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The Guerrilla Girls Photo

The Guerrilla Girls

American Photographers, Designers, Activists and Conceptual Artists

Started: 1984
"If you're in a situation where you're a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won't believe what comes out of your mouth."
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"We stand for the conscience of the art world."
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"We'd love to take those masks off, but would anyone listen to us without them? We discovered that the art world takes feminists more seriously when they use humor and wear a gorilla disguise. Pathetic! We think of it as our masc-ulinity."
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"Anonymous free speech is protected by the Constitution. You'd be surprised what comes out of your mouth when you wear a mask."
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"We use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose sexism, racism and corruption in politics, art, film and pop culture."
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"One of our goals is to reinvent the "f" word - feminism. Our message: find your own crazy, creative way to be a feminist and an activist."
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"How can you really tell the story of a culture when you don't include all the voices within the culture? Otherwise, it's just the history, and the story, of power."
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"We want to be subversive, to transform our audience, to confront them with some disarming statements, backed up by facts - and great visuals - and hopefully convert them."
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"It's our honest hope that all this attention to our work and the issues we raise adds up to changes for women artists and artists of color."
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"We could be anyone; we are everywhere."
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"Wearing those clothes with a gorilla mask confounds the stereotype of female sexiness."
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Summary of The Guerrilla Girls

In 1985, a group of vigilantes wearing gorilla masks took to the streets. Armed with wheat paste and posters, the Guerrilla Girls, as they called themselves, set out to shame the art world for its underrepresentation of women artists. Their posters, in the words of one critic "were rude; they named names and they printed statistics. They embarrassed people. In other words, they worked." In addition to posters (now highly-valued works of art), billboards, performances, protests, lectures, installations, and limited-edition prints make up the Guerrilla Girls' varied oeuvre. Their unorthodox tactics were instrumental in making progress. The group is still going strong, reminding the art world that it still has a long way to go. Referring to themselves as "the conscience of the art world," wherever discrimination lurks, the Guerrilla Girls are likely to strike again.

As their reputation has grown, they have encompassed targets beyond the art sphere, like Hollywood, right wing politicians, and same-sex marriage. They have collaborated with institutions that once shunned them, including the Tate Modern and MoMA, and yet their tactics remain as radical as ever. In a 2012 interview they revealed, "We've been working on a weapon, an estrogen bomb...If you drop it, the men will drop their guns and start hugging each other. They'll say, 'Why don't we clean this place up?' In the end, we encourage people to send their extra estrogen pills to Karl Rove; he needs a little more estrogen."

Accomplishments

  • The Guerrilla Girls' marketing tactics were more sophisticated than that of any previous feminist campaign. Imitating advertising, and appealing to the eye of the educated mass consumer, they engaged a much broader audience.
  • Gorilla masks are funny. Coopting this and other elements of humor into their communicative strategy helped dispel the notion that feminists have no sense of humor.
  • The Guerrilla Girls made feminism seem like a glamorous club one could join. As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith has written, they took "feminist theory, gave it a populist twist and some Madison Avenue pizazz and set it loose in the streets." In admitting women only, and exclusively by invitation, the group mirrored power circles in the male-dominated art world.
  • While adopting masks and pseudonyms like Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stein, and Käthe Kollwitz heightened the theatricality of their public appearances, it also served a practical purpose. It afforded anonymity for working artists who had every reason to believe the institutions would launch counter attacks on their professional reputations.
  • Their decision to remain anonymous is pointedly connected to the history of women in art. In the 1980s, many art history courses did not include a single woman artist, and many of the women artists whose works are now well known were relatively undiscovered.

Biography of The Guerrilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls Photo

Two main events inspired the formation of the Guerrilla Girls. One was the publication of the influential feminist essay "Why have there been no great women artists?" in 1971 by art historian Linda Nochlin. As the title suggests, Nochlin accepts that throughout history, women have failed to achieve greatness on a par with the Michelangelos and Picassos of the art world. Nochlin blames the art world, eschewing the oft-repeated explanation that women must be somehow biologically or intellectually inferior. In a deeply segregated system with long-entrenched institutional biases, she argues, women had never had the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with their male peers. Laying the blame squarely on the art world, Nochlin writes: "The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, but in our institutions and our education."



Progression of Art

Dearest Art Collector (1986)
1986

Dearest Art Collector

Shortly after forming their group, The Guerrilla Girls sent this poster to well- known art collectors, pointing out how few works they owned by women artists. Addressed "Dearest Collector", and made to resemble a hand-written letter on powder-pink paper, the rounded cursive script crowned with a frowning flower oozes femininity, exemplifying the scathing sarcasm for which the Guerrilla Girls were known. This send up of femininity is aimed at the expectation that, even when presenting a serious complaint, women should do so in a socially acceptable 'nice' way. "We know that you feel terrible about this" appeals to the feelings of the recipient. The group later transcribed it into other languages and sent it to collectors outside the U.S. A practical joke with serious implications, this poster is now (somewhat ironically) a collector's item.

Poster - Tate Museum, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988)
1988

The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist

The so-called "advantages" on this list numbers thirteen (i.e. an unlucky number) ways in which women are systematically excluded from art textbooks, exhibitions, and literature. "Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others" alludes to women's innovations that have been misattributed to men. "Knowing your career might pick up after you're eighty" refers to Louise Nevelson, Lee Krasner, Barbara Hepworth, and countless other women artists whose contributions to the history of art were only acknowledged at the very end of their careers. "Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood" addresses the persistent social expectation that women must choose (for men, there was no equivalent expectation). The list ends with a self-referential flourish: "Getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit." The Guerrilla Girls, working artists, were finding that they got more attention when dressed as gorillas, an irony that did not escape them. As they put it, "we discovered that the art world takes feminists more seriously when they use humor and wear a gorilla disguise." A prime example of the Guerrilla Girls' early work, this poster, distributed widely in Manhattan in 1988, uses wit and sarcasm to expose inequities of the art world.

Poster - Tate Modern, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

When Racism & Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth? (1989)
1989

When Racism & Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?

At the end of the 1980s, contemporary art prices rose to astronomical heights. Work by contemporary women artists, however, did not rise to reflect this spike in the market. This poster reminds art collectors that the "art market won't bestow mega-buck prices on the work of a few white males forever," and that with the 17.7 million one Jasper Johns painting was worth in the present, the collector could buy at least one work by all of the sixty-seven women artists and artists of color on this list, which would presumably be worth much more in the future. The list includes well-known women artists, both contemporary and historical, such as Diane Arbus, Mary Cassatt, Sonia Delauney, Georgia O'Keeffe, Dorothea Lange, Angelica Kauffmann, and Rosa Bonheur. Women artists of color are also included, such as Frida Kahlo, Tina Modotti, Remedios Varos, and Edmonia Lewis. Indeed, if the collector had listened, and acted as directed here, he or she would now be a billionaire.

This poster returns to a point raised three years earlier in the pink letter written to collectors. Instead of appealing to feelings, however, it makes a financially viable argument. By pointing out that one work by Jasper Johns was valued more highly than the work of all these women artists and artists of color put together, the Guerrilla Girls highlight the absurdity of the art world's sexist system of valuation. They also make the point that in order to remain competitive as an investor, a collector not only should, but must diversity his (or her) "art portfolio", by buying work by women and artists of color.

Poster - Tate Museum, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Do women have to be naked to get Into the Met.Musem? (1989)
1989

Do women have to be naked to get Into the Met.Musem?

Until 1989 there was no imagery in the Guerrilla Girls' work, just text. Then "One Sunday morning we conducted a 'weenie count' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art comparing the number of nude males to nude females in the artworks on display," they recalled. Originally designed as a billboard for the New York Public Art Fund (PAF), it transposes a gorilla head onto one of the most famous nudes in art (Jean-August-Dominique Ingres's La Grande Odalisque), transforming this refined symbol of feminine sensuality into a hybrid monster that seems to roar out the title question. On the side of a bus, where one expects to see announcements for upcoming exhibitions, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" was an image intended to embarrass one of the art world's most hallowed institutions. PAF rejected the poster. The Guerrilla Girls took the project forward on their own, renting advertising space on New York City buses "until the bus company canceled our lease, saying that the image, based on Ingres's famous Odalisque, was too suggestive and that the figure appeared to have more than a fan in her hand." Hard to imagine that the bus company was really that prudish. More likely it just seemed unwise to take aim at a major institution like the Met. Since its creation, the poster has been reissued in 2012 with a recount of the representation of women artists in the Metropolitan, and repurposed in the Guerrilla Girls poster Do women have to be naked to get into music videos? (2014). With its bold type face reminiscent of advertising, and use of humor and statistics, it is the iconic Guerrilla Girls' work.

Poster - Tate Museum, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

The Birth of Feminism (2001)
2001

The Birth of Feminism

In the early 2000s, the Guerrilla Girls turned their focus to Hollywood's unfair treatment of the sexes, both on screen and in person. Describing the genesis of this poster, they remark: "Hollywood producers have come to us saying, 'we wanna make a movie about feminism, do you have any ideas?' And we always thought that was so ludicrous because don't we just know the kind of movie Hollywood would make? So we decided we would do the movie poster for the film that we hope never gets made the Hollywood way." Appearing to advertise for "A Major Hollywood Studio" production on American feminism, this poster features sex symbols Pamela Anderson, Halle Berry, and Catherine Zeta Jones in the starring roles of feminist leaders Gloria Steinem, Florence Kennedy, and congresswoman Bella Abzug. The beach-towel-like banner they are holding over their groins bears the title of the international women's rights organization, Equality Now, founded in 1992. Clashing with this feminist declaration is the film's title "The Birth of Feminism" (an allusion to the classic racist film The Birth of a Nation (1915)) and the words "They made women's rights look good. Really good", underscoring the superficial standards of the film industry, where women actors are, almost without exception, hired for looks as opposed to talent. Smaller text at the bottom credits Oliver Stone, Eminem, and Jerry Bruckheimer (all of whom had been criticized for perpetuating gender stereotypes) as the writers and producers of the film and soundtrack. It highlights both how unlikely the making of a blockbuster film on feminism would be, and how misrepresented the story would be if it were made into a movie.

Poster - Tate Museum, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

The Anatomically Correct Oscar (2002)
2002

The Anatomically Correct Oscar

By the early-21st century, they had begun to critique sexism outside the visual art world. They conducted their own research on filmmaking, and featured those statistics in posters that call attention to the exclusionary practices of the film industry. A reflection of the film industry's real priorities, The Anatomically Correct Oscar is a white man hiding his genitals and standing next to text boxes that reveal the persistent gender gap in directing, acting, and screen writing. For months leading up to the Oscars in 2002, the Guerrilla Girls displayed this billboard in Hollywood because, as "Kollwitz" noted "the people we want to reach will see it... There is so much positive press around the Oscars - the gowns, the stars - that we decided it was time for another point of view."

Poster - National Gallery of Art, Washington; Tate Museum, London; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Unchain The Women Directors (2006)
2006

Unchain The Women Directors

"Queen Kong," as the Guerrilla Girls dubbed her, appeared as a Hollywood billboard just in time for Oscar month. Mimicking the eye-catching look of an old poster and in an obvious allusion to the classic King Kong film, it features a swimsuit-clad gorilla grasping an Oscar statue. "UNCHAIN THE WOMEN DIRECTORS" challenges the film industry. "WOMEN DIRECTED ONLY 7% OF THE TOP 200 FILMS OF 2005," smaller text underneath reveals, and "NO WOMAN DIRECTOR HAS EVER WON THE OSCAR. ONLY 3 HAVE BEEN NOMINATED." Emphasizing statistics (enlarging and highlighting the 7% in gold and the number 3 in white) that are actually quite depressing, it uses the film industry's own visual language to critique it. This is also a reference to themselves, as well as the famous film. Now associated with the gorilla image every bit as much as the film is, the Guerrilla Girls have come full circle.

Poster - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Even Michele Bachmann Believes “We All Have The Same Civil Rights.” (2012)
2012

Even Michele Bachmann Believes “We All Have The Same Civil Rights.”

As the Guerrilla Girls gained fame, they were able to show their work in an array of prominent, meaningful public spaces and reach outside the art world. Displayed as a billboard in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this poster advocates for same sex marriage featuring one of its staunchest opponents, conservative politician Michele Bachmann. Bachmann's advocacy for a constitutional ban on gay marriage was one of the central tenets of her campaign for presidency in 2012. Here her statement "We all have the same civil rights" is taken out of context, and printed large above the words "Vote No on the marriage discrimination amendment", an amendment Bachmann had supported. The hot pink title phrase, human rights symbol over Bachmann's lips, and "NO" in the text, highlight the hypocrisy of her position. The use of this color also alludes to the Nazi use of pink, (under the Nazi regime, persons identified as homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle).

Poster - Tate Museum, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

How Many Women Had One-person Exhibitions At NYC Museums Last Year? (2015)
2015

How Many Women Had One-person Exhibitions At NYC Museums Last Year?

In a simple black/white/red textual layout, this poster juxtaposes the number of women who had one-person exhibitions at New York City Museums in 1985 and 2015. Juxtaposed side by side, as in a slide lecture, the images and text are similar enough that one has to look twice. What stands out are the enlarged dates, drawing attention to the amount of time that has passed, and how little these numbers have moved. Not as much progress as one might expect. This poster encapsulates the significance of the Guerrilla Girls' role in the history of art over nearly half a century, and how far there still is to go before gender equity is reached in the art world.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"The Guerrilla Girls Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 02 Mar 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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