How and Why Did the Guerrilla Girls Alter the Art World
Establishment in New York City, 1985-1995?
Copyright © 1995 by the Guerrilla Girls
We gratefully acknowledge
the Guerrilla Girls' permission
to reproduce art from
their books and website.
Their very anonymity makes clear that they are fighting for women as a caste, but their message celebrates each woman's uniqueness. By insisting on a world as if women mattered, and also the joy of getting there, the Guerrilla Girls pass the ultimate test: they make us both laugh and fight; both happy and strong.
During the 1970s at the height of the feminist movement, the Women's Art Movement helped women artists create, exhibit, and frequently control the flow of their artwork, by utilizing alternative or cooperative spaces. A review in the New York Times evaluated the movement's extraordinary impact. "Most of the interesting American artists of the last 30 years are as interesting as they are . . . because of the feminist art movement of the 1970s. It changed everything." The author went on to note:
It gave a new content to painting, sculpture and photography. It pushed performance, video and installation art to the fore. It smashed the barrier between high art and low art, and it put folk art, outsider art, non-Western art, not to mention so-called women's art (sewing, quilting, crafts of all kinds) center stage. What art in the next 30 years will look like I don't know, but feminist influences will be at its source.
Yet the indebtedness of the art world to feminist art is not usually acknowledged so fully.
Indeed, because the inclusive and pluralist spirit of the Women's Art Movement disrupted the commercial economy of art, art dealers in the early 1980s led collectors toward a new group of young male artists. Collectors of the '80s sought alternatives to postminimalist earth, performance, and conceptual art, and instead desired portable, salable paintings that could hang on their walls. This shift pushed women artists back to the margins. Whitney Chadwick in Women, Art, and Society (1990) writes of the period:The pluralism of the 1970s has been viewed as a symptom of the disintegration of the set of practices (abstract painting, minimal sculpture, etc.) through which Modernism was defined. By the late 1970s, a reaction against pluralism, and a backlash against women and minorities, could also be observed within the dominant institutions and discourses of the art world. Exhibitions celebrating the "return" to painting, and focusing on a new generation of male Neoexpressionists -- for example, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Francesco Clemente -- were remarkable for their exclusion of virtually all women: "Zeitgeist" (Berlin, 1982, 40 artists, 1 woman); "The Expressionist Image: American Art From Pollock to Now" (New York, 24 artists, 2 women); "The New Spirit in Painting" (London, 1981, no women).
A turning point in this process occurred in June 1984, when demonstrators picketed an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, the "International Survey of Painting and Sculpture," protesting the underrepresentation of women artists. Of the 169 artists chosen, all were white and less than 10 percent were women. As the decade of 1970s activism gave way to the complacency and careerism of the 1980s, the art world needed a gendered conscience. The Guerrilla Girls emerged to meet this need in 1985.
In April 1985, two plain, black and white, no-nonsense, fact-filled posters surfaced. The posters scolded art galleries, museums and critics for their meager or non-existent commitment to women artists. These "public service announcements," as the Guerrilla Girls called them, were posted up and down the streets of SoHo and the East Village in New York City, neighborhoods in which artists lived and exhibited their work. The first poster asked: "What Do These Artists Have in Common?" The names of forty-two male artists were listed, then the answer: "They allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10% women artists." The second poster listed the galleries that were showing 10% or fewer women artists. The posters were signed "The Guerrilla Girls: Conscience of the Art World" (see Documents 1A and 1B). The Guerrilla Girls took credit for their assault on the art world, with promises of more to come.
In the Fall of 1985 a new Guerrilla Girls poster asserted: "On Oct. 17 the Palladium Will Apologize to Women Artists" (see Document 2). The Palladium, a popular dance club in New York known for showcasing male artists, cooperated with the Guerrilla Girls by issuing invitations for a show that would "forever put to rest the following notions: (1) Biology is destiny, (2) There are no great women artists, (3) It's the men who are emotional and intuitive, and (4) Only men can show at the Palladium." One Guerrilla Girl later wrote:The guilt we induced with our first posters must have worked because the Palladium, a chic nightclub where all the artwork on display was by men, asked us to organize a large group show of women artists. On this poster [On Oct. 17 the Palladium Will Apologize] we said what they wouldn't. They didn't like the poster, and we didn't like making choices among women artists.The Guerrilla Girls selected an exhibition of 150 works of art by eighty-five women artists. On October 17, 1985, the week-long show opened at the Palladium. A batch of key members quit in protest against the Guerrilla Girls making curatorial choices among women artists instead of orchestrating an open call. They later explained, "We couldn't beat the system and join it at the same time. . . . The group was moving in the wrong direction." After the exhibition the Guerrilla Girls vowed they would never again curate a show.
The success, fame, and strength of the Guerrilla Girls derived from their focus. They knew who they were -- the gendered conscience of the art world. They presented themselves to the public in a unique way -- "we wear gorilla masks to keep the focus on the issues rather than our personalities" (see Document 10). They expressed their ideas clearly -- on black-and-white posters that listed the hard facts of sexism and racism in the art world. They used humor to show that feminists can be funny. And their goals were clear -- they wanted greater representation of female artists and people of color in the art world. Their highly focused approach was extremely successful.
Their use of humor was especially effective. In February of 1986, the College Art Association invited the Guerrilla Girls to participate in an "Anger Panel" at their national convention taking place in New York City. Dressed in black leather jackets, high-heels and gorilla masks and distributing buttons proclaiming "I'm a Guerrilla Girl," the women played a tape in which they claimed not to be angry:I'm a Guerrilla Girl and I'm not incensed that the Museum of Modern Art showed only 13 women of the 169 artists in their International Survey of Painting and Sculpture show or that the Carnegie International (Pittsburgh) had only four out of 42. I know these figures occurred only by chance. There was no sexism, conscious or unconscious, at work.
I'm a Guerrilla Girl and I think that the art world is perfect and I would never think of complaining about any of the wonderful people in it. After all, women artists make fully one whole third of what male artists make, so what's there to be mad about? I mean, it's not nice to get angry. I wouldn't dream about getting angry. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to listen to this.
In April and May of 1986 the Guerrilla Girls organized two different panels, this time at Cooper Union. "Hidden Agender: An Evening with Critics" and "Passing the Bucks: An Evening with Art Dealers" discussed problems surrounding privilege, patronage, patriarchy, and the lack of women art collectors (see Document 8).
In Spring of 1987, the group held "Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney" at the Clocktower in New York protesting the Whitney Museum's Biennial of contemporary American art (see Document 9). The event prompted more press attention than any of their actions to date. Their "Banana Report" presented statistics on inclusion of women and minorities, which between 1973 and 1987 showed a distinctly exclusionary trend. (At 0.3 percent for the whole period, the representation of black women was statistically insignificant.) During their first two years of activism in 1985 and 1986, the Guerrilla Girls' public service announcements drew attention to the power invested in museums, galleries, magazines, critics, and collectors (see Documents 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7). By 1988 the group was unabashed in using wit to expose the hypocrisy and blatant sexism throughout the art world (see Document 11).
The Guerrilla Girls' most controversial choice was their decision to remain anonymous. This strategy highlighted the significant difference between enforced and chosen anonymity. Absent from art historical texts, women artists had remained anonymous for centuries. (See, for example, Document 19.) As part of this strategy, the Guerrilla Girls published and made visible the names of women artists. Their 1989 poster, "When Racism & Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth," listed sixty-seven distinguished women artists (see Document 12). That year their poster "Guerrilla Girls' Identities Exposed!" listed 550 women in the art world (see Document 14). Regarding this "exposure," the Guerrilla Girls wrote: "Is this or isn't this a real list of the Guerrilla Girls? Only the people on it know for sure." In the past anonymity had been a curse on female artistic creativity, but the Guerrilla Girls embraced the strategic benefits of covert existence.
Their early success was visible in New York Magazine, which in 1987 listed them as one of the four powers-that-be in the art world. Their influence also extended far beyond the art world. The same year, the National Organization for Women (NOW) presented them with the Susan B. Anthony Award. Yet museums and galleries often demonstrated little improvement in their exclusionary practices. In response, the Guerrilla Girls publicized in 1989 their most famous public service announcement, "Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?" followed by their strongly-stated 1991 poster, "These Are the Most Bigoted Galleries in New York" (see Documents 13 and 16).
On June 24, 1992, the Guerrilla Girls collaborated with the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) for a joint action outside of the SoHo Guggenheim Museum, which planned to inaugurate its new galleries with a show of four or five white, male artists (see Document 17). The action took place after months of letters, phone calls, and faxes demanded the inclusion of nonwhite, non-European, non-male artists in the museum's opening show and urged more diverse, community-responsive curating. In response to the protest, the Guggenheim hastily added one female artist, Louise Bourgeois, to the exhibition list, but this tokenism was not enough to appease the 500 protestors who continued chanting: "hey, hey, ho, ho, white male culture has got to go!" Although WAC, with its large membership and focus on public demonstrations, was more suited to the day's events, it was the Guerrilla Girls who persevered as a feminist organization.
Partly in response to the Guerrilla Girls' campaign, the 1990s brought a new and noteworthy acceptance of women artists. Many more female artists and artists of color took part in the Whitney's 1993 Biennial Exhibition. Almost half of the show's participants were women artists, double the proportion of the 1987 Biennial Exhibition. Audiences noticed the inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups. In a 1996 New York Times article titled "The Gallery Doors Open to the Long Denied," Roberta Smith described the significant shift of the time: "Things aren't what they used to be in the art world. A sea of change is underway. The outside is coming inside. The margins are moving to the center. Maybe 1996 will be remembered as the year the 'other' came in from the cold. . . . Things have come some distance since the famous Guerrilla Girls poster of 1986."
This shift toward greater representation posed a challenge for the Guerrilla Girls, whose appearance now seemed oddly out of place. In the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls' mask was an ironic and empowering declaration of war. Masks helped unify the group and worked as the perfect pun to link the feminist group with their subversive activities. Yet, as one author noted, in the 1990s "the hybrid construction of the animal 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." An African-American Guerrilla Girl said that the gorilla masks began to take on unintended racial assumptions: "The mask becomes a physical and psychological burden at times, limiting our functions. It doesn't dictate our behavior, but it affects our bodies and minds. When I put on the mask, I look the way some people see me every day, unconsciously." For some, the mask had become a projection of racist fantasies and a perpetuation of the sexual allure of the veiled woman.
Although by the mid-1990s the Guerrilla Girls had lost some of their initial momentum, the group did not quit (see Document 15). They remained sensitive to the difference between tokenism and equal representation, and despite the momentary embrace of some women artists, they focused on the continuing subordination of art by and about women. In 1995 they issued a poster warning about tokenism, "Top Ten Signs That You're an Art World Token" (see Document 18).
In 1998 the Guerrilla Girls' new book, The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, stated:We are a group of women artists and art professionals who fight discrimination. We're the conscience of the art world, counterparts to the mostly male traditions of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Batman, and the Lone Ranger. We have produced over 80 posters, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in the art world and the culture at large. We wear gorilla masks to keep the focus on the issues rather than our personalities. We use humor to prove that feminists can be funny. Our work has been passed around the world by kindred spirits who consider themselves Guerrilla Girls too. We could be anyone; we are everywhere.Today the Guerrilla Girls continue to function as an anonymous collective. They have an informative website, a mailing address, and a phone number with a recorded message. After branching out into larger political issues such as the Persian Gulf War, reproductive rights and homelessness, they are now returning to their roots in New York City, and have focused on sexism in the theater world. By changing the venue of their operations from visual art to theater art, they have remained a resilient form of resistence to male dominance.
Their newest poster parodies a Hollywood movie advertisement called "The Birth of Feminism" (see Document 20). In 2001 they received the "Art is a Hammer Award" from the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in California, which printed a silkscreened edition of the popular movie poster. They remain highly visible in the New York and national art press. In 2002, Penguin will publish their third book, Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated History of Female Stereotypes.