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The Guerrilla Girls and Their Role in the New York City Art World


December 17, 2021

During the 1980s in the New York City art world emerged a radical feminist group called the Guerilla Girls who directly attacked the art institutions for their sexist exclusion of women. Taking the city by storm, the Guerrilla Girls were determined to shake up the status quo in pursuit of a more equal and diverse art industry. The anonymous group, made up of exclusively female artists, were inspired by the women’s rights movement and the second wave of feminism to attack the prejudices within the white male dominated art world. The Guerilla Girls considered themselves “the conscience of the art world” and based their entire image and subsequent game plan on the meaning of being a woman. Misogyny, laws that prohibited equality, and little to no substantial cultural changes in equity throughout the years, made it surprising that there are even female artists at all. Nevertheless, despite stereotypes, discrimination, and the heiarchy of even the materials used in art, women artists continued to create and inspire but were under-represented in the museums and galleries in New York City. Many participants in the New York City art scene in the early 1980s had asked, "why haven't there been more great women artists throughout Western history?” However, the Guerrilla Girls attacked the question from the other direction, asking, "why haven't more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?" Thus, the Guerrilla Girls took on the mission to affect change in the art world, but to do so they had to force it to acknowledge and destroy the boundaries excluding women. By using their cutting edge strategies like humor, pop culture, and shock value, the Guerrilla Girls leveraged their popularity to ultimately gain mass support and put pressure on the art institutions for change.

To capture the attention of New York City and to present a unified message, the Guerrilla Girls used their name and bodies as their first line of attack. The choice of the group name Guerrilla Girls originally stemmed from the term guerrilla warfare: quick paced and little actions against enemy forces, which the girls adopted as their own. Their “girly,” sexy, and outrageous outfits paired with the unexpected gorilla mask visibly and immediately spread the message that “immature girls,” so called, can reclaim their identity and be considered powerful. As for the masks, the girls believed it gave them some “mask-ulinity,” a play on words that gave the group teeth to express urgency and rage through humorous tactics. One Guerrilla Girl stated, “we also wanted to make feminism [that “F” word] fashionable again, with new tactics and strategies. It was really surprising when so many people identified with us and felt we spoke for their collective anger.” This fresh new image of fashionable feminism quickly became appealing to the public eye and hard to miss. During the late 1970s, the feminst movement had begun to be less effective and outdated, relying on protests by the means of formal talks and letter writings. The girls, however, knew that a different approach was needed to capture the attention of the city, hence the shock value and sex appeal of their debut. Finally, the girls used the tactic of mystery as an anonymous group and by taking the code names of famous dead female artists, such as Frida Khalo and Grace Gleuk. Their anonymity was unique to the feminist movement, since the norm before was to rely on famous names such as Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Guerrilla Girls were opposed to being behind a single individual; a face, an icon, a hero, insitining rather that the attention be focused on the group as a whole while equalizing them behind a common cause. With their eccentric looks and their head-strong boldness, the city immediately took notice with letters flooding in from supporters.

Capitalizing on their instant popularity, the Guerrilla Girl’s next most effective attention-grabbing technique was the paired use of humor and pop culture in messaging, specifically in their posters. The posters’ direct messages about museums and galleries under-representation of gender, and eventually race, combined with the girls’ singular brand of humor, made sensitive and upsetting topics more bearable, all the while keeping the girls in their art roots. During an interview for Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls, the girls explained, "if you can laugh about something, that is the most brilliant [ploy] because a laugh makes everybody feel a part of the inside joke." In the beginning of the poster campaign, the posters were strictly a combination of text and photos that were intended to be conceptual and only based on art biases against women. However, as the movement progressed, the posters started to evolve. The Guerrilla Girls began to use statistics, which focused on practical and material evidence of the differences between the representation of white male artists versus that of women and people of color. One of their most influential posters was a message about the economic inequality suffered by female artists. It was an illustration of a dollar bill with a dotted line running vertically down a third of the dollar, and at the bottom in bold letters it read, “Women in America earn only 2/3 of what men do. Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men artists do.” Using the pop culture image of the dollar bill, the girls piggybacked on the previous feminist movements exposures of the unenforced Equal Pay Act in order to make the connected an even more dramatic point about economic disparities for women in the art world. Another poster was a picture of a piece of bread with words that read, “We sell white bread. Ingredients: White Men, Artificial Flavorings, Preservatives. *Contains less than the minimum daily requirement of white women, and non-whites.” This poster was a direct hit at the art galleries, which exclusively showed white male artists, by means of humor and pop culture that made the message accessible and retainable. The 1989 Guerrilla Girls' code of Ethics for Art Museums was a poster that resembled the Ten Commandments, and humorously condemned nepotism and favoritism within the art world that excluded women artists. Finally, their humorous play on words within their catalog of works was a radical tactic to reclaim female power and take down male supremacy. By rejecting words like masterpiece (that indicates a male master created it), seminal (which refers to semen), and genius (which in Latin means testicales) the Guerrilla Girls both mocked and stripped language of male power. Ultimately, the posters’ high visibility and broad reach spread the message and garnered mass popular attention for the cause.

While posters and billboards did the semipermanente work of spreading the message to large mobile audiences, the Guerrilla Girls themselves took more active and personal attacks through panels, letters and exhibitions. Through a government grant girls created a newsletter named Hot Flashes, a joke concerning menopause in women, which was used to "monitor sexism and racism in the art world." They proactively sent secret letters to offenders in the art community and gave them bogus awards, one such being "The Most Patronizing Art Preview." The girls made direct attacks on art museums such as the Whitney and the MoMa. In their Review of the Whitney they called out the poor treatment of women and people of color and encouraged supporters to “write a trustee today.” Additionally, The Guerrilla Girl Art Action Group demanded a "Call for Immediate Resignation of All the Rockefellers from the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art." In response, many institutions began to invite the Guerrilla Girls to exhibitions, since they recognized the growing support and influence the girls had, and, at the very least, wanted to be perceived as open to this new vision of change. As such, the girls were invited to the Palladium exhibition of 150 works by eighty-five women artists and the College Art Association held an “Anger Panel” where the girls played a tape claiming sarcastically that they were not mad at the art world. These invitations were messages in themselves that the Guerrilla Girls were being heard and that change was on the rise. In return, the girls gave a show to their critiques. Two panels were organized in dedication to the critics, one was called "Hidden Agender: An Evening with Critics'' and the other "Passing the Bucks: An Evening with Art Dealers." Anytime a panelist would say a statement that was sexist or racist, a Guerrilla Girl in full costume would interrupt them with "oh really?” to call them out in the moment. These interactions with critics changed the power dynamic. The Guerrilla Girls’ lack of fear empowered them to turn the conversation and put the criticism directed at women back on the critics and those who had excluded women at no cost to themselves for so long.

The Guerrilla Girls knew that the art world was a microcosm of the society at large and believed that the power and privilege imbalances they were redressing had larger implications for women and other marginalized groups. One Guerrilla Girl stated that, "the big money art world is a world of privilege, and the patriarchy of western culture is accentuated in arenas of privilege." The art marketplace was notably unregulated, and so artists in New York City in the 1980s became pawns in a large money scheme, with collectors and dealers whilding the power. Women artists had the double burden of being both artists and females, making it nearly impossible for their work and themselves to be recognized and protected financially. Furthermore, since female artists were at the bottom of the hierarchy and had no influence on the market, and since biases were summarily overlooked, they felt “squeezed” creatively between social attitudes and their own self direction. The Guerrilla Girls recognized that these pressures stemming from the power imbalance were not exclusive to the art world and in fact were a reflection of white male privilege in the greater society; the art dealers and collectors were the privileged white men, artists were the excluded and marginalized. American painter and supporter of the Guerrilla Girls echoed that, "prejudice in the art world reflects prejudice in the culture at large." Understanding that the art world, at its root, would never be changed if society was frozen in its bias, and also that the art world has the power to affect change and influence society to progress, the Guerrilla Girls expanded their campaign. They began to include race as a major focus in their art world attacks and to spread awareness on topics outside of the art world such as abortion rights, the Gulf War, homelessness, rape, and Clarence Thomas. Ultimately, the girls’ mission broadened to reflect the shared reality of all marginalized people and to promote a vision of a future where "the age of isms is over.”

Through the power of their popularity and their daring tactics, the Guerrilla Girls riled up the city in support of women in the art world and put pressure on the institutions that had excluded female artists. A supporter of the girls would later remark that the Guerilla Girls "almost single-handedly kept women's art activism alive over one of the worst decades I hope we'll see." The girls derived their mission from activist movements in the past, but with the addition of pop culture, humor, and shock value, they reanimated the women's movement that was too often overlooked in the 1980s and needed new traction. Although they were shocking like the activist women before them in America, they broke old barriers with new and innovative ways that helped to pave the way for future generations. While their origins were focused on the art world, their influence and the force of their demands helped shape the national conversation on societal change and equal participation.


Bibliography

Chave, Anna C. "The Guerrilla Girls' Reckoning." Art Journal 70, no. 2 (2011): 102-11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41430728.


The Guerrilla Girls. Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls: By the Guerrilla Girls (whoever They Really Are) ; with an Essay by Whitney Chadwick. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1995.


———. The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006.


Withers, Josephine. "The Guerrilla Girls." Feminist Studies 14, no. 2 (1988): 285-300. https://doi.org/10.2307/3180154.




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