Guerrilla Girls interview: still bananas for equality in the art world

·10-min read
Guerrilla Girls. Which ones, it’s hard to say
Guerrilla Girls. Which ones, it’s hard to say

If Zoom wasn’t already weird enough, now I’m looking at myself talking to a pair of gorillas.

Gorillas and guerrillas, in fact - Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo (not their real names) are two of the founding members of the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous American feminist art collective (their exact number is a secret) which since the mid-Eighties has used facts, figures and a fat dose of humour to fight against white male bias in the art world.

To preserve their anonymity (which “prevents our critics from personalising our criticisms”, says Kahlo - they take their names from great women artists of the past), the group wear gorilla masks, which is why I’m having the slightly surreal experience of chatting to two hairier than usual great apes on my laptop.

We’re talking because next week the GGs launch their biggest public project in Britain yet, The Male Graze consists of a series of billboards, a website and an online gig, and is part of Art Night, London’s annual 24-hour festival which, this year, is going national and will last a month.

As well as inviting the public to visit and count the number of female artists in their local museum (and compare it to the number of female nudes), the billboards explore “bad male behaviour” throughout art history.

Still waiting for equality (Andrew Hindraker)
Still waiting for equality (Andrew Hindraker)

“We’ve been thinking about how women have been portrayed in the history of European and US art,” explains Kahlo. “So often they’re naked, and that gets aestheticised to be ‘Oh, isn’t that a nice pile of flesh? Isn’t she beautiful?’ But if you start to look at what’s happening in the paintings, if the women aren’t idle, you see they are being acted upon in ways that are often violent. They’re being harassed, abducted, seduced. They’re being bothered. They’re being tortured, they’re being murdered. We would like to encourage a deeper understanding of Western art by having people consider: what is happening to the woman in a painting? And what does that say about our culture if abuse and violence are continuing themes in art - or in our lives?”

This being the Guerrilla Girls, names will be named: “We decided to look at the lives of male artists to see how they treated women, to see if, perhaps, that abuse in their paintings came out of their own experience.”

Among various sections on the website will be one on how museums should rewrite wall labels. Labelling is a fraught subject in Britain right now, with the acknowledgement of violent means of acquisition regarding colonial objects being a particularly voltaic argument, but with questions too over how (and indeed whether) the work of artists known to have exploited women (Gauguin, say) or committed unambiguous acts of abuse (Eric Gill, for example) should be displayed.

As you might expect, the GGs are all for saying it like it is.

“We just love to imagine the meetings that are going on in museums all over the world to answer this question,” says Kollwitz. “Should you mention an artist’s abuse, racism, colonialism etc, next to his art? I think we come out in favour of that, because we feel the more you know about an artist, the better. Hiding it is certainly not right, when these kinds of issues also informed their art.”

“Oftentimes labels are like PR,” adds Kahlo. “They only present a, for lack of a better word, whitewashed idea of the artist as a genius. Oftentimes that genius excuses very bad behavior.” Once you understand what was going on in an artist’s life, she argues, that enables a deeper understanding of what’s going on in their work.

Jolly sarcasm has proven an effective tool (Guerrilla Girls)
Jolly sarcasm has proven an effective tool (Guerrilla Girls)

That’s all very well for dead artists, but it’s much more complicated when it comes to the living, right?

“It gets harder the more living they are,” Kollwitz concedes, but cites the example of the GGs set of three alternative museum labels that “could be” displayed with the work of the painter Chuck Close, who in 2017 and 2018 was accused of sexual misconduct and harassment by a number of women. The labels address the accusations with increasing specificity. “We were kind of showing how it could be included,” she says, but admits with breezy understatement “I’m sure museums would feel they had a huge legal issue if they did that.”

The interactive aspect of the Male Graze project echoes one of the GG’s earliest and most iconic artworks. Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?, from 1989, features the female nude from Jean-Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque with the head of a gorilla, and reads: “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”

The group’s irreverent style was developed four years earlier though, in response to an environment in which they - all artists - and others felt that “there were hardly any opportunities for women,” and a brainwave that occurred during protests against the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s 1984 exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.

“They said it was the most important exhibition of the time, and there were hardly any women or artists of colour in it,” Kollwitz says. “That really pissed a lot of women off, not just the women who became the Guerrilla Girls.”

A protest was called outside MoMA, which Kollwitz and Kahlo attended, with placards and a picket line “and not one museum-goer cared,” Kollwitz says. “They walked right into the museum. That was our ‘aha’ moment. We realised that museum-goers thought that the Museum of Modern Art knew best. If you weren’t in the museum, you were a crap artist. It was that moment where the idea came, there’s got to be a better way, a disruptive, in your face way, using persuasive strategies like advertising, to tell people that these notions they had were completely wrong.”

One of their most iconic images (Guerrilla Girls)
One of their most iconic images (Guerrilla Girls)

But how much has changed since? An American survey published in 2019 showed that only 11 percent of work acquired by the country’s top museums since 2008 was by women. Data from the 2019 annual Freelands Foundation report on the representation of female artists in Britain shows that women are still lagging behind. Though 93 percent of the 42 works the Government Art Collection (GAC) acquired in 2018/19 were by women, that takes the female quotient up to only 11 percent of the 14,411 works in the collection.

28 of the National Gallery’s 2,624 works are by 17 female artists and while in 2018/19, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria was acquired by the museum, alongside a work by Bridget Riley, the other nine works acquired during that period were by men. In the same timeframe, Tate added 668 works to its collection - almost 50 percent of the artists were women, but due to gifts and purchases of multiple works, 67 percent of those works were by male artists. The figures relating to artists of colour are likely to be even more skewed against.

“The art world is playing catch up, because they realise now that a lot of the stuff they collected was what wealthy people bought and it wasn’t the real story of our culture,” says Kollwitz. “So they’re trying, the problem is they have thousands of works of old, rich people’s art. Meanwhile, we have an explosion of incredible artistic talent. So they need to keep pushing on that - they always cast too small a net, usually related to who could donate or buy the art for them.”

How optimistic do they feel, I ask? There’s a brief pause, and then two hollow guffaws erupt from behind the masks.

“Every time something gets better, something else gets worse,” Kahlo says. “Museums are showing women and artists of colour and realising that they’re part of the history of art. But in the meantime museums, especially in the US, [have become] dependent on billionaires, to fund them and to buy art for their collection.”

The GGs have long agitated against this aspect of the art world - the stickily tangled relationship between museums and wealthy corporations and individuals.

“[The boards of] American museums are filled with people who have made their fortunes funding for profit prisons, manufacturing and pushing opioids, manufacturing weapons, manufacturing weapons of state control, securitising student loans,” says Kahlo. “So our question is, why? If a museum has an educational purpose, then it’s about making the world a more understandable, better place. Why don’t they choose trustees whose lives have also made the world a better rather than a worse place?”

That the ranks of the stinking rich are not overflowing with the pure of heart is surely an obvious sticking point, but the very fact that museums are so dependent on the wealthy is the crux of this issue. Many museum board members, virtuous or not, are collectors in their own right (the GGs are quick to reiterate that they’re looking at the problem from an American perspective, where the relationship is much more greasily symbiotic than in the UK - for the moment at least).

If a collector on the board of a prestigious museum owns a work by, say, Damien Hirst, it can only raise the value of that privately-owned work if its owner successfully advocates for the acquisition of another of Hirst’s works for said museum. ““In many industries, it would be a conflict of interest to have someone running a nonprofit organisation who has a huge financial investment in the decisions that that organisation makes,” says Kahlo, “but in the art world, that is rarely considered”.

The ethics of how museums are run are part of their campaign (Guerrilla Girls)
The ethics of how museums are run are part of their campaign (Guerrilla Girls)

So it’s a mess and the huge amounts of money that drive the art world breed a sort of pervasive fungus of corruption and ethical compromise. Noted - but what’s the answer? How are we to dismantle this complex structure and clean out the rot, and what does the alternative look like?

Disappointingly for the rest of us, the GGs don’t have the answer. “This is a huge problem,” says Kollwitz, “these discussions are going on inside every museum, [about] whether it can be done, or not. Who the hell knows? But, you know, like every problem, you just have to keep trying to push that rock up the hill.”

“You know, we’re complainers, not policymakers,” adds Kahlo. “We’re throwing these ideas out to people who know more about the organisation of museums. But as it is, right now, US museums don’t represent US culture, they represent the culture of billionaires.”

Both Kollwitz and Kahlo, who remain unidentified (none of the GGs have ever been unmasked) are still practising artists outside of the group. Don’t they have to work within the system they’re railing against? Guerrillas gotta eat, after all.

Kollwitz concedes that “yes, artists do show in museums and galleries and things like that. But you can do the most disruptive, out there work [and use] your subject matter and the way you deal with it to change people’s minds.”

“I’ve always been amazed that so many artists want the same thing, to participate in the same mainstream system,” says Kahlo. “I’ve always been an anti-mainstreamer. There are many art worlds out there and not all of them lead to the Tate Modern, or to the Museum of Modern Art. Schools should prepare students for many art worlds, not just the one that leads to the biggest gallery in the world, or the richest collectors.”

“The internet has really changed how artists can get their work out,” adds Kollwitz. That’s one reason why the most popular art in the world right now is street art. That gets the most searches, it gets the most interest. We’re in street art shows and the audience is unbelievable, much more than most museum audiences. As Frida said, there are all these different art worlds. And they’re not different and lesser, they’re different and equal.”

And with that, these two veteran radicals are off, to rip off their masks and go about their business of changing the world, loudly and anonymously.

Art Night starts on June 18.

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