by Hayward Hawks Marcus
So, after just a little investigation, it seems it’s still mostly a white-man’s art world. Ever the optimist, I wanted to leave with a vision of how this sorry state might change. I ask Guerrilla Girl Frida Kahlo if she thinks the internet might help open some doors for underrepresented artists.
“I certainly hope so,” she replies. “For example, the major art magazines have become trade journals filled with advertising. You can’t tell the adverts from the articles––you can’t even find the articles––and you wonder, doesn’t that compromise the discourse? Whereas the online art mags aren’t that dependent on advertising––I hope. [The internet] is quicker, faster, cheaper and it travels around the world, so let’s hope that it would change it. The internet does break down this idea that art is this single object that can only exist in one place at one time, and that it’s currency that can be traded only among wealthy people. The internet is really redefining media in general. I was wondering how we could create a counter-culture with media the way it was, all being controlled by a small group of people all wanting the same market share. I don’t know if it will change the art world, but I’m hopeful it will create an alternative.”
The Guerrilla Girls have had a presence on the web since 1985, about ten years before Netscape’s graphical user interface browsers hit the internet and gave us a whole new way to surf. Of course, the internet has had a profound impact on the Guerrilla Girls’ ability to reach a much wider audience than all non-web media together. Out here in the hinterlands where I reside, I might never have discovered them were it not for online access.
Besides their web presence, the Guerrilla Girls tour college campuses and make appearances at various functions. I ask Kahlo if the students they have visited have been shocked by the information about sexism and racism within the art world.
“I think so. Maybe we get a self-selective group of people. A couple of weeks ago we were in Northern Arizona State University and there were 900 people, which is a considerable percentage of the student body, all very enthusiastic. It was a terrific crowd, and we get crowds like that all over the country. There are very activist-minded students everywhere and I don’t think they get much play in the media, and I think they have a renewed interest in social justice and fairness and a kind of outrage at corruption. And certainly museums and the art world, not only have they been guilty of discrimination in the past, [but] it’s rife with corruption as there are huge sums of money involved.”
Besides their hirsute headgear, what sets the Guerrilla Girls apart from your standard take-it-to-the-streets, sign wielding protesters is their penchant for pointed lampoon. This strength in satire is probably what’s helped keep them functioning cohesively as a group and in the press all these years.
“For us, it’s fun to be funny,” Kahlo says. "It started out [that] in the very beginning, we were so frustrated. When we had our early meetings, we spent almost all our time making jokes about the art world. We felt so empowered by ridiculing and mocking and satirizing this system that we felt excluded us. It worked so well for us, we thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to use that voice in the world at large? And I think it empowered women to laugh at a world that excluded them. It disempowers the system and it empowers you. I think in a larger sense, if you can get someone who disagrees with you to laugh at the contention between you, you just might be able to change his or her mind about that issue. It’s easier to say difficult things with humor than it is to say with anger. We wanted to do something that’s transformative, that gives the viewer an opportunity to change their mind. We wanted to change things.”
So, how can art audiences who also want to see things change help to broaden the scope of what reaches the public eye?
“There are a lot of educated art lovers out there going to museums, galleries, art schools and all of that,” Kahlo says. “We want to encourage them not to assume that the art world is a meritocracy. That there are forces in the art world that might be unfair, but that they, as participants in that art world––whether as professionals, or producing artists, or whatever––they have the right to complain. The art world should be about discourse, discussion and disagreement. They don’t have to worship whatever a museum shows.”
For those spirited souls who dream of taking on the prejudiced art world with feisty, fun exposé and an anthropomorphic animal costume, you should know that the Guerrilla Girls aren’t exactly recruiting—but please, don’t let that stop you. Call it a call to arms—hairy arms, perhaps—in the never-ending fight against prejudice.
“Everyone has this fantasy that you can write in and join, and that would be great. But if that were the case, we’d be an employment agency and we’d spend more time talking to people who want to join us than we’d spend doing things. Our feeling is that there needs to be more groups. If someone wants to do the kind of work we do, why wouldn’t they form their own group?” Kahlo said.
“Can you imagine if there were ten, fifteen, twenty groups, all with different identities and different names? It would strike fear into the establishment.”
All photos courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls
About the Author
Native Californian and Monterey Bay resident, Hayward Hawks Marcus, has written for several west coast magazines, the online literary salon, Fresh Yarn, as well as plays, screenplays and a budding first novel.