GUERRILLA GIRLS the frondeurs

Image above: ©Abrons Arts Center. Guerrilla Girls. Kathe Kollwitz, Zuberida Agha and Frida Kahlo, New York City, 2015. Courtesy guerrillagirls .com.


MUSÈE: A key question driving this interview is: What has changed and what has stayed the same since you began 30 years ago? In the 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 – individuals to activism?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: We developed a game-changing way of doing political art, which 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 – if they use the street, the Internet, or anything else. The important thing is to stand up for your beliefs. For those who think of becoming activists, 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 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 others 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 little better now for women and artists of color, and we have helped in bringing about that change. However, there’s still a long way to go; and we are still condemning the art world for its lack of ethics, tokenism, and other bad behavior.


©Guerrilla Girls, (left) Top: Museum Recount, 2015; Middle: Dear Billionaire Art Collector, 2015; Bottom: Galleries Recount, 2015; (right) ©Guerrilla Girls. Free The Women Artists, 2011.


[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]


MUSÈE: The representation of female and minority artists is higher than it has ever been, especially at larger, contemporary art shows like biennials. However, the diversity of those who purchase and own the art remains disproportionate. This population is overwhelmingly white, middle class, educated, and male. To me, the power dichotomy seems to place the artists on a low rung. They’re a purchasable commodity. Is this the case, or do you see things differently? Do you think things are changing?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: 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 not only killing our culture, but also our society. More and more billionaires are controlling the art market, sitting on the boards of museums, and telling them what to do. We put stickers up about this all over NY during our 30th anniversary 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 to find a contemporary museum that has more than 30% women artists in its collection. In fact, most have much less.


©Guerrilla Girls. Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989.


[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]


MUSÈE: The money for art comes from wealthy collectors who sit on museum and gallery boards, overseeing collections and justifying their investment. These collectors are primarily white and male. In 2008, there seemed to be a wave of change. However, since then, the situation has worsened. It seems logical and important to have shows that highlight minority groups. But the kind of lazy curating, one that utilizes whatever the MFA machine has churned out for the year, always favors a white demographic. Are these rich, white art-buyers favoring gender-queer POC art because it is ‘hot’ right now? What are the ramifications of this MFA-gallery/museum-collector complex? Do these identity terms define and/or obscure what is quality, memorable contemporary art?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: I’d like to see the statistics that show 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.


©Guerrilla Girls. Dear Billionaire Art Gallery, 2015.


[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]


MUSÉE: What do you think about the role of an art school? Do you think an MFA is necessary to be a successful artist?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: Well, it certainly isn’t worth graduating with $200,000 of loans to pay back.

MUSÉE: Let’s talk about intersectionality in art theory. How can art magazines be more intersectional?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: 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 the same old stuff.

MUSÉE: Some of your graphic works are now on display in some of your earlier targets, like the Tate. Do you view this as a resounding success, or a case of appropriation?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: How do we feel now that our work is in many of the museums we criticize? Weary 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 do 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 thrilling to criticize a museum right on its own walls.

MUSÉE: You clearly influence groups like Pussy Riot. How do you feel about their approach? How similar or different is it from yours?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: Pussy Riot are our kind of girls – feminist activists in masks making trouble.What they do is brave and transgressive. They were unrepentant in the face of their incarceration, which was so outrageously unfair and out of sync 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 women should act andyou will upset people. However, even the most repressed nations in the world have feminists, bravely speaking up, or quietly working for women.


©Guerrilla Girls. Disturbing The Peace, 2009.


[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]


MUSÉE: When you first began your practice, you were educating a public who perhaps was unaware of the endemic sexism and racism in the art world. Now, the public seems to know that everything is racist and sexist. If educating the public doesn’t work, how else can you change the art world?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: Some of us have never wanted a piece of the pie. We want to blow the pie up. However, we do feel that women and artists of color deserve a piece of that pie. Most people still have no idea how the art world works.

MUSÉE: So, to what extent has the situation changed and to what extent is the status quo maintained?

GUERRILLA GIRLS: 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 U.S. as a whole. We’re targeting both in our new, anti-billionaire sticker campaign.

Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13

Chris Berntsen at Gulf Western Gallery

MISSISSIPPI HISTORY by Maude Schuyler Clay