Bulls, Bears, and Others Symbols of Wall Street Protest Art

Critiques of the inequities perpetuated by Wall Street and the stock market have long existed. Browsing the Library of Congress database, issues of Puck magazine from the early 1900s make our contemporary financial crisis seem timeless. Founder and cartoonist Joseph Keppler regularly attacked the unrelenting brutality of market forces in the leadup to the Great Depression. In “Wall Street Bubbles — Always the Same” (1901), J.P. Morgan appears as a huge bull blowing soap bubbles for flailing investors. “Cut-Throat Businesses in Wall Street” shows a bear and bull sitting atop a large straight razor, imminently closing on a group of investors’ necks. Two financiers pull the strings from opposite ends, with dismembered heads and bodies strewn alongside portfolios from Western Union, Erie Insurance, and Pacific Mail. 

Bulls, bears, pigs, and sheep represent different aspects of the stock market, but artists have long repurposed these symbols to portray Wall Street’s barbarism. When traders on r/wallstreetbets started bankrupting short sellers of GameStop and AMC stock, social media rejuvenated this imagery. Political cartoons from past stock market crashes, mostly available in the public domain, re-emerged along with viral artworks from the Occupy Wall Street era. Each financial crisis brings new renditions, continuing an artistic tradition that dates back to the 19th century. 

The “Charging Bull” in Manhattan’s Financial District, a famous bronze sculpture by recently deceased Italian artist Arturo Di Modica, is a signifier of bull markets, when the economy is steadily growing and encouraging investments. Ironically, this sculpture was unveiled in the aftermath of the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash. It exists as propaganda for Wall Street financiers, to gather tourists around a monument to American capital. The NYPD even sent heavily armed officers to protect the “Charging Bull” in January after someone placed pieces of blue tape on it. 

Alexandra Clotfelter, “Bull Beginning Is Near” (2012), print, 18 x 12 inches (image courtesy Bates College Museum of Art)

Bull markets contrast with bear markets, when stock prices are falling and investors are selling. Bears appear with bulls in artworks from the 1870s to the present. William Holbrook Beard painted “The Bears and Bulls in the Market” (1879) after the Panic of 1857 and Black Friday in 1869, when the gold market collapsed. Beard depicts the square outside the New York Stock Exchange filled with fighting bears and bulls — a representation of market volatility and its violence breaking out to the public.

William Holbrook Beard, “The Bulls and Bears in the Market” (1879), oil on linen, 39 x 61 x 2 inches (image courtesy New-York Historical Society)

By the Wall Street Crash of 1929, mainstream newspapers were publishing political cartoons comparing the stock market to gambling. That year, the Los Angeles Times published Edmund Gale’s “The Margin Calling Contest,” showing a sheep — which symbolizes the meek, unfocused investor following trends — standing at a margin window operated by a bear, both yelling for more money. The Chicago Daily Tribune portrayed the bull as a trickster and unstoppable force taking small speculators for a ride.

Surprisingly, there has been very little writing about this magical realist imagery — aside from investors and the financial press, which have depoliticized the gruesome content and altogether neglected its lineage in protest art. There is a short writeup in NPR, published in mid-2011, that gives a rundown of Wall Street’s animal symbolism, but it portrays it as fun, light-hearted caricature that gives the stock market “more life, more art and, oddly enough, more humanity.” This is a baffling take for an article published during the outbreak of Occupy Wall Street, when predatory lenders drove up housing prices and caused a catastrophic market crash. A 2015 exhibition at Bates College Museum of Art brought together these artworks from the Occupy era, properly contextualizing their anti-capitalist message. A bear towers over a gutted bull in Roger Peet’s “What the Market Will Bear” (2012), symbolizing permanent economic damage. Alexandra Clotfelter portrayed a thrashing bull tied up with red ropes, while Josh McPhee sketched a leather strap over the Charging Bull’s muzzle.

Roger Peet, “What the Market Will Bear” (2012), print, 18 x 12 inches (image courtesy Bates College Museum of Art)

In recent political cartoons for Rolling Stone, Victor Juhasz depicts Wall Street executives as giant pigs in suits. One stands at a slot machine, emptying coins into his top hat as desperate people gather below. For an article on the pension crisis myth, another pig strangles public service workers in his belt. During the r/wallstreetbets fiasco, The Week published a Daryl Cagle cartoon with a similar Wall Street pig getting clubbed over the head by Snoo, Reddit’s mascot. This reversal, only a few years later, should not be misconstrued as social justice, but it does reflect the increasingly visible weak points of the global capital order.

Victor Juhasz, “No Lose Coved Casino RGB” (image courtesy the artist and Rolling Stone magazine)

Art Spiegelman once claimed that political cartoons “usually have a short half-life,” but he mistook their long-term educational function. While some of these works may feel outdated, they collectively reflect artists’ historical tendency to represent human traits using animal imagery, and prove the enduring anarchy of the market. 

When traders on r/wallstreetbets started bankrupting short sellers of GameStop and AMC stock, social media rejuvenated imagery stretching back to the 19th century.Read MoreArt, Cartoons, Charging Bull, Featured, Occupy Wall Street, Protest Art, Wall StreetHyperallergicRead More

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