An Interview with the Guerrilla Girls
You have to love the Guerrilla Girls for “fighting discrimination with facts, humor, and fake fur” as their website states. This anonymous collective of women artists don gorilla masks to criticize Hollywood, the art world, and others for their bad behavior, and in doing so, they explode stereotypes of beauty and the idea that feminists are humorless. They’ve authored three books, produced bitingly funny posters and billboards, and engaged in guerrilla sticker campaigns at Sundance, the Oscars, and elsewhere. I was lucky enough to catch up with a representative of my favorite masked avengers through e-mail.
Elizabeth Stark: The Guerrilla Girls were a source of inspiration in founding Fringe. Who did you look up to as the group was forming? What event instigated the formation of the Guerrilla Girls?
Kathe Kollwitz: Wow, that’s fantastic, thanks so much for telling us that we inspired you. We were inspired to start the Guerrilla Girls by lots of things, but one key event was an exhibition titled “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture” that the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened in 1984. It was supposed to be an up-to-the-minute survey of the most significant contemporary art in the world. Out of 169 artists, only 13 were women. All the artists were white, either from Europe or the US. That was bad enough, but the curator, Kynaston McShine, gave interviews saying that any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink “his” career. That really annoyed a lot of women artists because it was obvious to us that the guy was completely prejudiced. Women demonstrated in front of the museum with the usual placards and picket line. A couple of us who attended were irritated that the demonstration had no effect on passersby. We decided there had to be a way to break through the public’s entrenched—and incorrect—idea that what was in the museum was the best art, and what wasn’t included was not as good.
ES: I like the idea that you have each chosen the name of a dead woman artist to protect your own identities and to honor women artists that have been forgotten by history. Could you explain why you chose the name you chose?
KK: I chose Kathe Kollwitz, a German artist who lived from 1845-1945. I admire her because she was a lifelong political activist and believed that art should be accessible to all, not just to the wealthy. She did work about ordinary working people, the horrors of war and some great etchings about sex, too.
ES: What do you think would happen if you took off the gorilla mask and “came out” as a GG? Why do you wear masks?
KK: In the beginning, we decided to be anonymous for purely self-serving reasons: the art world was a small place and we were afraid our careers would suffer. But we quickly realized that anonymity was an important ingredient to our success. First, it keeps the focus on the issues, not on our work or personalities. Second, the mystery surrounding our identities has attracted attention, which is helpful to our cause.
But we do think it’s really bizarre that the best way to be taken seriously as a feminist in the art world is to be anonymous and wear a gorilla mask! Would anyone care if we came out as “GGs”? Nah. It’s the work that has really made a difference, not our costumes or who we really are.
ES: Do you think that the art world is behind other industries when it comes to including women?
KK: All our research shows that cultural fields lag behind lots of other professions. Art and film are the worst. (See our poster, “Bus Companies are More Progressive than NYC Art Galleries.”)
ES: I realize that there is a deeply entrenched bias toward men in the arts. But to play devil’s advocate, I might attribute the dearth of women’s art to other factors – maybe galleries would show women’s art if it were better, perhaps women don’t want fame as much as men, and don’t have the drive to succeed, or are not ready to make the necessary sacrifices of time and effort. Men might be better represented in galleries because more male artists are out there putting work forth than women. How would you respond to this position?
KK: We do not find that there are more male than female artists working, but we do see more males showing in galleries and museums. There are so many great artists out there – female, male, transgendered, etc. – but the art world sucks! The system tries to reduce everything to a few winners and a lot of losers. That’s a paradigm that must change. We don’t want people going to museums 100 years from now to see a false picture of today’s culture.
ES: Do you think that a woman’s work should be shown simply for variety?
KK: Not for variety, but because prejudice, conscious or unconscious, is the only reason more women’s work isn’t shown.
ES: I agree with you, but is that really the most productive way to frame the debate? Take the Pace Gallery – your poster humiliated the gallery into showing the art of a woman under fifty, but did you change the mind of the gallery’s director? I’m sure he had some “good reasons” for not displaying women artists, but instead of disproving his reasons, you shamed him into it. While the result is admirable, is it a better strategy to overpower your opponent, or to bring him to your way of thinking?
KK: When the Guerrilla Girls complain about the lack of women artists in certain exhibitions, we’re talking about pathetically low numbers…5%, 10%, and 15%. Numbers that low have to be the result of discrimination, either conscious or unconscious. There are many minds we can’t change, but those kinds of dire facts do change some minds. We’ve received letters from curators, critics, etc. who weren’t aware of how low their numbers were.
ES: If you were putting together an exhibit of great art of the 20th Century, what art would you include?
KK: Please don’t make us do that – we would have to choose among too many great artists! We did organize an exhibition years ago at a New York City club. We included hundreds of women, but still felt badly that we hadn’t included more. We vowed never to curate an exhibition ever again.
We believe art institutions should be as inclusive as possible. Museums and galleries believe the opposite.
ES: Do you feel that the competition among women in the art world (and the world as a whole, for that matter) undermines the sisterhood of feminism?
KK: Competition undermines more than sisterhood; it undermines activism. Even today, most artists just want their piece of the pie and are afraid to openly criticize the system.
ES: A lot of political artworks come off as preachy and flat. What can an artist do to keep the artwork fresh while maintaining political meaning?
KK: That’s hard, and something we think about a lot. We want to effect change by transforming the opinions of viewers, and we are always trying to find more effective ways to break through people’s preconceived notions and prejudices. We don’t do posters and actions that simply point to something and say, “This is bad,” as does a lot of political art. We present humorous, provocative images and statements, backed up by information, that give the audience a chance to think about an issue and come to a conclusion, hopefully on the side of feminism and social change. We believe that some discrimination is conscious and some is unconscious and that we can embarrass some of the perpetrators into changing their ways. This has proved true in the art world: things are better now than they ever have been for women and artists of color and we have helped effect that change. (We are still condemning the art world for its lack of ethics, tokenism and other bad behavior.)
ES: Many people that I come across refuse to call themselves feminists because of the word’s stereotypical connotations. Should feminists try to rehabilitate this word, or should we find a new word to describe the movement? If so, what might the word be?
KK: Yeah, we want to rehabilitate the concept of feminism. We’re always surprised to find people who agree with the tenets of feminism – equal pay, social justice, equal opportunities, etc. – but who refuse to use the word “feminist” to describe themselves. Of course, you could look at it the opposite way: feminists have been demonized by society and the media for so long that it’s amazing that so many women do call themselves feminists. We want to figure out a way to make everyone who believes in gender equality proud to be a feminist.
By the way, longtime activists like Robin Morgan say the percentage of women who identify as feminists has remained constant since the 1970s.
A new word for feminism? Funny you should bring that up. We used to talk a lot about that, but never came up with a replacement we liked. Do you have one?
ES: “Humanism” is the best I’ve come up with – I think it gets at the core belief of feminism, the belief that women ought to be treated like people. I also think the word is more inclusive to groups that have traditionally felt alienated from feminism. Then again, it may be too broad to represent such a specific range of beliefs.
KK: We haven’t given up on the term feminism yet, even though it has been demonized in the media. After all, feminism has changed/is changing/will change the world.
ES: Is it possible for the feminist movement to unify so many competing views of what it means to be a woman? Should one viewpoint be privileged over the others?
KK: We think it’s great that there are so many kinds of feminists and feminisms, and we support most of them!
ES: Is there a place for chick lit, fashion magazines, and sexualized pre-pubescent pop stars in the feminist movement?
KK: Hey, feminists are people, too.
ES: One of Fringe’s editors thinks that the home is the main battlefield of feminism – now that men are in the house and kitchen, the most important and achievable feminist action is demanding that spousal units do equal shares of housework and child-rearing. Do you agree?
KK: That is important, because most women have full time jobs AND do all the housework. But it is equally important to keep up the pressure in the workplace, to ensure that women can raise children and work outside the home.
ES: Which project do you think was most successful in effecting change? What is your favorite GG project?
KK: We know from the thousand of letters we get from people all over the world that our work has changed many minds. We definitely know we’ve helped change the art world. But, like many artists, our favorite projects (and we’ve done over 100 posters, billboards, books, stickers and actions) are our latest ones. I like the anti-film industry billboards we’ve been putting up around Oscar time in Hollywood, just a short distance from where the Oscar ceremony is held. In 2006, we did “Unchain the Women Directors,” reminding Los Angeles that the number of women directors is pathetically low. Or how about our new large-scale banner about Turkish women artists that went up outside the Istanbul Modern Museum in October? We’ve had a great time researching and creating projects about Istanbul and Venice, and have projects in Mexico City and Athens coming soon.
ES: What made you decide to highlight Turkish women artists?
KK: Rosa Martinez, director and curator of the 2005 Venice Biennale, curated a show of some of the Venice artists at the Istanbul Modern Museum. She brought us to Turkey in June 2006 to meet with artists and curators and do a new billboard about Turkish women artists. The exhibition, which opened in October, also included our work from the Venice Biennale.
ES: Thanks for typing me – I look forward to seeing what you do next.