(Image from Feminist Art Project at Rutgers University)
Today I went to check out the Guerrilla Girls at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Founded in 1985, the group consists of anonymous feminists who wear guerilla masks while trying to raise awareness about racial, gender, class, sexuality, etc. inequalities within art. The members of the group are named after dead female artists and have chosen to wear masks so the audience can focus on their message, rather than their individual identities. The group has promoted awareness of inequalities in art (and the media) through posters, stickers, lectures, interviews, and artwork. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the event. I am all for trying to be creative and using costumes to make protest more interesting and vibrant. After all, at one time I wanted to start up radical cheerleading and clowning groups. Really, I had a fun time for the short while I did radical cheerleading. However, I was cautious that perhaps the event would be more artsy, silly, and performative than factual and substantive. I also know very little about art, so I was uncertain if the event would speak to me or my experiences. Finally, because the group was founded upon post-structural ideas, I thought that there might be aspects of the event that I didn’t agree with. My misgivings were entirely unfounded and I found the event to be excellent.
The event consisted of a slideshow and lecture about inequalities and art. The presentation was conducted by two women in gorilla masks. As silly as this sounds, it was engaging, and the masks were not at all distracting after the first slide or two. The masks and dark colored clothes indeed helped me to focus on the content rather than the speakers. I did not take notes during the event, but to summarize some of the main ideas the speakers were upset with the treatment of gender (and race) in art. Most artists featured in museums around the world (above 90% in all museums surveyed) are male. The museums themselves are named after men. And, among the human bodies depicted in modern art, 85% are female. Furthermore, the pay gap between male and female artists is many times that of the regular pay gap. For instance, the highest selling piece of art by a female was sold for 12% of the price of the highest male artists. The lecture also had information about race and class. I was impressed that the Guerrilla Girls made mention of how enslaved guest workers were being used to build the new Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi. The exploited labor used in the construction of a museum seems like something that could easily be missed by an art historian. Class was also mentioned in their discussion of wealthy art collectors, auction house owners, and museum directors, who help to shape the prices and unequal value assigned to art. In terms of race, the presentation mentioned how the Minneapolis Institute of Art only features one piece of work by a Hmong artist and Somali artist, even though Minneapolis has the largest Hmong and Somali population in the U.S. Overall, the lecture was focused more on gender than race and class, though the intersectionality between them was mentioned. A plethora of other statistics were presented during the lecture, but the general idea was that within our already sexist society, there is a particularly strong gender bias in art. While I had some awareness of this, I had really never stopped to consider it nor did I realize just how big this problem was.
Beyond discussing the history of women in art and various inequalities therein, the larger media was also explored. The Guerrilla Girls also discussed their own history and gave us a sneak peek at their newest installation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. They said that they wrestled with their new-found acceptance by the art community and invitation to show their work around the world. They have decided to use these opportunities as a platform for spreading their message and critiquing the very museums they are shown in. The Guerilla Girls also discussed some of the main ideas from a book they wrote on the history of hysteria. In all, the presentation lasted about an hour, but was engaging the entire time. The use of images, costume, humor, questions to the audience, singing, etc. made the lecture lively and engaging. I think that young audiences, people with ADHD, and people who dislike lectures would benefit from this kind of educational event, since it is attention grabbing and stimulating. In this sense, I feel that their ability to present history, sociology, art history, activism, and politics appealed to many learning styles. I feel that I personally learned from the presentation. The presenters certainly met the educational mission of the Fabian motto, “educate, agitate, organize!”
Just as the Guerrilla Girls educated the audience, they also met the slogan’s mission of agitation. This agitation was in the form of their subversive art, poster and sticker campaigns, research, and critique of artistic institutions and norms. The art often consisted of appropriating famous works of art, replacing the head with a gorilla, and pairing this was a statistics. Another interesting piece of art was a movie poster from La Dolce Vita, used to critique putting women’s art in the basement of an Italian museum. Beyond this, their research interested me. For example, they went to museums to conduct a weenie count, counting how many male and female nudes were on display. They also counted the number of female artists compared to male artists. I appreciated this do-it-yourself research. I felt that if I visited a museum, I would want to conduct a count. So, I imagined myself revisiting art museums, such as the ones I visited in Ukraine and Belarus, to do a count. I like the idea of using research in non-conventional ways or the idea that anyone can do research.
I think that the only area where the Guerrilla Girls failed was the organize aspect. They critiqued art, drew attention to their findings, and were excellent educators. However, they had no message how others might organize. Their organizational tactic seemed focused on their own group and activities. However, they did not say that anyone could start up a Guerrilla Girl group or that they welcomed new members. In fact, they skirted a direct answer about hierarchy within their group and their group’s organization. Based upon Wikipedia information, the group is by invitation and there has been lawsuits against unauthorized use of their image when the group split in 2003. And while they promoted feminist ideas, they did not provide suggestions of how to build a mass feminist movement or their relationship to mass movements. In fact, they said that their group is really about critique rather than answers. I feel that this is a bit of a cop out. It is the kind of things that teachers may say to their students to uphold some ideal of neutrality or avoid indoctrination. However, this answer can make people feel rather directionless or that there are no solutions, only questions and critiques. There are certainly ways that artists could organize, beyond donning masks. Although the art economy is not as stereotypically wage oriented as other sectors of the economy, artists might benefit by joining or creating unions. Other demands could be more public funding for underrepresented artists, expansion of art programs in public schools (to create jobs and show a value of art), free tuition for art school as part of a demand for universal education, worker/artist control over museums, etc. Thus, this is my main critique of the presentation. Otherwise, I found it educational, important, and entertaining.