. In fact, during OWS’s residence, the dominant capitalist system created its own occupation at the site of “Charging Bull.

21. Peter Mass, “The Toppling,” The New Yorker, January 10, 2011,; Max Fisher, “The Truth About Iconic 2003 Saddam Statue-Toppling,” The Atlantic, January 3, 2011,

22. Mass, “The Toppling,”; Fisher, “The Truth About Iconic 2003 Saddam Statue-Toppling,” The Atlantic,

In 2011, three occupations converged. After OWS descended on the Financial District, police placed barricades around “Charging Bull.” During the first couple of months after September 17, protective gates surrounded the sculpture, and visitors could not access it, “except on a few occasions.” [23] Police officers and an “ever-present police car” accompanied these barricades. [24] This constant protection likely cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and remained for two and a half years, until it was removed on March 25, 2014. [25] Thus, the occupation of “Charging Bull,” was protected by the occupation of police officers and barricades from OWS. Governments often invest in protecting art. Paintings like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) or Michelangelo’s Pietà (1499) are protected behind bullet proof glass, and are guarded at public expense. These are masterpieces of the Western canon, and sources of pride for their respective countries. Considering these examples, “Charging Bull,” an unsolicited gift by a relatively unknown artist, being protected by the state is both shocking, and a testament to the value of this specific piece for New York City’s culture.

23. Clyde Haberman, “The Bull Tied to Occupy Wall Street,” New York Times, September 17, 2012,

24. Haberman, “The Bull Tied to Occupy Wall Street,” New York Times.

25. Ibid.

The unusual police protection of “Charging Bull” negotiated the economic and cultural value of the sculpture through exchange. To mine such negotiations, I rely on three assumptions from Arjun Appadurai’s notion of exchange: (1) within an exchange, something is sacrificed to gain something else of perceived more importance, (2) exchanges create value, and (3) exchanges do cultural work. [26] Before engaging with the economic and cultural implications of the police occupation, this protection of “Charging Bull” gains significance in light of what was not protected. “Charging Bull’s” protection was highly particular: barricades did not appear outside the neighboring Bowling Green, the fragile windows near the bull, or around other artworks in the Financial District. [27] When the city feared property damage and riot by OWS, the dominant state powers sacrificed the safety of other objects, and the fulfillment of other police duties, in order to protect Charging Bull from harm, thereby satisfying the first characteristic of exchange.

26. Arjun Appadurai, introduction to The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 4-5.

27. I also have not found a precedent for the police barricading sculptures in recent New York City history. The NYPD did barricade Mark di Suvevo’s Joie de Vivre in Zuccotti Park after a man climbed the sculpture and then was brought down by the police on October 22, 2011. “Occupy Wall Street Asks Artist Mark di Suvero For Support,” The Huffington Post, November 10, 2011,; Al Baker, “Man Climbs ‘Joie de Vivre’ Sculpture in Zuccotti Park,” New York Times, October 22, 2011, This police action is also very rich in art historical associations. The barricades used featured the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s signage, although the museum was unaware that barricades that used its name were being used for this purpose.

This police occupation also performed economic value and cultural work. From the perspective of economic value, taxpayers’ money was exchanged for the protection of “Charging Bull.” If exchange creates monetary value, the sculpture’s protection indirectly established the artwork’s value at hundreds of thousands of dollars –– the cost of maintaining the barricade. In terms of cultural work, to protect “Charging Bull, is to validate what it represents: unrestrained capitalism. The police protection performed the state’s interest as a symbol of private enterprise, and echoed the government’s support of Wall Street previously exhibited in the decision not to prosecute crimes committed during the 2008 Financial Crisis. The police physically guarded a tool of private enterprise, and symbolically protected private enterprise from a group of anti-capitalist protesters. Through its physical occupation of “Charging Bull,” New York City reiterated its dedication to capitalism, both its practice, and its value as artistic symbol. In a twist of historical irony, roughly two decades after confiscating the sculpture, the NYPD protected and affirmed the bull’s right to public space.

However, the symbolic weight of “Charging Bull”had already turned against itself, through the work of proto-OWS artists, and continued throughout the movement’s occupation. Josh MacPhee, an artist and activist, articulated his vision early in the movement, and relied on “Charging Bull”to do so. MacPhee founded the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative in 1998, a network of artists committed to social, environmental and political issues. [28] MacPhee has produced a series of political projects, ranging from posters to a project called the Interference Archive. [29] Mere weeks after OWS began, on October 1, 2011, MacPhee published several digital posters featuring the “Bull” on Justseeds’ website, in a post tilted “Designs for Occupation.” [30]

28. “About,” Justseeds, accessed November 16, 2016,

29. “Josh MacPhee,” Justseeds, accessed November 16, 2016,

30. Josh MacPhee, “Designs for Occupation,” Justseeds, October 1, 2011,

On the Justseeds website, MacPhee explains that these OWS artworks aim to “synthesize some of the ideas (and add some of my own) coming out of Occupy Wall Street here in New York City,” and “to create some better-designed messaging.” These works were not only exercises in artistic production, but also tools of communication. Considering the lack of a unified message from OWS, MacPhee articulates his own: “Many of the signs at the occupation, and the Occupy Wall Street statement, reference a ‘THEY’ as an amorphous bad guy? Capitalism is an economic system, one in which we all participate to varying degrees — and are all largely beholden to for survival — whether we are janitors, artists or CEOs. When we start anthropomorphizing this system as a set of people, things get really slippery, and politically questionable, really fast…I ain’t going there.” [31] His description reveals an interest in creating compelling signs or designs that do not target people, but rather the capitalist system. By removing people from his visual lexicon, MacPhee located OWS’s message through words and symbols. As shown in five of the seven posters, MacPhee chose “Charging Bull” as a visual signifier of the destructive capitalist system.

31. MacPhee, “Designs for Occupation,” Justseeds.

In comparison to the photorealism of the Adbusters meme, MacPhee’s appropriation of “Charging Bull” involves a potent unrealism. It features a bold, graphic and communicative artistic language. In MacPhee’s imagination, the sculpture becomes fragmented, vandalized and satirized. Recalling the rudimentary signs found in the OWS protest, the images put forth a militant-style reclamation of the sculpture. One image features a red patterned over an image of the Bull’s smiling face (Figure 2). Mimicking the vandalism in subways, yearbooks and billboards, MacPhee has sketchily drawn a crude bulls-eye, with an arrow hitting the bull’s forehead dead-center. Around the sculpture’s snout, MacPhee uses a similarly spontaneous style to draw a belt, muzzling the mouth. Written diagonally across the bull’s face reads, “MONEY TALKS…” and then placed under a diagonal line continues, “TOO MUCH.” At the bottom of the page, in the same handwritten style script reads a simple call to action: “OCCUPY!” The poster is at once playful and cogent. MacPhee’s images distort the image of “Charging Bull.” The sculpture no longer appears strong, but rather silly and absurd. Under the Sharpie-like re-appropriation of the sculpture, “Charging Bull” becomes the image of a corrupt capitalist system confronted by OWS’s pen.

Figure 2.

Other images of the Bull suggest a cheeky violence directed towards the sculpture’s infamous scrotum. In one image, MacPhee uses the same red pattern over a picture of “Charging Bull” from behind (Figure 3). The viewer gets a clear view of the sculpture’s hefty back legs, which stand apart to reveal the sculpture’s bulbous, gleaming scrotum. Across the picture, MacPhee superimposes a dotted line that begins with a partial image of a scissors, recalling instructions found on various items that instruct the viewer to “cut here.” MacPhee places this line right above the Bull’s scrotum, telling the viewer to cut it off. In its direct engagement with sex, the poster suggests a de-masculinization of the financial system. The poster also proposes violence to castrate the sculpture, which makes visual OWS’s militant opposition to the capitalist system. Because touching the Bull’s scrotum is the sculpture’s main attraction for viewers, cutting off the scrotum also de-commodifies and de-fetishizes the sculpture. In the top left corner reads “DIRECT DEMOCRACY/NOT DECEIT”; in the lower right corner reads a call to action: “#OCCUPYWALLST.” Again, the language affirms the image’s visual rhetoric: out with the old system.

Figure 3.

“Charging Bull’s” symbolic status made it an effective image of what OWS targeted: capitalism, corruption and greed. MacPhee continues the anti-capitalist appropriation of “Charging Bull” initiated by Adbuster’s seamless photomontage. He confronts the sculpture’s body to articulate a confrontation of the capitalist system. The “MONEY TALKS…TOO MUCH” image made by MacPhee was translated into a poster that people carried at an OWS march. [32] Thus, these images were an effective use of art for political means, because they were highly scalable, meaning they could be shared digitally, and used physically. Through digital and physical platforms, these artists launched a redetermination of the capitalist system. They did this through the appropriation of a symbol of capitalism, attempting to redefine the sculpture as an image of capitalist tyranny, rather than strength. Instead of using ropes, hands and sledgehammers as seen in the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue, these artists used visual and virtual guerrilla tactics to remove the sculpture from its symbolic pedestal. Nevertheless, the state apparatus maintained the ideological status quo by protecting the “Charging Bull.” Thus, both the image of “Charging Bull” and its site were occupied for divergent aims. These opposing motivations affirmed the role of “Charging Bull” as site of conversation about capitalism in America, and art’s ability to serve as a tool for argument about and within such a system.  

32. He is now selling 25 copies to pay off this debt for the 200 free prints. Josh MacPhee, “Money Talks to Much,” Justseeds, January 2012,


Julia Poppy studied Art History as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. Julia is interested in how artworks facilitate critical thought and cultural negotiations. As an undergraduate, Julia engaged with art in both the academic and museum setting, completing individual research projects and working as a docent at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum. In addition to her senior honors thesis, Julia completed summer research in Italy on Michelangelo's first Pietà, funded by a summer Undergraduate Research Grant. Since graduation, Julia has been finishing the curation of her upcoming exhibition on Purvis Young at the Block Museum, which opens this Fall. Starting in September, Julia will be starting a masters program at The Courtauld Institute of Art. At The Courtauld, Julia will be studying art of the 1960s with Dr. Jo Applin and continuing her research on the relationship between art, politics, and cultural negotiation.


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Walsh, Mary W. “J.P. Morgan Settles Alabama Bribery Case.” New York Times, November 4, 2009.

Wang, Lu. “The U.S. Is in the Midst of a Historic Bull Market.” Bloomberg, April 27, 2016.