Frida Kahlo of the Guerrilla Girls visited my University last Tuesday, and her firebrand activism and free bananas triggered my dormant feminist. I don’t want to burn my bra (I don’t really need to wear one, to be honest) or abstain from sex to safeguard my independence. I want to explore gender inequality within the art world that the Guerrilla Girls are struggling to expose and undermine. This group of badass, leather-clad beasts focuses on other issues as well (i.e. race, wealth, and politics), but I deem the “femininity problem” the most pressing. They overly vilify the “wealthy,” thinking every person with a thick pocket book is a capitalist demon with dollar signs for horns. However, I disagree with them. Of course, there are the megalomaniac billionaires that purchase art for tax purposes and to perpetuate their own wealth. However, altruistic rich people also exist. The Guerrilla Girls claim to be open-minded with a broadened perspective, but that perspective sometimes only extends to the angle or politics they personally support.
However, their activist cornerstone of feminism is a subject worth analyzing given the statistics about women inequality in museums. Frida began with a few disgusting quotes that men have said about women in the past. In addition to the title above, Frida read lyrics by Eminem (“You were supposed to love me! Now bleed, bitch, bleed!”) and misogynist quips by Picasso (“Women are either goddesses or doormats”). She also flipped through the Girls’ controversial projects that called out museums, artists, and donors that perpetuated this artsy discrimination. I’ve pasted a few of their ragey posters below, the most outrageous numbers including:
- Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.
- Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men do.
- The Guggenheim had only one one-person exhibition in 2015 based on a woman’s work.
These figures are not only scandalous; they’re embarrassing for the entire art community. Women are taking over the education system one lipstick tube at a time—that trend should be reflected in the art industry as well. As a quasi-artist, it’s ruffling that females are being underpaid and underrepresented in major museums (i.e. Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan). The canon of Western Art History has been tailored to fit the white, European male with a bustling workshop and wealthy clients. Recall the Impressionists, the Realists, the Surrealists—it was an era of docile, Rubbermaid women and grisly-haired men, so it’s not surprising traditional museums are male dominated. I don’t think these Baroque and Renaissance collections should be scrapped. On the contrary, works by female artists should add onto these already extensive, studied masterpieces of the great male artists. A female Leonardo da Vinci existed in some Italian backwater, I’m sure; art historians simply need to discover her and place her alongside the equal genius of Leo. It’s the disparity between men/women in the Modern and Contemporary Art that I find a bowl of bullshit (see Statistic #1). This neon age of Modernism spat out Gertrude Stein, Betty Friedan, The Pill, and Playtex Sport Tampons—and yet we can’t get our oils and acrylics onto museum walls? There are female partners at Big 4 Accounting Firms, yet most exhibitions focus on testosterone talent? It’s a sex-wide humiliation, one that the Guerrilla Girls noticed back in the mid-1980s.
The Guerrilla Girls assumed their dead artist pseudonyms in 1985, starting off by posting inflammatory statements around New York City. Their controversial (and beastly) Odalisque with the pop art flare appeared on billboards in 1989—it was a slap-in-the-face feminism, a real eyesore of sexism. I adore how their work is Andy Warhol without the pretension and shallowness; instead of celebrity emptiness, it’s substance through block letters, gorilla masks, and sarcasm. The Guerrilla Girls definitely could’ve started The Onion, what with their cheeky adverts like:
“If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year? Discrimination.”
“Where are the women artists of Venice? Underneath the men.”
Around 60 people have identified as Guerrilla Girls, either for a few weeks or several decades. Their promotional videos are badass to the hilt, with toned-arm women waving stickers and paintbrushes around their faces. One random fact stood out to me: according to Frida, art is the 4th largest black market in the world behind drugs, guns, and diamonds. The power and money channeled through creativity is staggering, and it’s wrong that women eat such a paltry slice of this global wealth pie. Today, the Girls are composed of 20% transgenders and the rest are women. They’ve conquered Colbert with wit and piercing remarks. Their website reads: “We could be anyone. We are everywhere. What’s next? More creative complaining!! New projects in London, Paris, Cologne, and more!”
Frida Kahlo gave the audience this overview of the Guerilla Girls, the anonymous group of women artists in which she was a founding member. Besides gluing posters to mailboxes, the Girls have spread their message through stickers, projections splashed on popular museums, books, and their website. The most intriguing part of her lecture was the discussion about Museums buying their works to exhibit. It was mind-boggling that the Guerrilla Girls were protesting the hypocrisy and exclusionary nature of museums—and then their activist art ended up on the walls they condemned. Do the white walls of a gallery change the initial, punching message, making it tamer and less relatable? Do the Guerrilla Girls secretly relish this art world inequality so they can continue printing these attention-grabbing posters? Maybe, but I think the Guerrilla Girls aren’t phonies about this cause; for them, the museum attention is a wider platform on which to tell their story. However, their street tactics (i.e. handing out flyers, gluing posters to museums) are probably more effective than framed posters in a gallery. The original intent—shocking viewers with unexpected statistics and visuals—is diminished now that their work is bounded by hardwood floors and museum catalogs. Frida also mentioned that a few colleges are using their published books (i.e. The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art) as textbooks for their art classes…that’s the stuff of petty revolution.
Frida ended with a “performance”: it was a dramatic reading of The Guerrilla Girls’ latest novel: The Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria and How It Was Cured: From Ancient Times Until Now. The stories included were outrageous to the point of unbelievable (i.e. doctors giving women prescribed orgasms and burning “witches” at the stake). Jesus Christ, women really got the short end of the human rights stick…
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