In 1985, a group of artists formed the activist art group Guerrilla Girls, in response to a Museum of Modern Art exhibition of 169 artists with only 13 women and eight artists of color included. The anonymous group—composed mostly of artists using aliases borrowed from famous women artists, wearing gorilla masks to hide their identities—was hellbent on delivering institutional critique to the masses through striking advertisements that poked fun at the art world establishment while also calling out its deeply entrenched sexism and racism. The group’s latest book, Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly, encapsulates over three decades of art world interrogation, from their early, minimalist graphic posters that asked if “women have to be naked to get into the Met?” to expansive dissections of museum diversity commissioned by museums themselves.
The past few years has been a watershed moment for art museums, as activist groups and curators have called out institutions like the Whitney and the Guggenheim for racist conduct and the inhumane business practices, and union drives for embattled art workers have popped up at museums like the New Museum and MOCA. And many of the issues Guerrilla Girls have raised for the past three decades, from the racial and gender diversity of museum exhibitions to the whiteness of Academy Awards winners, have only become more mainstream in the last decade. Founding members who go by the names Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz spoke to Jezebel about the group’s approach to using humor, how the art world has evolved since they began, and the perils of art market tokenization.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: When this group began in the early 1980s, did you two think you’d still be out here in 2020 fighting the same art world discrimination and sexism?
FRIDA KAHLO: The short answer is, no. [Laughs] We were just angry and we decided that we wanted to do something about it. We put up a few posters and they worked, and we listened to people’s responses to them and got ideas for other posters.
KATHE KOLLWITZ: We also never thought that we would basically be using the exact same strategy. Finding a new way to disrupt things by using, you know, crazy visuals, disruptive headlines and killer statistics. We work under the same paradigm as our original idea. Who thought that would still work? But it does.
Does it feel disheartening at all that you still can use the same strategy?
FK: The fact is the situation has changed and the art world has evolved and the problems have evolved, so the strategy is not being applied to exactly the same problem. First, it was a question of changing people’s consciousness to get them to realize the art world was not a meritocracy. Now we can focus on the structure of the art world and the institutional racism and sexism that exists.
The book notes that the group was initially criticized for being whiny and overly negative. What was the conversation like in the 1980s art world about institutional critique and about art world diversity?
FK: Within the group we all agreed there was a problem, we had very lively conversations about which way to to attack it. Outside of the group there was a lot of opposition to what we were saying and in particular from people who were in positions of power who were perhaps aware of what was happening and [it] put them on the defensive. We empowered the people inside the art world establishment and in museums and maybe galleries to speak out.
KK: As for complaining, complaining is a very necessary thing. You know, it’s awful that the state of the world is worse and worse, but we all have to keep pushing to try to do something about it. We found that if you complain creatively, it can make inroads.
FK: Another way of looking at it is: when women and people of color have a beef, it’s complaining. When white men have a beef, they are being critics.
Something apparent in the retrospective book is the different tonal shifts in the posters. You have that great 1986 poster in pink, with very girly cursive writing, where you’re telling an art collector who doesn’t have any women in his collection that he must feel terrible about this. What is the Guerrilla Girls approach to a collective voice? What is the group’s approach to humor?
KK: Humor is a really interesting way to change people’s minds, because you kind of get into their brain before they have a chance to really know what’s going on. Humor is about upending a conversation and looking at things in a new way. The other reason we use humor is because most of us really like humor and we’re funny people.
FK: And early on I personally felt empowered by being able to make fun of a system that was excluding me. It gave me power. I think that’s the nature of oppression, is that sometimes the only power you have is to make fun of it.
Into the 1990s, you see Guerrilla Girls’ approach expand to not just fight against the art world but the general curtailing of women’s rights, police brutality, domestic violence, etc. What prompted the group to expand its scope? Was it a natural progression or was there a conversation about that expansion?
KK: In the beginning there was some discussion and some pushback about that. But we were all not just artists, most of us were activists in our own life and always had been, so it was a natural thing to use this strategy. We use these strategies of advertising that do persuade people when a piece of ours really works, so it was natural to use this in all the other areas that we care about, [being] anti-war and anti-racism.
FK: It was really hard to isolate the kind of discrimination that happened in the art world from the kind of discrimination that happened in the rest of the world, and all of the ways that marginalized people are kept out of of the mainstream.
The Guerrilla Girls have always tackled rape culture, but in the Me Too wave you saw it really hit the art world. You have that poster regarding museum wall labels for Chuck Close works, instructing museums on how to write them to transparently acknowledge the allegations of abuse against him. How has the Me Too movement influenced the group’s work?
KK: We always take on issues that we care about, there are many we haven’t managed to do something about, but this is a really interesting moment in terms of the Me Too movement because it’s one of the reasons, systemic institutional racism is another reason, why museums are reexamining themselves. They’re getting huge criticism, people are being forced off the boards. [Museums] are trying to play catch up with in terms of these issues that they stayed away from for a long, long time. What is going on behind the scenes in those incredibly problematic institutions? We know they must be having meetings right now to figure out what to do. And one of the issues the Me Too movement has brought up is what do you do if you’re showing the work of a known sexual predator or abuser? Do you just separate the person from the work completely?
FK: Along with that we started to look within the history of art to realize that sexual assault is part and parcel of the scenes in Western art. Women are abducted, they’re raped, they’re seduced if they’re not lying temptingly idle. So why should we be surprised that the lives of these male artists have involved sexual abuse in their real lives?
Kathe, you mentioned museums playing catch up. Something that can happen is that a museum might do that in an exhibition space, they’ll have a radical, feminist art show but then the board members or the curatorial team, the people the public doesn’t know, could include sexual abusers. You see museums trying to play catch up with a political show, but not fix the politics at play behind the scenes. How do you make sure that museums are really enacting lasting change, a long term commitment to diversity in their collections and in their programing?
KK: I don’t think we can know that, but what we do know is the people who work in museums and and have suffered a lot of this crap from the powers that be in the museums are doing an incredible job of standing up in their own jobs. They’re trying to unionize, trying to get better pay, trying to call out the racist remarks they have heard or harassment [they’ve experienced.] And there are also some great organizations right now, Change the Museum, Decolonize This Place is one of them.
FK: And let’s not forget that museums are starting to imitate corporate structure, where people at the top make a ton of money and the people at the bottom make very little. It’s very hard to empower people of the bottom who make very, very little money, who are actually essential workers, to speak up because their livelihoods are so marginal. That’s another important thing about the innovation movement among museums, is for museums to pay their employees a livable wage with decent benefits.
KK: For the Guerrilla Girls Code of Ethics for art museums, it’s one of the last pages of the book. We made our own monument and it says things like, “if thou exhibit art mostly by white males, bought at the most expensive galleries, then donated by wealthy collectors, thou must renameth thyself the MUSEUM OF RICH PEOPLES’ ART” and “thou shalt not permit billionaires who sell deadly addictive drugs, make tear gas, deny climate change, or undermine elections to artwash their reputations with huge donations and get their names on museum plazas.” We’re going to make a big cardboard model of this one and when the pandemic dies down put it in front of a museum for a day.
Over the past several decades certain women artists once ignored by the art world establishment have finally been recognized for their work. Thinking of artists like Ana Mendieta or Eva Hesse, who were not truly given their due until after their deaths. How has it felt seeing the establishment come around to women artists you were championing for years?
FK: Well the art world, which unfortunately is kind of based in the art market, is always trying to monetize this. The art market [will] choose a few token women, a few token artists of color, and then shower them with a lot of attention and and forget about all of the rest, the huge art community that produces these if these individuals. That’s a problem and that’s sort of a function of capitalism. Capitalism has to have winners and losers, and we think that everyone who is an artist is a winner. It’s great to see these women artists fluffed up and given rewards that they so deserve, but we really think that there should be more of them. There is the sort of fear of tokenism in only choosing a few of them and that’s part of the art market, is that the money goes all to the top. We would like to see that spread out over a bit more.
We’d like to see the art world not sort of run on the fumes of art collecting, which right now [is] about trying to decide who’s worth the most money and who sells for the highest price. Think about if the history of literature was based on best sellers, it would be a very different history than what you have now. That’s not to say that many of the women who are being championed in the art world aren’t great artists, but they’re not alone and they didn’t come up alone. There are many, many more behind them who really need support as well.
KK: The real challenge in the art world for artists is to avoid the gatekeepers, because the gatekeeper’s job is keeping people out. Our desire for the art world is to cast a wide as wide net as possible and let everybody in, and that makes me just want to give a little shout out to street art and also to Internet art. You don’t have to wait to be anointed by one of these important institutions or powers that be. You want to do something, go out and do it. That was how we started, we didn’t start by trying to stage a protest in front of a museum or something. We started by just putting our message, our posters, pasting them up on the street in the middle of the night, so people can see them for themselves.
At this point, the Guerrilla Girls posters have actually become art objects themselves, there are several works in the Whitney collection for example. How did it feel to have these posters included in the collection of a museum the group was criticizing?
FK: It felt great because anyone who has 30 bucks can own the same posters in all of these museums. There’s nothing exclusive or precious about that. We really live on a different economic model and we’re kind of proud of that, we’ve sort of circumvented the art market. And there are many, many ways to attack the establishment. I don’t think there’s any one way. We’ll do it from outside, we’ll do it from inside, we’ll do it however we can.
KK: When museums first came calling, it kind of happened around fifteen years ago when we were in the Venice Biennale, and after that, we started doing a lot of museum projects. Hundreds of museums have a work of ours, but also hundreds of thousands of individuals have something they took off the Internet or found somewhere and put it on their wall. But that was a kind of crisis of conscience, because we always saw our selves as outsiders protesting the system and not a part of it. But we quickly realized our goal was always to put work out to as wide an audience as possible. We quickly understood when we saw our work in museums that a critique of the museum right on its own walls was really powerful. People would never go into a museum again after they looked at our work and think of what’s on the wall.
A perfect example of that was our early poster [asking], do women have to be naked to get into the Met museum? Another artist would have done a poster just about how few women artists were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but instead we found a completely other way to do it. We went and did a count and found [that] less than five percent of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but eight-five percent of the nudes are female. I really believe that after you’ve seen this poster, you can never go into a museum and not wonder what is there and not count.
Correction: This post identified the Guerrilla Girls as having 60 members at the time of its creation, which is false. This post has also been updated to clarify Kahlo’s comments on white men and criticism.