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Art HERstory: Guerrilla Girls

Thought I’d keep this week’s Art HERstory post short and sweet, sharing with you a group of ladies who I’ve admired for years. Actually, these ladies are the ones who inspired me to use the name “Art HERstory” for this feature.

The poster above was plastered across New York City buses in 1989. The headline reads, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” A group of feminist artists calling themselves Guerrilla Girls conducted what they have deemed a “weenie count” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and found that less than 5% of the artists in the Met’s Modern Art sections were female, but 85% of the nudes were female. This prompted the poster, which was eventually removed from city buses in New York after their lease was cancelled, with the bus company citing obscenity. Read on…

The Guerrilla Girls are a group of feminist artists. The group was established in New York City in 1985 and is known for using guerrilla tactics (especially guerrilla art) to promote women, and soon thereafter, minorities, in the arts. Their traditional tactics included putting up posters decrying the gender and racial imbalance of artists represented in galleries, particularly those in New York.

Members of the original group always wear gorilla masks and often, but not always, miniskirts and fishnet stockings while appearing as Guerrilla Girls. They proclaim that no one, except for some of their mothers and/or partners, knows their identities. They also refuse to state how many Girls there are in total.

The Guerilla Girls today do not exist in their original form. What they refer to as the “Banana Split” divided them into the three groups that all now operate under the title Guerilla Girls. One group, Guerrilla Girls on Tour, or the theatre girls as they are known, creates performances that tour the world, raising awareness about discrimination against women and people of color and proving feminists are funny. There is also a visual arts group, and a web-based group as well.

Critics of the group accuse them of hypocritical self-interest masquerading as social activism. Although the GG purport to campaign on behalf of marginalized female artists, goes the criticism, the scope and purpose of the Guerilla Girls’ activities serve the economic needs of a handful of privileged, well-educated artists. While the group’s criticisms of the art world are well-founded and not without merit, critics assert that their activities ignore the larger trend of misogyny and patriarchy in society, focusing too narrowly on the self-interested pursuit of greater marketability and recognition of female artists. To this, the Guerrilla Girls point to the fact that more than a third of their posters and campaigns have addressed larger societal issues including violence against women, racial inequality, war, reproductive choice, and what they consider to be misguided political policies.

So this book, THE GUERRILLA GIRLS’ BEDSIDE COMPANION TO THE HISTORY OF WESTERN ART, is what really got me into researching about the fascinating lives of the women artists who were able to make it, despite incredible social obstacles and sexist art historians. It takes you through two thousand years of Western Art with the Guerrilla Girls as your guides. Giving you answers to questions like: How far does a female have to go from her home to become an artist? Why were the modern Masters more interested in painting prostitutes than Suffragettes? Art history classes around the world are using it as a textbook. Make your professor use it, too!

Check out the original Guerrilla Girls site and the next generation of GG’s at GuerrillaGirlsBroadBand, Inc..

Lastly, I leave you with a quote by rocker Patti Smith speaking on art and struggle:

“If someone wants to be an artist and communicate, they have to know right away that being a true artist by design is a marginal thing, and it’s going to be a struggle. In the end, part of the joy of being successful is that you rose from a struggle.?

-taken from Bust Magazine, June/July 2007

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