We spoke with Guerrilla Girls founding member Frida Kahlo about the book “Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly”
“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” The Guerrilla Girls, a feminist activist artist collective, posed this question in 1989, casting the inquiry onto a rectangle yellow poster. Printed alongside the question, a woman donning a gorilla mask lounges unclothed in a pose typical of what one might find displayed within the marbled halls of art institutions. A set of data punctuates the work: “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”
The Guerrilla Girls sent this message buzzing down the streets of New York City, where they rented out space on city buses to get their message to the public. In the intervening 30 years since, the poster has peeled away from NYC transit to make its way around the world, appearing in different languages and formats, from large-scale reproductions to modest-sized prints suitable for interior design.
A handful of these iterations can be found in the book “Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly,” released this past October by Chronicle Books. Penned by the Guerrilla Girls, the nearly 200-page book — strikingly bound with cover boards depicting the group’s trademark gorilla mask, complimented with punchy yellow and pink details — catalogs the artist collective’s three-decades-long existence, stretching from its founding year of 1985 to the present.
Taken together, the pages (filled with photos and notes about the group’s works) reveal the slow churn of progress, showing what has and hasn’t changed in the past 30 years. For example, that sign regarding stats at the Met? As pointed out in the book, the Guerrilla Girls updated the data for a 2012 poster and found that the number of women artists in the same areas dipped to 4%, with 76% of the nudes being female. Data is sticky. And in skilled hands, it’s provocative. Flipping through the book, the Guerrilla Girls aesthetic (bold, direct text) turns research, humor and the art of the complaint into a weapon.
We corresponded with Guerrilla Girls founding member Frida Kahlo (a pseudonym taken on in the tradition of the group, which uses the names of deceased women artists for anonymity) about the collective’s work over time, applying pressure for change from the outside and what the art of behaving badly looks like.
[Note: The Guerrilla Girls will be joining Hirshhorn assistant curator Sandy Guttman Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. for an online discussion of “Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly.” More information about how to join can be found here.]
As you were putting together this book, what themes did you find carried throughout the years? Was there anything that shocked you combing back through the archives?
All our work was done in the “present,” looking at issues that bothered us at specific times. Looking back from the vantage point of history, we realized that from the beginning, we were talking about things that have since been given names: art world corruption, institutional racism, sexism and bias, economic inequality, sexual abuse, institutional critique and culture jamming, to name just a few.
There is thread of humor that runs throughout the work. What role does tone play in advocacy? How does humor inform the aesthetic?
Humor is a great leveler. We discovered that if you can make someone who disagrees with you laugh, you are inside their brains and you have a chance to change their minds. It’s hard to see our work and not think differently about issues. We always wanted to be transformational; our work rarely speaks to the converted. Except when you see a lot of it all together in a book like “The Art of Behaving Badly”! LOL
Since Guerrilla Girls was founded in the 1980s, your posters (which often call out institutions) have been acquired by major museums. Could you speak a little bit about what that’s like?
We did our posters one by one, responding to things that made us angry. We never intended our work to be in museum collections. We actually had arguments early on about whether or not are posters were “art.” It was an argument with no agreement, so we put it aside. When museums asked for copies of all our posters, why wouldn’t we allow our work to be in a place where it would be seen and remembered? Our portfolios are like living history lessons of what the art world was like at a certain time and place and how artists confronted political issues in an unforgettable way.
In the book’s introduction, you say: “These days we feel in our gut that something important has changed. No longer can anyone claim that the history of art and culture can be written without including all the diverse voices of that culture. But museums, galleries and art collecting are still dominated and controlled by big money and white men. For the history of art to be more than the story of wealth and power, that must change.”
What steps do you think need to be taken to do this?
We’re professional complainers who are better at pointing at things, convincing others about what’s unfair and pressuring from the outside. We’ll leave the institutional changes to the individuals inside museums with good intentions who are in a better position to know how to turn that big ship around. But we won’t give up until museums look like the cultures they claim to represent and behave fairly, honestly and ethically.
Along similar lines, how do you see the global health crisis affecting this – especially for art workers and artists?
Every day we see more employees of museums and galleries coming out of the pandemic lockdown demanding institutional change with anonymous blogs, letter campaigns and newly-formed unions. More than a few institutions have faced big shake-ups. We believe the same fancy art collectors who can give museums $40 million to have named galleries should also come up with equal amounts to pay museum employees living wages throughout the pandemic and beyond. Museums should never have to curtail their education departments like MoMA did. Or board up windows and entrances to protect themselves from their public. If museums have to close in a pandemic, why not repurpose them as temporary, safe shelters?
Watching the proliferation of text-based advocacy and protest imagery on Instagram this past summer, it’s striking to see how much of it mirrors the work you have been putting out since the 1980s. How has the internet or social media affected activism or presentation for you?
We had one of the first websites back in the 1990s and it helped us communicate across the globe. It is so much faster (and cleaner) to post something on the internet than to wheat paste posters. But, we still love to confront people with our work on the street and will continue our sticker, banner and billboard campaigns. Attacking from all sides is our strategy!
How would you describe what the “art of behaving badly” looks like?
If, like the saying says, bad girls get to “go everywhere,” women need to be bad to be free. Over the years we’ve found that there is an art to convincing others about what’s unfair and unjust in the world, and we mean to perfect that art and encourage others to do the same.
There’s a paper gorilla mask included in the back of the book. Does this mean anyone can be a Guerrilla Girl?
Well, we couldn’t possibly have that many members, but we encourage everyone to act like a Guerrilla Girl. You’d be surprised what comes out of your mouth when you wear a gorilla mask.