Guerrilla Girls put new spin on activism for art's sake

October 01, 1990|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

&TC THE GUERRILLA Girls plaster the complaints of thousands of American artists all over the walls of Lower Manhattan. Working at night, wearing gorilla masks to protect their identities, they hang posters which snipe at sexism and racism in the art world.

Some of these graphic bullets have become collectors' items. For instance:


"Working without the pressures of success.

"Not having to be in shows with men.

"Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs.

"Knowing your career might pick up after you're eighty.

"Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine.

"Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position.

"Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others.

"Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood. . .

"Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius. . ."

During the past five years, the all-female activist group has deplored the culturally based inequities of the art world in 30 provocative posters, many of which fault specific galleries, museums and critics. The posters have unquestionably embarrassed the establishment. Some art critics go so far as to credit the group with improving the art world's equations.

The group has become increasingly popular on the national lecture circuit, speaking primarily at universities, museums and art schools. Members of the Guerrilla Girls will give a presentation about art elitism at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Although the exact nature of the format is uncertain, the women will wear gorilla masks as they do whenever they speak on behalf of the group. This is their first Baltimore appearance. General admission is $5; call 396-6314 for reservations.

"We're very conscious of issues of racism and sexism, and we contemplate all of our projects that way," says Brenda Richardson, deputy director of the BMA. "The staff of this museum, as in every thinking museum, is sensitized to these issues in a way that we weren't 10 or even five years ago . . . think the Guerrilla Girls have had a big part to play in the revitalization of sensitivity."

The group formed in 1985 to protest what they saw as the erosion of the achievements of the feminist movement.

"It seemed like the gains of the '70s were fading away," says a member of the Guerrilla Girls in a phone interview. "Some of us had been active in feminism, some of us hadn't. It seemed that the Reagan era had done away with a lot of the energy and positive movement and enthusiasm of the 1970s. A lot of programs were gutted and the women's movement was too.

"It seemed there were a lot of group shows and exhibitions that were putting women back to Square One -- except now there were a lot of women artists out there."

The women decided against demonstrations -- they considered them a dated form of protest -- in favor of guerrilla poster strikes to shock people out of their apathy and indifference.

"It turned out that people didn't realize the statistics [about women and black artists] were so bad. Our art was highly visible and people really discussed it," the Guerrilla Girl says.

New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote in June, "Even now, the art world, centered as it still is on the idea of the male creative genius, remains an elite world. It is tempting to believe that true talent will always make its way to the top. But the Guerrilla Girls have demonstrated that differences in sex and race can make talent rise at very different speeds."

Recently the group has used the controversy surrounding government funding of the arts for added emphasis:


"The number of blacks at an art opening is about the same as at one of your garden parties. "Because aesthetic quality stands above all, there's never been a need for Affirmative Action in museums or galleries. . .

"Museums are separate but equal. No female black painter or sculptor has been in a Whitney Biennial since 1973. Instead, they can show at the Studio Museum in Harlem or the Woman's Museum in Washington.

"Since most women artists don't make a living from their work and there's no maternity leave or childcare in the art world, they rarely choose both career and motherhood.

"Unsullied by government interference, art is one of the last unregulated markets. Why there isn't even any self-regulation! . ."

Some of the Guerrilla Girls have been with the group since its formation. Educated guessers say there are as many as two dozen members, many of whom are artists and art professionals. No one knows much more . . . except how to contact them. Each poster invites people to send money and comments to: Box 1056 Cooper Sta. N.Y., N.Y. 10276.

"In our early discussions about forming a group, we looked at how individual people become stars in political movements. We didn't want to feel like any of us were pulling attention away from the issues," says the Guerrilla Girl. "We didn't think our identity is important, we thought what we say is important. And because we are an ongoing mystery, it seems to keep people interested."

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