Do women have to be naked to get into the MET. Museum?, 2012
The Guerrilla Girls have been the art world’s most outspoken provocateurs since 1985. Clad in gorilla masks, the Girls have challenged art world sexism, tokenism and income inequality through provocative posters and outrageous antics. By speaking out, the group has transformed their scene and ignited an ongoing dialogue about the relationship between art, money and power, becoming the real-life version of masked feminist avengers.
Using pseudonyms taken from dead female artists, The Guerrilla Girls have remained anonymous in a scene dominated by attention-seeking self-referentialism, and a society permeated by an over-saturated lack of privacy. In a culture where many artists create for fame, The Guerrilla Girls are refreshingly sincere both in their art and activism. Their work serves a purpose larger than themselves, and they’d rather wear masks than distract from the importance of their message. And although their message has evolved since its conception, the ethos has remained the same: to speak for artists that have been underrepresented by mainstream museums, galleries and private collections, and to ensure those voices cannot be erased from cultural memory.
This fall, The Guerrilla Girls will be exhibiting their work across Europe, examining sexism and racism within the European art markets, before releasing their latest book, The Hystertical Herstory of Hysteria and How It Was Cured, which tells the story of the vibrator. After 30 years, their work continues to pose questions and incite change, cementing their role as the art world’s most important agitators, activists and cultural critics.
We called original Guerrilla Girl, Frida Kahlo, to talk about anonymity, diversity and art as a form of political action.
Photo by Andrew Hindraker
Who are the Guerrilla Girls?
We started back in 1985 and I’m one of the founding members. But we just were angry in 1985, because we saw that most of the opportunities in the art world, and almost all the money, was going to white men. So we just started asking questions and being public about that. Much to our surprise, we sort of ignited a dialogue about it that has grown and grown and grown. We never expected we’d be doing this for 30 years, and our work has followed that dialogue and has evolved—I hope—to deal with other issues of diversity and also, now, income inequality. Asking the larger question—who is controlling our culture? If the art market is controlled by a handful of billionaire art collectors, how can we trust them to tell us what our history is in art?
How did you come together?
We got together in response to a show at the Museum of Modern Art that opened called ‘An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture.’ The show was being touted as ‘the most significant survey of modern art in the world,’ and it was primarily western artists from the US and from Europe—there were close to 200 artists in the show and I believe there were only 17 women and fewer artists of color, and very few non-western artists. We thought that was really arrogant for the museum to state that this was the condition of global art—it was so euro-centric, and Amero-centric and male-centric. We went to a protest in front of the museum and spent an entire day on the picket line. All we did was make people angry coming in and out of the museum. We realized that the museum-going public had no idea how work was chosen for the museum, and they had this idea that it was a meritocracy—that whatever the curators chose had to be the best art. We vowed that day to find some new ways of educating them, of communicating, of asking questions in public.
What did you do?
We put up a couple of posters. One was called, ‘What do these artists have in common?’ and it was a bunch of male artists who were stylistically completely unconnected, politically unconnected—they probably would fight with each other in bars. But the answer was, they allowed their work to be shown in galleries that showed no women artists, or fewer than 10 percent. Then we did the flip-side of that—we took the galleries that they showed in and put those galleries on a poster that said, ‘These galleries show no more than 10 percent women artists or none at all.’ We gathered some money, printed them and put them up in the dead of the night. Then all hell broke loose. It was very exciting to see how our silent, anonymous acts started a dialogue—a dialogue larger than we could’ve done on our own.
Dear Art Collector, 2015
Why have you chosen to remain anonymous?
It gives us a lot of latitude because we can’t be attacked for our personal lives—it depersonalizes the issues. It also flies in the face of the egotistical artist who always wants to be seen and heard and known and all of that.
How have you seen the art world change?
Things have gotten better for women and artists of color. But at the same time, all kinds of situations have intervened, like tokenism—the idea that the art world will have a few token artists of color, a few token women artists, and then forget about the larger idea of how important diversity is to the telling of our whole story. There’s a tremendous glass ceiling for women and artists of color in terms of how far up the ladder of success they can go. […] There is a glass ceiling in terms of exposure, and there’s an incredible glass ceiling in terms of money—white men make like nine times the amount of money women make.
Has the market changed, as well?
Our project at the Ludwig is about the proliferation of private art museums all over the world now, where art is sort of collected in a certain class of billionaire. They’re amassing large collections, and starting their own museums that have no real public function. It’s of course a tax dodge for many of them—it’s a way of hiding money or safely tucking away money. All the things that are wrong in the world economy are doubly wrong in the art world economy—the art world is such an example of what’s wrong with capitalism, or capitalism as we know it—global capitalism. Do we want oligarchs telling us what our art history is? I mean, if we let rich people tell us what the history of literature, or the history of film, or the history of music is, what would we have?
It’s even worse in Europe., 1986
Do any of those collectors own your work?
The answer is no—we’re not in any of those collections. If we have any legitimacy, it comes from educational institutions and lately, from museums. I think that shows there are good people working inside the art system against the monetary system. But let’s make it clear—we don’t have private collectors banging on our door wanting to collect our work. Our work is not collectible in that sense, because it never really appreciates in monetary value, because our portfolios are infinitely reproducible
How many Guerrilla Girls are there? Can women join the group?
We have so many secrets, and that is one of them. The reason being, that it fluctuates all the time. We’re really sorry, but we can’t take new members in a general sense—I mean, people can’t write to us and say, ‘Can we join the Guerrilla Girls?’—that’s the bad news. But the good news is, there are so many possibilities for activists who want to do the kind of work that we’re doing, to form their own groups. I mean, we’re 30 years old, we’re cooked—we have our brand, we have our image, we have our voice. But there are so many wonderful things that can be done by new and exciting groups. The world needs more masked feminist avengers.
Is making art your form of feminist activism?
We’ve always had arguments about that. In the beginning, some of us said we were doing politics, others said we were doing art. The Museum of Modern Art didn’t put us in a poster show because they said we were doing politics, not art. I tend to think that we are making art, or that we’re making collectible cultural products. There’s a new form of art—social practice—which is becoming very current among young artists who don’t want to join the capitalist art market. They want to, in a way, be involved in creating social justice and social fairness and equality. But I think what we’re doing, it’s evolved to become known or understood or seen as art.
What is the environment like between female artists?
I do think there is a general understanding that women artists are kind of a subclass within the art world, especially women artists of color, and we get treated differently. When we started 30 years ago, there was this idea that the art world was somewhat gender and color free—which was always a joke—and that to be successful, women and artists of color had to lift themselves out of their subclass and sort of become one of the white guys. There were lots of women artists who took on male sounding names—like Lenore Krassner became Lee Krasner—or they would use their first initial in a way to sort of lift themselves out of their status as a woman, and make it look to the rest of the world that they were not women, but that they were exceptions. I think women realize now, that the experience of women in the world is different, and it’s unique, and it needs a voice. And that the history of art can’t be told without the voice of women and artists of color—otherwise, it’s just a history of money and power.
What do you see as the future of the art world?
I think it’s going to be a global tendency to fight the connection between art and capital, and I think what it’s going to be is that we all have to be much more critical about what gets presented to us by the collector class as our history. In some cases, you need to resist it—in many cases, we need to resist it.
How long will the Guerrilla Girls continue speaking out about inequality?
I think it’s endless. I think anyone who is involved in a civil rights struggle, and a human rights struggle—which I think you can consider culture to be part of—knows that it’s never solved. A millennia of patriarchy isn’t going to be overcome by 150 years of feminism and human rights movements.
You can see the Guerrilla Girls’ art in Europe and the US this fall. Upcoming shows and exhibition info, here.