The Guerrilla Girls have been complaining for 30 years.
The anonymous group of feminist artists formed after noticing a disparity in the art world: In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art’s survey of 169 international painters and sculptors only featured 13 pieces made by women. Of those 13 pieces, none were made by women of color. The rest were made by men.
The Guerrilla Girls took to peppering humorous, fact-based posters to the walls of galleries and museums in New York City without warning—hence the name “guerrilla.” Their most famous poster (shown above) features a female slave, the symbol of idealized female beauty, whose face has been replaced with the same gorilla mask the Girls wear to conceal their identities. Next to the woman, in stark contrast to the poster’s shockingly yellow background, is the question: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met? The poster brought them international attention, which they have continued to use to advocate for change in the art world.
Frida Kahlo, one of founding members of the Guerrilla Girls, began our interview by addressing President Trump’s recent executive actions. “Oh, he’s such a mean daddy, isn’t he?” she said. By reclaiming the unsophisticated language the patriarchy so often criticizes women for, the Guerrilla Girls created a whole new model for artists and activists seeking to undermine the powers that be.
Gainesville is in a really unique position, because we are essentially a blue dot in the sea of red that is North Florida, and we are also sometimes described as “the cultural hub” of North Florida. How can artists and creators cross cultural boundaries to communicate with people who traditionally would not agree with them?
We started by asking questions publicly. We really wanted to be transformative at the time; so many people working in museums and galleries really thought that they were participating in a meritocracy. We just kept plugging away at it. We went after galleries, we went after male artists who were shown in galleries that wouldn’t show their female colleagues. We realized that it was doubly hard for women of color and that they’d been tokenized. One thing led to another and we developed this critique and it was all about changing the art world, not just complaining about it—although we are professional complainers. It is always with the intention that we are transforming people’s thinking.
How can we go about transforming people’s thinking?
We have our way of doing it. I’m sure there are ways of doing it that other people can figure out. Have you seen the poster we did on how we think Trump is going to change all the commemorative months? We’re also considering going after the figures in the art world who participated in Trump’s transition team. The art world—at the level of fancy collectors, auctions, museum and museum trustees—is filled with Trump supporters. The community that they are making a ton of money from don’t have the same values.
Talking about attempting to change an institution from the outside, last week we had a man who was wearing a swastika armband walk onto campus. He sparked a huge protest. At one point it was close to maybe 300 or 400 students who were all shouting, “fuck nazis,” “no more nazis” at this man, who eventually become overwhelmed and asked to be escorted [by the police] from campus. How can we change an institution, like a university, which is controlled by old, predominantly white people? How can we break through that barrier and make the university policies more representative of what we want?
I tend to think that change comes both from within and without. So, identifying people within the structure who can help you is extremely important. Now, if that’s impossible, then you need a different strategy.
What we did was that we were working inside a world we knew very well. We identified the weak spots—that was that the art world thought of itself as being very liberal, but it wasn’t. So, we pointed out all the ways in which it was hypocritical.
It has to fit the circumstances of your time and place, and the structure you want to confront. That sounds vague, but I think that each situation has its own strategy. When we started putting up posters, we did it around the galleries, because we were attacking the gallery system. We pointed our finger at another cross section of the art system that was participating in institutional discrimination. Then we went after critics, then we went after curators, then we went after art collectors … we went after each one, because every one of them felt like it was not their fault, that they didn’t need to change.
Do you have any advice for artists and creators on how to get past that anxiety and become actors?
I think you have to realize that is exactly what [Trump’s]administration wants us to feel: anxiety, surprise and never knowing what’s going to happen next. But, we have to keep our eyes open and realize that there have been many times in history that this situation has arisen and artists have continued to produce. They’ve made their work about the situation.
We need to give each other courage, and we have to take courage. I know it’s hard, and it’s a little scary. But, there have been precedents, and the precedents are really important. Look at the art that was done in the Weimar Republic in Germany that really confronted the growing Nazi threat. That work is more remembered now than any of the work that was propaganda.
Artists and creators get criticized for this idea that protest doesn’t really create any change or any action. In the past week, there have been more than five different protests in Gainesville about a number of issues, but people continue to criticize the protests as just sign-waving and not action. Do you think that’s a valid criticism?
No, but protesting isn’t the only thing that can help. You have to do it on a lot of different fronts. I do think that criticism of demonstrations just seeks to undermine them, and it happens a lot. You see feminists fighting with each other, and the byproduct of that is that the feminist movement is weakened, rather than evolving. Do you want to destroy it, or do you want it to evolve and change?
I think we need constructive criticism, not criticism that undermines it.
What is the difference between constructive criticism and criticism that seeks to undermine?
That’s so hypothetical, you’d have to give me an example. That’s something that you almost have to make case-by-case.
For instance, if it was a feminist protest, a valid criticism would be that it is not including certain intersections of identities. But if it was a criticism that seeks to undermine, it would be that the protest is just women waving signs.
I think that the Women’s March on Washington was criticized initially for not being inclusive, and they worked their best to change that.
There was a criticism of the Occupy movement back whenever that they had no leader. I think that was a very interesting kind of patriarchal criticism, because everyone looks to social movements that are built on strong, individual patriarchal personalities. I think that … the attitude of Occupy has been extremely influential in the way that protests happen and are carried out, and how fluid they are. Yes, they occupied Wall Street for awhile, but then they went out in the communities. That criticism was undermining, and it was not quite fair. It was shortsighted. The whole criticism that it didn’t have a leader was crazy because, yeah, it didn’t have a leader. It was trying to develop a kind of democratic base, and it was extremely well organized. It had all kinds of organization that took the place of having a charismatic leader.
When should artists participate in movements like Occupy or the Women’s March, and when should they take a step back to create? Is there a specific time? Are there even guidelines for a question like that?
I don’t think there’s one answer. Every artist is different. I don’t think it’s a hard-and-fast rule. I think every artist in their own mind—his or her own mind—decides the best use of their talents. I don’t think there’s a rule, at all. I don’t think that there’s any time to not do it, to not make that decision. I think we’re making that decision every day now. So many artists have decided to get involved in social action, rather than going out and becoming individual geniuses associated with certain paintings or sculptures. I think there have been many kinds of differences that artists have made. I wouldn’t say that one choice is better than any other, I would just say that we all have to make choices.
Lately, in the past year, the term “organizing” has become increasingly applied to social movements. “Organizing” implies structure and coordination, and it doesn’t imply organic growth, and I think a big criticism people tend to lodge against social movements is that they’re not organized “enough,” they’re too “organic.”
Well, I don’t know that “organic” can’t be organized. I think, yeah, protests are fine, but when it’s over where do you go from there? That’s when you have to be strategic.
We’ve always thought that having a good idea is a great place to start, but it’s not a great place to stop. You have to figure out how to communicate your idea and figure out how to develop a campaign or a project that communicates that idea. That involves crafting.
If you look at our work sometimes it looks kind of effortless. But those posters and projects that we’ve done, we argue over them. We argue over the language, we argue over what image to use. That’s the craft of it all. To me, organization is the craft of individual protests. It’s very precise and very complicated. It’s different than going to a protest with a placard. But all of it is necessary.
There’s also the aspect of relentlessly going after something. Like, it’s not just one protest that is going to make a difference, but continually talking about it and relentlessly complaining about it.
We were asked to give a commencement speech, if you can believe it, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. One of the things we said: “Try one thing. If it works, do it again. If it doesn’t work, try it again anyway.” You’ve got to just chip away. If you think about what our influence has been in the art world, it’s not really the result of one poster or even five posters. It’s been the result of, as you said, being relentless. Just chip away and eventually it turns out that your small successes—and even some small failures, if you recognize them, pick yourself back up and go after it again—[will] add up to something over time.
I find the language that you reclaim really interesting. It’s like Guerrilla “Girls” and “complaining”—words that are traditionally ascribed to criticize women. It’s interesting in the case of the University of Florida. The Greek system dominates much of student life. It’s everywhere, in contrast to the activist community we have. How can artists, creators or anyone go about reclaiming language that has been traditionally used to criticize them in the face of groups that may not understand what reclaiming it means?
I would just say do it. It’s interesting the point you brought up about fraternities and sororities. They really are agents of the establishment, aren’t they? They’re usually heteronormative; they’re binary; they’re all about making contacts for your future. It’s sort of like the perversion of community organizing, isn’t it? It’s like community organizing for your future career. It’s so outdated and distant from what we know now about demographics; about the gay, lesbian, bi and trans community; and feminism … It needs a little bit of humor, it needs some criticism.
The Guerrilla Girls will talk at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art on Thursday, Feb. 9th at 6 p.m. The lecture is part of the School of Art and Art History’s Spring 2017 Visiting Artists Lecture series. Due to large interest, seats in the venue will only be open to students and faculty in the School of Art and Art History and the College of the Arts. However, the lecture will be live streamed in the Harn’s classrooms.
Update: Due to travel complications, this event is rescheduled for Feb. 14. at 6:00 p.m. in Carleton Auditorium. It is free and open to the public. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and seating is first-come first-serve. Relevant information can be found on UF’s College of the Arts website.