10 Years with the Guerrilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls, the "conscience of the art world," are an anonymous group of masked activists established to fight sexism and racism in the art world. Neva Knott and Niko Courtelis interviewed two members of this anonymous group of activists, a group established 10 years ago to fight sexism and racism in the art world.Niko: Since you talk about art funding, how do you view the current situation? Do you think it's more important now to do the things that the Guerrilla Girls are doing?G1: As you may know, more money is spent on military marching bands than on the whole National Endowment for the Arts. And I, for one, think that that's fair. After all, what would the military be without marching bands? They definitely deserve the money. It's a very important part of our national effort. And if we have to choose between that and art I would definitely go with the military bands.Niko: The line between art and marching bands is really a blur.Neva: Maybe marching bands are art.G1: Let's put all the artists in the marching bands. (laughter) That would be good, the government will support all artists. In return you have to join the national guard and you have to be in the marching band.G2: Let me play the straight person here. I think that there should be an information campaign to let Americans know how much of the history of art is based on patronage. Alot of art in museums weren't the products of a freemarket system, they were the products of patronage. Michaelangelo didn't sit in a studio and then have shows in Soho and wait for people to buy his paintings. If you took all the art out of museums that wasn't part of a freemarket system, we wouldn't have anything to look at. Americans think that if something is of value it has survived through the marketplace. It would be interesting to publicly talk about how much European governments spend on their culture. What we spend is miniscule in comparison. They know the value of culture. They know that hundreds of years hence the artworks that their culture produces will probably be more in people's minds than will the politicians of that era.G1: Of course, most NEA money goes to symphony orchestras, opera companies...it goes to a very elite, mostly white audience. It wants to support what an upper class audience goes to see. In that respect, it's kind of hard to defend the NEA.Niko: With so much going on, how do you decide what are the most important issues to address?G2: Well, we let our hormones speak. (laughter)G1: We haven't been able to turn everything into a poster. Everything we want to talk about doesn't work that way, or we're just not able to...Neva: It's important to start dialogue.G1: We've been lucky enough to go all over the world talking to people. And we've also started this newsletter called Hot Flashes so that we can go more in depth and talk about things a little differently.G2: One thing we want to do and that we encourage other groups to do, is use our work. We're only one group. We're not geniuses. You can buy our book and steal our ideas. We won't sue you. As a matter of fact, we might send you nice letters.Neva: Have you ever had to go to court over any issues?G1: Oddly enough, no. I don't know if we were going to be sued, but we got in big trouble with the NEA, because we got a grant to do our newsletter. On the masthead of our first issue it said our subscritption rates-$9 for a woman or person of color and $12 for a white male. This is illegal in the United States, it's discrimination. It drove the NEA crazy because people started complaining. They were writing to them saying: "How can you let this happen, you supported this newsletter?" They were going to cut the grant, but first they wrote us a letter. They tried to play along a little bit, to show how cool they are: "We do understand the humor; we certainly get the humor, nevertheless, you might cease and desist immediately." So in the next issue we changed the word "rates" to "suggested donations."G2: "For straight white males with superior earning power."G1: Then we got letters from gay males: "I don't think that's fair, I don't want to be in with the straight white males."G2: Some details about this: it wasn't the NEA who came after us. It was a white male journalist who tried to incite the NEA. The NEA was just responding to all of his threats. He claimed he was going to get an article in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The interesting thing is that the places he went to were not interested. They knew it was a false issue, it was silly. We said,"What about women who pay more to have their haircut than men?"Niko: Tell me about the latest issue of your newsletter.G2: The issue that we did on museums: We sent out a fake letter under the name of a fake graduate student to over 150 museums. We sent them a cheerful note. "I'm with such and such a university and I'm doing research on diversity at various museums. Can you send me some information about your programs." It was really interesting; they should replace curators with public relations people. Artists send their slides to museums, and it takes forever to get them back. I sent this letter and it bounced off the walls, in three days I was getting return mail. What we did was sifted through it all. Some of them didn't have the statistics we needed. It was interesting to take what someone sent out as public relations and reorganize it. That's when we came up with this headline: "Museums in the East have a white male winter and a white male spring, summer and fall." In that issue, we used a thermometer, a very suggestive looking one, that showed that on the west coast things are better. The further you get from New York the more likely you'll find diversity. With the exception of the Museum of Modern Art. However, when we were in San Francisco,we went to the new museum. I just wanted to see if with this new building and all of its hoopla, the museum had changed. So we counted women artists in the two exhibitions. We're so good at math. One was selections from the McIrney collection. Out of about 156 works of art, only 13 of them were by women. Then, out of the recent acquisitions, which you would hope would be their chance to do better, of over thirty works, there were only about three women artists. It's shocking, and what it told us is that the information we polled from and what they sent us was absolutely a lie.Neva: It seems to me that granting organizations who give big chunks of money are, how do I say this correctly? They're still old, rich, white families.G1: The art world is about exclusion. It's about annointing two, three, five, ten people of each generation. What we're about is the opposite of that. We're about inclusion. Look around in the world of artists of all sorts. In every creative field it's apparent that there's a lot of great work out there from an incredibly diverse group of people.G2: American museums and American art history are based on the ideas of masterpiece and mainstream. These two concepts are about exclusion. They're about condensing an era into the work of one or two winners and everyone else is a loser. That's not history; that's the aesthetic olympics. When museums become institutions that are about recording a history, voices of a culture, then hopefully that will change. That's really an idealized version of what should happen. We'd like to pressure that.Niko: Going back to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I thought it was ironic that your book was in the giftshop, but not much womens art was in the galleries.G1: We are in a very curious and problematic position, that's scaring institutions.G2: That's why we labor to confront the museums.Neva: How was it getting your book published? Did you run into discrimination?G1: We didn't get the advance Newt Gingrich got from the same publisher. Actually, it was a lot easier than we thought. Since we say a lot of outrageous things, we thought it would be queried by the editor. They were so supportive with everything, that we kept looking at each other at meetings and saying, "Why is this going so easily?"G2: We chose to do it with a trade publisher, because we wanted it to be a kind of empowerment book, not a coffee table art book. We insisted that it be paperback and that it be inexpensive. Something that art students could have and afford. We were thinking of it as a kind of manual.G1: No, a womanual . Niko: That's great to hear. The first time I saw Guerrilla Girl work was when I was in art school in New York.G1: Get 'em while they're young!G2: We should write something called "Growing Up with the Guerrilla Girls."Neva: How do you feel about some of the "harsh and ignorant" criticism you've gotten?G1: Oh, our hate mail! We love it!G2: It just makes us stronger. We've been covered in the general press far more widely and earlier than we were ever covered in the art press. Which I think says something about the art press.Niko: Do you think that they have less to lose? The art press is controlled by the same people you're combatting on the museum and gallery level.G1: The art press is not a forum for discourse. It's mainly trade magazines, where a lot of things are presented as criticism and discourse when they're really advertising.Niko: Right, there's probably fear of losing ad dollars. How do you feel about turning ad culture on itself?G1: You mean since we use the techniques? This was our idea: To use contemporary media techniques to end the fight against sexism and racism. Guerrilla Girls started when there was this show at the MOMA called "An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture," in '85. Of 169 artists, 16 women were in the show. We were really upset about that. The Women's Caucus for Art, which is an old feminist organization, held a demonstration outside of the museum. It was the usual kind of march with chanting and placards, but the people who passed us by as they entered the museum just completely ignored it. It had no effect at all, so we thought there's got to be another way. We realized that those people don't believe what we were trying to say, and secondly, the way we were trying to fight it was completely ineffective. We formed to do posters, not to sit around and say "What should we do?" but, "We're going to do this specific thing." It's still the basis of our being together.G2: If you can use creative text to sell products or change consumer habits, why not use it to change attitudes? For me it was liberating because I was going through this period in my life where I was sick of being manipulated by the media, the clever advertising intelligence. It's a very natural thing to take it and turn it on itself, to use it for your own purposes.G1: We're a very diverse group. Different ages, different sexual orientations, different races, different kinds of artists with different levels of artworld success. We have people in our group who are very successful artists and those for whom it's always been much more of a struggle. But we're all united in the fact that we've experienced discrimination. No matter how well you do, as a woman, there are lots of things that are closed.Neva: Do you think that reverse discrimination really exists?G2: There are one or two cases. We think reverse discrimination is such a serious topic. So serious we put it in the closest trashcan.Neva: Do you think there could be equal footing in the art world?G2: That's what we're hoping for but if it happens, we'll be out of business.Niko: You have information which you go to great lengths to get. Then you hand it to people with a little bit of humor which seems to make it more noticeable, more palatable, and more believable.G1: Humor is disarming. It's a double-edged sword. It's friendly and very insidious at the same time. We're known for being funny, but a lot of what we've done is very straightforward. We always try to twist the issue around in some way.Niko: Like in your posters, the typography is very serious, straightforward. But the art that goes with it is really funny, or ironic.G1: We do these things really cheaply. In the beginning, we didn't have a computer, it was pretty hard to do a lot of real visual effects. Now, however, we can do anything. We still can't afford four color printing, but we have so much more graphic freedom now. Sometimes I just look at the old posters and think "Oh if only we could do then what we can do now." So some of the look is just practical. We needed to do it cheap-we had to pay for every letter that we typeset.G2: The first Guerrilla Girls posters were done with letraset (rub-down lettering) and handwritten.Niko: Well it's fun to think of a central Guerrilla Girl supercomputer now, as opposed to ten years ago.G2: We are on the internet.Niko: I was going to ask you where you saw technology going.G1: On the net you can get things back. We like the idea of people being able to post messages.G2: The way we've communicated is interesting, we just xerox something and pass it on, or a magazine will write to us and we'll send them something. All of our early work is very easy to reproduce, and as long as it's reproduced non-commercially we don't care. Girls would come back from Indonesia and say, "My god, I saw one of your posters on a wall in the bathroom of some museum." Before the internet, we had this word-of-mouth network. We don't even know how to pump it. Before the book we never had a publicist. These things just happened out of good will, support and enthusiasm. Whenever you think the art world is an unbelievably corrupt place and just want to give up on it, realize a good idea has thrived and spread. Without being co-opted.Niko: So after ten years, is it more or less fun? More compelling now?G1: It's been great because we do different things all the time. Our idea was to always expand. Somethings worked out better than others. We've done stuff about the world, as well as stuff about the art world. We've written a book and, in doing so, we looked back and thought about the past. One thing that happened in doing the book is that it reallly galvanized us to produce new work. To create a future.G2: When we started out, we had no idea we'd be here today talking about a book. We did it as a lark. We were angry and we wanted to do something constructive. We wanted to make feminism fashionable again but we had no idea how to. Actually, it's turned into a responsibility. It was never part of our master, or mistress, plan to do this.G1: It's true, we do feel the responsibility. Although, over the years, people have come in and out. There will be a time when one individual probably can't dedicate all her time to it. At this point it really is a commitment.Niko: When you said people coming in and out I thought you were going to say in office.Neva: Yeah, send the Guerrilla Girls to congress.G1: We have an office.Neva: You have an office? In congress?G1: We have a lobby. It's in the Senatorial ladies room.for more information Contact: Guerrilla Girls 532 La Guardia PLace, #237, New York, NY 10012 http://www.voyagerco.com/gg/gg.html
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