Guerrilla Girl Power: Why the Art World Needs a Conscience
SCHOOL OF ART College of Arts & Sciences UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
I am in Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights landmark of the South, for a recent conference on women in the arts at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. In conjunction with the event, a Guerrilla Girls retrospective is hanging in the pristine galleries of the museum. Tonight, two Guerrilla Girls, “Frida Kahlo” and “Romaine Brooks,” are scheduled to provide the entertainment. (Each member gets a realistic gorilla mask and the opportunity to take on the name of a deceased woman artist.) The auditorium is packed. Kahlo and Brooks are on stage looking leggy and ferocious—Brooks in pants and Kahlo wearing fishnet stockings and high heels, the king and queen of the jungle. Brooks (or at least her mask) looks particularly vicious, as if she didn’t get enough raw meat for dinner.
“You know,” says Kahlo, stomping around the stage, “the funny thing is if I took off this mask none of you would listen to me.” Ner vous laughter rumbles through the audience. “I have to wear a hot, heavy gorilla mask on this stage to get your attention,” says Kahlo, who’s not laughing about her fashion statement. “Not to mention your respect,” adds Brooks.
Kahlo hurls one of the bananas she’s holding out into the audience and a group of people leap from their seats to catch the yellow phal lus; everyone roars with laughter. The ape is feeding the humans.
For the next hour, the Guerrilla Girls have the audience eating out of their hands. They get a few insults, which are always welcomed into the act; the more abuse they get, the more fun they have dishing it out. The auditorium is filled with a few hundred people who have traveled from all over the South for the show. The Girls, as they call themselves, are prepared. They arrive in any given location armed with relevant statistics on the local cultural terrain. The Girls do their
The Girls have the numbers, and they
love biting the hand that feeds them.
homework before crossing state lines, researching and gathering infor mation. Over the years, they have developed a popular show that’s played to crowds around the world.
In Montgomery, they cover their usual subjects, including the biased history of art and the sexist treatment of women in academia. Then they move into an open discussion on civil rights in the South. When they discover a controversy brewing around “outsider” art (Morley Safer has just made an irritating sweep through town for 60 Minutes), they delve into the subject, provoking a debate on the meaning of the term: Are women outsiders by definition? Why don’t museums allow outsider objects to mingle with “insider” ones? Why are prices for folk art so much lower than those for fine art? This discussion segues right into the most divisive issue of all: the scant number of artists of color represented in this museum’s very own col lection. The Girls have the numbers, and they love biting the hand that feeds them. After all, they’re only animals.
The act is a visual spectacle, including a range of media (video, posters, slides) and activities. At times the show turns into pure
Oprah, with lots of audience participation and finger wagging. The Girls work the room, scanning for politically incorrect views. Their Montgomery show is a typical combination of new and old material. The Girls, depending on who performs, have a
range of talents, so their live events vary with each performance. On a good night, men are lured onto the stage and encouraged to embar rass themselves to death—-all in fun. The rhetoric in Montgomery, and I suspect elsewhere, is an orgy of political “isms,” while the per formance is savagely funny. Listening to a gorilla for an hour is dis turbing, and the Girls’ anonymity, which they have enjoyed since their inception, gives them all the freedom they need to be fearless. Guerrilla Girls aren’t polite; one of their current goals is to unseat powerful men and move women into positions of authority. When the Girls leave town, the women left behind have been empowered to speak out, and there is no one to blame except a bunch of monkeys from New York.
One of the Girls posed in 1987 with a banana, a prop used in most performances.
In the Beginning
In the spring of 1985, the Museum of Modern Art opened a long- awaited international survey of painting and sculpture. The exhibi tion was a bombshell by feminist standards; less than 10 percent of the artists were women, and 100 percent of them were white. A pro test in front of the museum had litte impact. Women artists were furious, but no one was organized to do anything about it.
The Guerrilla Girls were born in New York that same year, at a time when feminism was out of fashion, and the art world was drenched in money and fame. The East Village was thriving, and collectors were as notable for their wealth as for the objects they were purchasing. Money was power, and collecting was treated like a new sport; sensitive “yuppies” needed to be surrounded by art, and no apartment was tastefully decorated without it. Wall Street was boom ing as lawyers moved into SoHo, transforming funky loft spaces into expensive condos and co-ops. Art was selling. What could be better for artists? Male artists, that is. “It was one of the most sexist periods in the art world,” says a lapsed Guerrilla Girl, who still enjoys being anonymous. “Women were considered party girls, nothing more.” Their art wasn’t selling; it wasn’t even showing.
Only a decade earlier, the Women’s Art Movement had been the significant critical movement. During the 1970s, a period currently being rediscovered by art historians, women were making, showing, and frequently controlling the flow of their work, by exhibiting in alternative or cooperative spaces. The women’s liberation movement was rushing through college campuses and the bedrooms, kitchens, and television sets of Middle America. Artists were demonstrating in the streets for women’s rights and picketing museums for equal time. The art work reflected the same issues that women were raising in consciousness-raising groups across America. Women artists were in the throes of a separatist rebellion.
Critics (male critics) often claim that nothing innovative hap pened during the 1970s because there was no one aesthetic move- ment that dominated the art market. The Women’s Art Movement was inclusive and pluralist in spirit. It was difficult to assess as a single movement and impossible to label in a single word. Feminist art was,
virtually by definition, disruptive to the commercial economy of art. By the early 1980s, dealers were frantically herding collectors toward a new group of young male stars, while women artists, even those who had enjoyed a certain visibility, were getting buried again.
The backlash against women emerged during the formation of the New Right, a solidification of religious and conservative groups dur ing the Reagan era. The antifeminist ideologue Phyllis Schlafly orga nized a campaign that managed to defeat the Equal Rights Amend ment, as media pundits happily announced that feminism was dead. Nancy Reagan set the tone for domesticity in the 1980s, polishing the silver in the White House. Current retro-wisdom argued that femi nism (not to mention capitalism) had completely failed women of color and, perhaps even worse: Feminists were humorless.
The times demanded reorganization, new strategies. “A group of us got together out of sheer frustration and anger,” says a Guerrilla Girl, one of the seven women who attended the first casual meeting. All of them were veterans of the womens movement and also artists. “We talked about maybe starting an artists’ union. We needed to do something dramatic and we wanted it to be different. We wanted action— not consciousness-raising,” she continues. “We didn’t even use the word ‘feminist’ or any 1970s language. We wanted to be funny and sexy.” Exactly what feminists were not supposed to be. “You couldn’t call a mass action in 1985 because no one would have come,” she explains. There was little agreement on the Left, or among feminists, on precisely what the mass issues were. “So we settled on occasional guerrilla actions.”
Women artists were in the throes of a separatist rebellion.
The Guerrilla Girls began as a small group, responding to the situa tion of women artists. Perhaps the easiest decision the Girls ever made was the initial one to keep their identities anonymous; it was unani mous, with little discussion. “When we attack something, we want what we’re saying to be heard, not who’s saying it,” Rosalba Carriera (an early eighteenth-century court painter), told a reporter in Artworld, a Canadian magazine. “We didn’t like the cult of personality that surrounded women artists in the 1970s,” says another lapsed member.
“We were a little afraid for our own careers, but more important, we just didn’t want any more Judy Chicagos. No more monsters.”
In the beginning, there was no long-term plan. When the group became notorious in the art world, virtually overnight, the Girls were stunned. Women artists especially were thrilled with the first street posters, which named names, clearly dividing the haves from the have-nots. Bold black type on white paper, the flyersjwere simple, polemical statements of fact meant to inform and incite pedestrians. The posters went up in the dark of night (the Girls did the postering themselves, making sure each placement was strategically located) in SoHo and in the East Village, where numerous galleries and clubs had revitalized the neighborhood. The New York art establishment was hit below the belt.
Posters by individual artists weren’t uncommon in the streets, but these were unusual. They were group statements; they spoke with authority for a significant sector of the art population. The broadsides were never intended as art, but neither were Jenny Holzer’s early poetic rants (now collector’s items), which were plastered all over SoHo. Guerrilla Girl posters were activist statements that conformed to a distinct aesthetic format. It was obvious at a glance that the Girls were artists, yet these texts were pure propaganda. Part of their appeal was precisely the questions they posed, not only about the position of women in the art world, but about the very nature of “political” art. Questions instantly emerged about the conception of their work: Was it art? Was it advertising? Was it politics? “We were more inter ested in the content, the discussion of racism and sexism in the arts,” says Brooks.
The posters kept coming, offering a critique of the art world that was not available anywhere else. A breathtaking series of art statistics demonstrated what everyone already knew but wouldn’t admit: Women and artists of color were excluded from the system. The research was time-consuming but not impossible. Most of the statis tics were available in annual reports and art magazines. If information from a gallery was needed, the Girls posed as journalists and called
HOW MANY WOMEN HAD ONE-PERSON EXHIBITIONS AT
NYC MUSEUMS LAST YEAR?
Guggenheim 0 Metropolitan 0 Modern 1 Whitney 0
SOURCE ART IN AMERICA ANNUAL A PUSiJC SERVICE MESSAGE FROM Guerilla Girls
Guerrilla Girls, street poster, 1985. 22” x 18″.
dealers on the phone. “The statistics were perfect because they were shocking,” says a Girl involved with the group for its first five years. “Dealers had been saying that these problems [gender bias] were all solved. They were critical of women for still kvetching about their careers. Then we came along and demonstrated that women had good reason to kvetch.”
Artists, critics, and dealers eagerly waited for each new poster, although for different reasons. Lists went up of the most biased gal leries, male and female critics who were not writing enough about women artists, and male artists who were in galleries where women remained unacceptable. One of the most scandalous posters (1985) asked: “How Many Women Had One-Person Exhibitions at NYC Museums Last Year?” The Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, and the Whitney had zero; the Modern had one.
“Dealers had fits,” says an ex-Girl. “They called us Nazis, the art police. We’d be standing at openings and everyone would be discuss ing the posters and our identities. They assumed that we were anony mous because we were all so famous, which was infuriating.” Famous women artists, of course, were few and far between. So, who were the members? “We were the girls who were watching the guys we all went to art school with rocket right into the system,” says one Girl, “while we were working three jobs.” The Girls give out no information about their membership. There have been women of color involved, but it would take a rival guerrilla group to get the exact statistics. How many Guerrilla Girls are there? The stock answer is: “Thousands.”
Initially, the media was hungry for their story; the photo-op was irresistible. Articles popped up in papers ranging from the Village Voice to the Daily News-, the Girls were modeling their masks in the pages of the choicest women’s magazines, including Mirabella and Ms. Their resume is impressive; the Girls have appeared on minor and major television networks and chatted on radio talk shows all over the country. There is nothing like having a talking gorilla on your couch for ratings. The costume was opening up doors for these angry feminists, and their message was breaking through barriers in the media. “We were completely recharacterizing the decade,” says Frida Kahlo. The 1980s posters were a subversive art history lesson. The truth about the situation of women artists was now undeniable.
“We had absolutely no idea it was going to take off,” says Kathe Kollwitz. “We spent about two minutes deciding on the masks. The anonymity drove people crazy, as if it were a crime to be anony mous. We weren’t initially wedded to it, but everyone focused on it and we enjoyed annoying people.” For the first few years, there was continuous-discussion about who they were and what they were saying. According to every Girl interviewed for this essay,1 the intense response to their actions was an impetus to consolidate. The Girls became a family; members stick together and never denigrate the group to the press. They rarely discuss the group’s progress with any outsiders. Even women who have left the group—and there has been a great deal of turnover—maintain open communication lines. “Our decisions have always been made unanimously,” explains Romaine Brooks, which is remarkable for any organization with a ten-year history. “But there are controversial internal issues and lots of differ ent points of view.”
One of the most contentious areas has been the Girls’ official rela tionship to the art world. Dealers, obviously, noticed their success, but the Girls have never sought representation to sell their wares. Their first year, 1985, they were offered the opportunity to organize an all-women’s exhibition at the Palladium, a popular club in New York that had been showcasing male artists. The Palla dium wanted to atone for its sins, and the Girls rel ished the opportunity to organize a corrective exhibi tion of all-women’s work. After much discussion, the Girls went ahead with the project; they selected, with difficulty, one hundred women artists for the event. But the process was filled with tensions. The Girls were making arduous curatorial choices among women artists instead of orchestrating an open call. A batch of key members quit in protest. “We couldn’t beat the system and join it at the same time,” says one of the women who left. “The group was moving in the wrong direction.”
The Palladium dispute, however, did not deter a new crew from joining the group; the Guerrilla Girls remained strong and developed a policy on exhibitions. “We won’t get involved in any project where
If there was enough passii in the group a people availal to do the worl poster was produced.
THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING
A WOMAN ARTIST: Working without tho pressure of success. Not having to bo In shows with men. Having an escape from tho art world Tn your 4 free-lance Jobs. Knowing your caroor might pick up after you’re olghty. Bolng reassured that whatever kind of art you m to It will bo labeled feminine. Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position. Seeing your Ideas live on in the work of others. Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood. Not having to choke on those big cigars or paint In Italian suits. Having more time to work after your mate dumps you for ssmesns younger. Being Included in revised versions of art history. Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius.
•ttlr your | :ture in the art magazines wearing a irilla suit.
Please send $ and comments to: Guerrilla Girls Box 237, 532 LaGuardia PI., NY 10012 CONSCIENCE OF THE ART WORLD
Guerrilla Girls, street poster, 1991. 22″ x 18″.
we have to make choices between artists,” explains Kahlo. “We have very few policies,” she adds. “But that one has stuck with us.” Two years later, the Guerrilla Girls were responsible for another kind of exhibition at the The Clocktower, an alternative space in New York. A counterpoint to the prevailing Whitney Biennial, Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney was an information show, documenting the museum’s record on artists of color and women. The statistics were embarrassing. Not only had the Girls exposed the Whitney, but they argued the radical notion that museums have social, even moral, responsibilities beyond pleasing their financial sponsors. –
The Girls began traveling, primarily to universities, and continu ing their line of black-and-white posters. In the early 1990s, they began focusing on issues outside of art, broadening their field of attack and their potential audience. Their process remained some what anarchistic. If there was a burning issue under discussion in SoHo, it was likely to turn up on a poster. One of the most visible shifts in the 1990s was the reemergence of a public discourse on politics. Artists were responding to the headlines, and some of their work was turning up in galleries. “It was difficult for us to witness the Persian Gulf crisis,” says Alma Thomas, a Girl of color, “without doing something about it. So we did.” If there was enough passion in the group and people available to do the work, a poster was produced.
The Bush years were an inspiration to activists. When women soldiers clamored to get on the front lines, the Girls asked: “Did She Risk Her Life for Governments That Enslave Women?” This caption appeared beneath a photograph of a soldier in guerrilla fatigues, a rifle hanging from her shoulder; double-humped camels, a clear sexual reference, walked across the desert in the background. The poster (1991) was a timely feminist comment on gender and war. But it was never posted beyond the streets of SoHo, never posted where there might actually be women considering whether to enlist.
The Girls refer to their posters as “public service messages.” They have covered topics such as abortion, rape, cosmetic surgery, educa tion, and the Clarence Thomas debacle in a series that comes out… whenever. The Thomas poster provoked the most debate, the only one in the group’s history that was not unanimously approved. (“I thought he was innocent,” says Ana’is Nin, the one holdout.) Regardless, the
The Guerrilla Girls want to know if a woman has to be naked to get into a museum. This black-and- white publicity photograph. 1987, is their version of the classic nude.
poster is one of the Girls’ most sarcastic works, turning a quote from Thomas, defending himself against Anita Hill, into an attack on the Court’s stance on privacy and sexual preference. Thomas is depicted saying (as quoted in the New York Times), “I’m not going to engage in discussions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my private life or the sanctity of my bedroom. They are the most intimate parts of my privacy and will remain just that.” The headline on the poster shouts the good news: “Supreme Court Justice Supports Right to Privacy for Gays and Lesbians.”
There were irregular forays into current political issues, but the Girls became known for their brilliant attacks on the male art estab lishment. Their most classic work is a poster that cynically describes “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist.” It was 1988, and there were thirteen points to celebrate, such as “working without the pres sure of success” and “not being stuck in a tenured teaching position.” The following year was a vintage one for the Girls. Seven posters went up attacking museums for their exclusionary policies, collectors for their refusal to purchase works by women, and Senator Jesse Helms, the most despicable enemy of the year. “Relax Senator Helms,” the Girls advised. “The Art World Is Your Kind of Place!” There were ten reasons listed for the senator to back off the obscenity issue, among them the fact that the “majority of exposed penises in major museums belong to the baby Jesus.”
Recent posters geared to the art world have been less outrageous and less successful. Leaning more toward parody than any critical or statistical information, the newest posters have failed to annihilate their targets or even expose new crimes. The Girls have begun to give out MacGuerrilla Foundation grants (a takeoff on the MacArthur “genius” awards). The first one went to Arne Glimcher, the notorious head of the Pace/Wildenstein Gallery, celebrating his “seminal talent” for getting publicity on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, as he closed a “$100 million merger” between Pace and Wildenstein Fine Arts. But the timing for the poster was off; it appeared weeks after the art world, organized by the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), a newly formed mass activist group, had already protested Pace’s lack of interest in representing women artists. In effect, the Girls were just giving Glimcher more publicity.
This publicity photograph, 1987, of one of the Girls wearing her diamonds, appeared in numerous publications.
WAC, during its brief peak, had the ability to act faster than the Guerrilla Girls and to mobilize hundreds of women—in just days— for a demonstration. While the two groups were supportive of each other, not-competitors, WAC’s success seemed to highlight problems that the Girls had learned to accept. Both groups were organized by women in the art world, yet WAC’s mission was to contend with subjects outside of art. Even when the Girls dealt with nonart issues, the posters never reached out beyond the art world. All campaigns, regardless of their content, are put up in Lower Manhattan (SoHo and Tribeca).
In a sense, the Guerrilla Girls had become satisfied with reaching a relatively small, sympathetic audience, while WAC was picking up the slack, providing women, artists or not, with a new political ve hicle to facilitate their notions of social change. WAC was demonstrat ing the potential for a progressive feminist movement that the Girls had never been able to organize, maybe even imagine. WAC wanted to break out of the constrictions inherent in the cultural arena—where the Guerrilla Girls seemed to live.
When an obvious art-world target came up for WAC, members looked to the Guerrilla Girls to collaborate. The opening of the downtown Guggenheim Museum, in SoHo (1992), was the ideal occasion. The museum planned to inaugurate its virginal galleries with a show of four or five white, male artists. The selection was an indication of how slack art-gender politics had grown. Word of the show was leaked at a WAC meeting and a protest was instantly planned for the opening-night party. Ultimately, Louise Bourgeois was hastily added to the exhibition list, but that was not enough to appease the 500 protesters who stood outside the Guggenheim that warm June evening, chanting:
Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho White Male Culture Has Got to Go!
What was most memorable about the event was WAC’s drum corps, a militant group of women with the motliest and meanest sounding instruments. This ragtag marching band embodied the angry, insistent spirit of a new downtown feminist movement, which WAC had come
to exemplify. There were few gorilla masks outside the Guggenheim; the masks were functioning better in performances than in demon strations. WAC was more suited to the moment than the Guerrilla Girls. WAC membership was open, growing week by week, and identi ties were known, even flaunted.
But WAC would become relatively dysfunctional by the end of the year, while the Guerrilla Girls, as usual, were still answering their phone.
In 1991, the Guerrilla Girls published ten posters and made fifteen public appearances; the next year, they generated six posters and gave twenty-three performances; in 1993, the Girls put up only three posters and gave another twenty-three shows. They have traveled to Germany, Australia, Austria, Ireland, Canada, Brazil, Norway, En gland, and Finland. The Girls have discovered, as one of their posters states, that “it’s worse in Europe.” But the low status of women hasn’t affected their popularity. “I felt like a rock star walking out onto the stage,” says one of the Girls, describing a European trip. “The crowds went nuts over us.”
In the 1990s, as the Girls moved into the national and interna tional performance circuit, the posters became a low priority. But as the group’s reputation began to wane in New York, it was picking up on college campuses around the country. The schools where these feminist terrorists have performed range from Harvard to Wichita State University. The posters became more visible as back drops, projected on the stage behind their performances, than on the streets.
“It got harder and harder for us to poster,” explains a current mem ber. “The police became more attentive.” The Girls stopped putting up their own posters and hired local experts, giving up control over placement. In the old days, postering was part of every new member’s initiation; it was a bonding, frightening ritual, affectionately described in retrospect by several Girls. But members seemed to be losing inter est in the posters and the postering, as flyers by WAC and a garden variety of blossoming feminist groups (WHAM!, the Lesbian Avengers, the New Freedom Riders) glutted the streets. In contrast to the didac-
tic statements on any Guerrilla Girls communique, these groups were mobilizing the troops, announcing actions that women and men could join. In New York, it was feeling more like the 1960s again, as posters—and demonstrations—became frequent spectacles. The Guerrilla Girls needed a new vehicle for their “public service messages.”
Hot Flashes (a tabloid newsletter partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts) grew out of their desire to find a new audi ence and, perhaps, to hold on to the old one. It was a way to get out of the streets and reach art-world members in their living rooms. It was a good idea. A newsletter offered the Girls the opportunity to go down on record, to get their information into libraries, to be read by the press, and to develop an ongoing dialogue with readers.
The first edition (1993) was entirely devoted to a critique of the art pages of the New York Times. Filled with statistical data on what critics choose to cover, it unfortunately contained no analysis of the content of any reviews or articles. (Roberta Smith, the only female critic at the Times, was suspiciously let off the hook.) Hot Flashes only confirmed what was already painfully obvious: male critics at the Times write about white, male artists. Readers were left with little understanding of the relationship between the Times art pages and the art economy; there was no discussion of any criteria used to select shows for review. Are, for instance, reviewers allowed to buy works from shows they write about? The Guerrilla Girls are a secret society with connections, we presume, all over the art world. Yet mag azine’s insider column on the Times had more dish. Hot Flashes was a major disappointment. There was nothing of note in the issue to rock, let alone capsize, any boat at the Times. Nevertheless, according to Kahlo, more than 500 subscriptions rolled in after the premiere issue. The Girls celebrated.
The second Hot Flashes (1994) tackled the role of museums around the country, rating the various institutions by the gender of their directors and the number of women artists on their walls. “Women of color have a hard time everywhere,” concluded the re search on the front page, as if this were news. The museums were divided into four categories: “good,” “mediocre,” “bad,” and “the pits.” “Good” museums had women directors, showed women’s work, and acquired “artists of color, even from their own region.” The single
revelation in this issue was that New York museums, known for their authority all over the globe, received the worst report cards; the Met ropolitan Museum of Art has “the all time worst record” in the country. The Girls renamed the Whitney the “Whitey” Museum of American Art.
There are tidbits, not unlike sound bites, throughout the newslet ter. The Girls report, for instance, that Henry Kissinger heads the exhibition committee at the Met. Hot Flashes informs us that in 1992 the National Gallery of Art received $54 million from the govern ment and did not exhibit one contemporary artist of color. In a col umn called “RX for the Future,” the Girls suggest suing museums, throwing collectors off boards of directors, and “outlawing the cult of genius.” The issue, as a whole, is amusing but thin. Disconnected one-liners and large graphics take the place of detailed research. While the message is clear, it’s agonizingly redundant.
A Decade Old
After ten years, the complications of being a Guerrilla Girl are be coming apparent. The shift from the 1980s to the 1990s has altered the context for the Girls and their work. “We came up with the fish net stockings and high heels when Madonna was hot,” says a mem ber, “but Kate Moss is the star today.” Madonna’s steamy bisexuality was subversive in the 1980s, as she explored her sexual fantasies be fore a mainstream audience. Her sexual appetite was able to keep right up with her commercial desires, which seemed insatiable. Ma donna continued to reinvent herself, but eventually, every act became a vehicle for the star. The pop sex queen had her fifteen minutes, as young women began moving away from worshiping overt sexual stereotypes. Spike heels were getting replaced by Doc Martens.
With these shifting values, the significance of the gorilla mask also began to shift. In the 1980s, the mask was an ironic declaration of war, a pun that linked these feminist guerrillas to their subversive activities. In the 1990s, however, the hybrid construction of the ani mal head and female body began to read like a Darwinian joke about the nature of progress. The Girls looked, in part, stuck in the jungle, unable to metamorphose into full human beings—women.
To the distress of one member, the brown furry skin and fierce teeth have taken on racial assumptions that were entirely unintended. “The mask becomes a physical and psychological burden at times,” Alma Thomas told me, “limiting our functions. It doesn’t dictate our behavior, but it affects our bodies and minds. As an African Ameri can,” she adds, “when I put on the mask, I look the way some people see me every day, unconsciously.”
The Girls’ strategy—to make learning about racism and sexism a pleasing, seductive spectacle—made sense in the male-dominated 1980s, when satirizing notions of femininity catapulted their act into the spotlight. But the gorilla needed the ability to evolve into a more complex being. Contemporary feminist artists began pushing concep tions of gender much further, beyond the dialectic between beauty and the beast and beyond the schism between nature and culture. Gender itself was suddenly unhinged from any loaded definitions and distinctions between men and women, as artists and performers dove into the murky abyss between the sexes.
The mask was a projection of racist fantasies for some, while for others it was merely a gimmick to exploit. The Girls had the good sense to turn down The Gap when invited to appear in an advertise ment for the company. When The Gap calls, it’s time to take another look in the mirror. The Guerrilla Girls had succeeded in becoming a mainstream phenomenon, but there was a price to pay; they were losing their impact on their target audience—the art world. As their own literature kept pointing out, things were not getting much better for women artists.
The Guerrilla Girls burst onto the scene as a militant feminist clan with nothing but disdain for a system that has oppressed women for centuries. But inevitably, packaging their products—posters, multi- media performances, and political messages—as fun and games led the Girls to the established art track. There are, I’m sad to report, more advantages to being a Guerrilla Girl today than there are to being a woman artist. I suspect that many members have seen more of the art world dressed as gorillas than they have in their regular
attire. “If we were to reveal ourselves now,” says Kollwitz, “it would probably help our individual careers.” For Kollwitz, “this is a delicious irony.” Success is never exactly a disadvantage. Traveling around the world, participating in shows with other art collectives, has given them a platform for their politics. But what do they have to say?
Guerrilla Girls Talk Back—The First Five Years, the exhibition I saw in Montgomery, was originally organized by Carrie Lederer, curator at the Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael, California. The show traveled for five years, despite the fact that the Girls themselves
do not consider their work to be art. None of them, however, ever thought their posters would end up in frames, hanging on museum walls. The posters sell for twenty dollars apiece, and when I asked Kahlo who had the original, she
said, “There is po original.” None of the Girls, thus far, are interested in turning this loose group into an art-making collective, like Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), which produces gallery exhibitions. Rollins and K.O.S.,
represented by a commercial dealer (Mary Boone), make work to support their educational projects. The Girls have never been repre sented by a dealer or made works for commercial exhibition; all edi tions of posters are unlimited. Nevertheless, these posters have been on exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and at a number of university galleries all over the country. The Museum of Modern Art, however, drew a clear line between art and activism at the Guerrilla Girls. According to Kahlo, the Girls’ posters were ex cluded from Committed to Print (1988), a broad survey organized by Deborah Wye of activist works on paper because the work was not art. “It was politics,” says Kahlo.
The Guerrilla Girls burst onto the
scene as a militant feminist
clan with nothing but disdain for a system that has
oppressed women for centuries.
The debate around whether the Girls make art or not becomes circular. But let’s imagine them as a commercial artist collective. The biggest problem is their insistence on anonymity and their tendency to investigate any context they move into. On a purely social level, the market wants stars, individuals who can go to dinner parties and talk, which is difficult to do wearing a gorilla mask. Dealers do not let
artists see their books; they also demand original objects, which the Girls do nonproduce. There is a good reason that few, if any, all women art collectives have achieved notoriety in the commercial art world. The Girls know this fact better than the rest of us. While ru mor has it that the group is currently going through growing pains, I suspect they will not turn to the galleries for comfort.
Not surprisingly, the Girls are much more interested in their own, real, careers as artists, than in pushing the group in the direction of the art world. In their view, their mission is purely political and far from accomplished, which is why they have been attempting to “institutionalize” and survive. The Guerrilla Girls have a mailing address, a telephone number with a recorded message, and a publica tion. They are currently writing the groups autobiography for HarperCollins and working on the production of a (secret) CD-ROM. They are moving away from the art world, looking to develop a broader audience, while continuing to function as a secret society. When asked to attend a meeting on their book at HarperCollins, the Girls wore their masks and the editors were actually scared—the male editors, that is.
Outside of New York, the Girls continue to be in demand, getting abundant local press wherever they go. They argue that the group is needed more—away from home—where audiences have not yet felt the full force of a renewed feminist movement. “We are still reaching out to people who don’t understand how sexism works,” says Alice Neel. “And we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.”
Ana’is Nin argues that racism in the art world, including New York, should be the Girls’ most pressing issue. “We sometimes give up on targets when they let a few white women in, like the Brooklyn Museum, despite the fact that black women still aren’t showing there at all.” While every Girl answers questions for herself, not the group, there is general agreement that their essential focus should continue to be the art world. “It’s an organic focus for us,” says Alma Thomas. “We’re artists.”
The move into performance work and book production, which seems to have evolved organically (this is the way the group works), has taken the pressure off the New York art world. The Girls are moving into the realm of what they refer to as “education” and
“consciousness raising” in areas receptive to feminist entertainment. If the community they originally intended to serve is women artists, the Girls might argue that they now view that group on a national, even international, level. New York has seen fewer posters and guer rilla actions because the group has been writing, producing, and performing a show, which has become their main activism. But is performing inside institutions as they critique them an effective strat- egy? Members are so busy being Guerrilla Girls that there is little opportunity for proactive projects beyond their own gigs.
Success for the Girls is accompanied by the knowledge that they no longer pose a threat to the art world. Some of their fans, however, are disappointed. “We know that were not as radical as our audience wants us to be, at this point,” says Alma Thomas, who was heckled at a recent performance. If young feminists look to the Girls for leader ship, they won’t get it. “We simply keep up the resistance,” says Ana’is Nin. Within the current spectrum of feminist artists, ranging from Karen Finley on stage to Sue Williams’s porno-feminist discourses on canvas, the Guerrilla Girls occupy the center; they have grown more conservative over the years, functioning as an admission of guilt for the art world, assuaging its conscience rather than provoking it. Their fans, however, still want them to take their revenge on the powers that be in the art world, not work with them or make them feel better.
It was a moment when no curator
would have been caught
dead with an all male show.
At the start, the Girls’ maverick practices had a profound effect on a small, but internationally significant, New York art world. It was a
moment when no dealer or curator would have been caught dead with an all-male show. But that time has passed. Dealers and museums are, to their credit, hanging more women in their exhibitions, but the museums aren’t buying their work and dealers aren’t letting the artists into their galleries at a young age—when all artists need support. In New York, we’re currently seeing more work by
women, but there is a recession—and nothing is selling. Moreover, there is still no reason to think that this work is going to make it into the art history books.
In 1989, with the advent of the Robert Mapplethorpe crisis, cul tural politics changed in America. Conservative forces took over the
project of defining “radical art,” as artists organized to protect their freedom to make work and have some place to exhibit it. In a country with no official arts policy, the situation remains a disaster as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) loses more of its budget and authority every year. These culture wars, as they are called, have af fected, for better and worse, all “activist” artists. Art that really hurts the establishment or generates critical consciousness in a local com munity had no aesthetic or content restrictions prior to the Map plethorpe crisis. The Guerrilla Girls have commented on this battle but never fought it. They have never been objects of derision, like Andres Serrano (for Piss Christ), David Wojnarowicz (for his lawsuit attacking the Reverend Donald Wildmon for stealing and altering his images), or Holly Hughes (for her lesbian performances), because their act pleases more than it challenges even the most exalted institu tions. As hard as I tried, I could not get a curator at a museum to utter a nasty word (even off the record) about the Girls. And, more amaz ing, they have not received any significant bad press. The Girls have targets but few enemies.
The list of mainstream organizations and publications that have given the Girls awards includes New York magazine (a “Life of the City” award), Art Table (an organization of art business people—no artists allowed), the New York State Chapter of the National Organi zation for Women, and the NEA. The Girls are in danger of becoming part of a system that is growing more and more hostile to feminists, gays, or any person of color who makes “controversial” art. In the mid-1980s, their signs were considered the law. If something was wrong in town, we called the Guerrilla Girls. “No one cares about the Guerrilla Girls anymore,” one dealer told me. “Most of us have ad justed our statistics.”
The Guerrilla Girls deserve much of the credit for this adjustment. There has been a “new” acceptance of women artists in the 1990s. Thanks to the Girls, dealers were embarrassed into representing a Tew token women in their galleries, and all-male shows are getting harder and harder to find. “But tokenism is simply the containment of diversity,” says Alma Thomas, who thinks the Girls are ripe for a major transition. “Embarrassment is a powerful tool,” she adds. “But it doesn’t change the world.” What we all know is that the art world
still needs a conscience outside of its own body. “We have more than enough credibility to reinvent ourselves,” continues Thomas. “We have understood brilliantly how to use the dominant culture against itself, but we don’t need to be brilliant anymore. We need to be effec tive.” The Guerrilla Girls have no intention of retiring. “We won’t stop until the board of directors at the Metropolitan Museum is dominated by women,” says one member. “Why should we stop?” asks Kahlo. “The phone is still ringing.”
Rosemary Donegan, Catherine Macleod, Richard McKenna, Simon Malbogat, and Kim Tomczak). For more information see Susan Crean, “Labour Working with Art,” Fuse 44 (April 1987): 24-35.
13. Conde and Beveridge, First Contract, 15.
14. Condi and Beveridge, It’s Still Privileged Art.
15. Scott Lash and John Urry, The End of Organized Capitalism (Madison, Wise.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 2-7.
16. Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge, “In the Corporate Shadows: Community Arts Practice and Technology,” Leonardo 26, no. 5 (1993): 451.
17. For an analysis of corporate/labor relations in the forest industry, see Oliver Kellhammer, “The State of the Forest: The Canadian Landscape as Propaganda,” Fuse (Spring 1992): 22-30.
Bennekom, Josephine van. “Carole Conde and^Karl Beveridge.” Perspektiefih (April 1989): 20-27. ‘ v
Beveridge, Karl, and Ian Burn. “Don Judd.” The Foxl (1975): 129-42.
Conde, Carole, and Karl Beveridge. It’s Still Privileged Art. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1976.
——— . First Contract: Women and the Fight to Unionize. Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 1986.
——— . Class Work. Toronto: Communications and Electrical Workers Union of Canada, 1990.
——— . “In the Corporate Shadows: Community Arts Practice and Technology.” Leonardo 26, no. 5 (1993): 451-57.
Crean, Susan. “Labour Working with Art,” Titre 44 (April 1987): 24—35.
Evans, David, and Sylvia Gohl. Photomontage: A Political Weapon. London: Gordon Frazer, 1986.
Fleming, Martha. “The Production of Meaning: An Interview with Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge.” Afterimage 10, no. 4 (November 1982): 10-15.
Fleury, Jean Christian. “De la photographic engagee a l’image.” Photographies Magazine (June 1993): 37-43.
Glass, Fred. “Class Pictures: Teaching About Photography to Labour Studies Students.” Exposure 2& no. 1/2 (1991): 35—42.
Gupta, Sunil. Disrupted Borders. London: Rivers Oram Press, 1993.
Hansen, Henning. “Carole Condi og Karl Beveridge.” Katalogi (June 1989): 36-49.
Hutcheon, Linda. Splitting Images. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Kellhammer, Oliver. “The State of the Forest: The Canadian Landscape as Propaganda.” Fuse (Spring 1992): 22-30.
Lash, Scott, and John Urry. The End of Organized Capitalism. Madison, Wise.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Mitchell, Michael. “Things as They Are.” Photo Communique 6, no. 4 (Winter 1984/85): 35-38.
Muir, Kathie. “Australian Labour-Based Art in an International Context.” Artlink 10, no. 3 (Spring 1990): 23-26.
Palmer, Bryan D. Working Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800- 1991. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992.
Trend, David. “Talking Union.” Afterimage 14, no. 8 (March 1987): 19.
Tuer, Dot. “The Art of Nation Building: Constructing a Cultural Identity for Post-War Canada,” Paralltlogramme 17, no. 4 (Spring 1992): 24-36.
West, Cornel. “The New Cultural Politics of Difference.” In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991.
Withers, Josephine. “On the Inside Not Looking Out.” Feminist Studies 11, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 558-64.
8 The Body Politics of Suzanne Lacy Bibliography
Writings on Suzanne Lacy
Burnham, Linda. “Performance Art in the San Francisco International Theatre Festival.” High Performance 5, no. 3 (1982).
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art and Society. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.
Chicago, Judy. Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday & Company, 1977.
Deak, Frantosek. “Inevitable Associations.” Openbaarkustbezit Kunstschrift (January 1978).
———-. “The Use of Character in Artistic Performance.” The Dumb Ox, nos. 10-11 (Spring 1980).
Freuh, Joanna. “The Women’s Room.” The Reader (April 1980).
Gablik, Suzi. “Making Art as if the World Mattered: Some Methods of Creative Partnership.” Utne Reader 34 (July/August 1989).
———-. “Connective Aesthetics.” American Art (Smithsonian Institution) 6, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 2-7.
Gaulke, Cheri. “Redefining the Whole Relationship Between Art and Society.” Art News 79, no. 8 (October 1980): 58-63.
- In the Beginning
- Hot Flashes
- A Decade Old
- In Transition