#WHM Guerrilla Girls
We’ll be tapping our incredible archives in support of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day and posting interviews from our Women issue throughout the month of March.
Guerrilla Girls The Frondeurs
Interview by Andrea Blanch
My main question for this whole interview is what has changed and what has stayed the same since you began 30 years ago? That’s a huge question so let me be specific. In this age of Internet activism, awareness seems to be at a new high, but is there more to do than just raise awareness? Can we mobilize these newly aware, but perhaps not engaged, people to activism?
The generation of aware and clued in people active on Tumblr, Twitter, and so on, are perhaps not active outside the Internet. Is this a good or a bad thing? Awareness is always good, but what ways can you engage this generation to be sensitive to sexism?
We developed a game-changing way of doing political art that has the power to change people’s minds about issues. We think everyone should stand up for what they believe in — and do it in their own way. We don’t judge the tactics of others, they use the street or the internet or whatever. The important thing is to stand up for what you believe in. To anyone thinking about becoming an activist, we say, “Don’t worry about the fact that you can’t do everything. Just do one thing. If it works, do another. If it doesn’t work, do another anyway.”
The Guerrilla Girls don't do posters and actions that simply point to something and say "This is bad," as does a lot of political art. We try to use information in a surprising, transgressive manner to prove our case. 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 a bit better now for women and artists of color, and we have helped effect that change. There is still a long way to go, however, and we are still condemning the art world for its lack of ethics, tokenism and other bad behavior.
The representation of female and minority artists is higher than it has been, especially at larger contemporary art shows like biennials, but the diversity of those who purchase, and own the art still skews overwhelmingly white, middle class, educated, and male. The power structure, to me, seems to place the artists on a low rung; they’re a purchasable commodity. Is this the case or do you see things differently, and are they changing?
The world of artists is great, but the art world sucks. The huge income disparity between the few at the top and everyone else is killing our culture, but also our society. More and more billionaires are controlling the art market and sitting on the boards of museums and telling them what to do. We put it up stickers about this all over NY during our 30th birthday celebration last May, and did a stealth projection on the new Whitney Museum on the night it opened to the public.
Women and artists of color have more opportunities now, but it’s rare that a contemporary museum has more than 30% women artists in its collection. Most have way less.
It seems logical and important to have shows that highlight minority groups on purpose. But the kind of lazy curating that uses whatever the MFA machine has turned out that year always skews white. Are these rich, white art buyers gender queer POC art because it is “hot” right now? Do those identity terms define and/or obscure what is quality, memorable contemporary art?
The money for art comes from hyper rich collectors who then sit on the boards of museums and galleries and oversee the collections, justifying their investment. These collectors are almost all white men. In 2008 there seemed to be a sea change, but since then the situation has just gotten worse. What are the ramifications of this MFA-Gallery-Museum-Collector complex?
I’d like to see statistics that show that the majority of collectors today are purchasing art because of the gender, race or sexual orientation of the artists. Art is all about money today. It is being purchased because it is expensive and because other collectors are purchasing it. These cookie-cutter collections are not a picture of the art of our time. It’s crucial that collectors and museums cast a wider net, so the real story of art will be preserved for generations to come.
What do you think about the role of art school in terms of a picture of the art of our time? Do you think an MFA is necessary to be a successful artist?
Well it certainly isn’t worth graduating with $200,000 of loans to pay back.
Let’s talk about intersectionality in art theory; how can art magazines be more intersectional?
They can’t. Art magazines are antiquated publicity and advertising vehicles. They pretend to be edgy, but support the status quo. They want to make the collectors and galleries feel good, not ashamed. They are losing readers because what they show is same old, same old.
Some of your graphic works are now on display in some of your early targets, like the Tate. Do you view this as a resounding success or a case of appropriation?
How do we feel now that our work is in many of the museums we criticize? Wary and confused? Happy and excited? It’s true that in recent years we’ve been busier than ever, and we've also been faced with a dilemma: What to you do when the art world you've spent your whole life attacking suddenly embraces you? Well, you don’t waste time wondering if you’ve lost your edge. You take your critique right inside the galleries and institutions. When our work appears at venerable venues like the Venice Biennale, the Tate Modern, or The National Gallery in DC, we get hundreds of letters from people saying they were blown away by our analysis of art and culture. It's a thrill to criticize a museum right on its own walls.
You clearly influence groups like Pussy Riot. How do you feel about their approach? How is it different from yours? How is it similar?
Pussy Riot are our kind of girls: Feminist activists in masks making trouble. What they do is brave – and transgressive. They are unrepentant in the face of their incarceration – so outrageously unfair, so out of synch with what they actually did. We live in a very different culture where art is not as dangerous, and we can pretty much do what we want. We have our haters, but we also have people all over the world who use us as a model for their own crazy, creative activism. Defy entrenched notions of how females should act and you will upset people. However, even the most repressed nations in the worlds have feminists, bravely speaking up or quietly working for women.
When you first began your practice, you were educating a public who perhaps were unaware of the endemic sexism and racism in the art world. Now the public seems to know that everything is racist, everything is sexist. If educating the public doesn’t work, how else can you change the art world? Burn it to the ground?
Some of us have never wanted a piece of the pie. We want to blow the pie up. We do feel, however, that women and artists of color deserve a piece of the pie. Most people still have no idea how the art world works.
So, how has the situation changed and how is it the same?
From the very beginning we have examined the reasons behind discrimination in the art world. We’ve observed how exclusion has morphed from decade to decade. First there was the issue of tokenism that we saw as an extension of discrimination, not a solution to it. And there is still the glass ceiling, beyond which women and artists of color are rarely admitted. White males still make almost all the money. The system is increasingly more corrupt: billionaire collectors buying the work of millionaire artists; galleries paying for exhibitions of their artists at museums; art fairs showing the same work over and over.
We say…women and artists of color are here, empowered, and have all the skills and talent necessary. It’s the institutions and the powers behind them that must change.
Everything that’s wrong with income inequality in the art world is also wrong with income inequality in the US as a whole. We’re targeting both in our new anti-billionaire sticker campaign.