An Interview with the Guerrilla Girls

They’re funny, they’re smart, and at least one of them thinks they’re sexier with their masks on. The Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous artist-activists, have been chipping at the glass ceiling in the arts on behalf of women and people of color since 1985, when their bold, humorous posters first began appearing around New York City. Their subversive sense of irony soon had the art world looking in the mirror, facing prejudices that many had been quick to see elsewhere in society but not in themselves.

Their new book, The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art surveys female artists of the past–from the ancient Helen of Egypt to the Russian-turned-Parisian “simultaneous” designer Sonia Delaunay to Washington, D.C., painter Alma Thomas. Contributing editor Rebecca Miller spoke with two of the Girls, Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz (each sporting the name of her favorite dead woman artist).

Which artists do you most admire? 

Frida: The women artists I admire most are those who had to struggle the hardest and found outrageous and inventive ways to have creative lives.

Käthe: One of my favorites is Edmonia Lewis, a 19th-century sculptor, part Chippewa, part African American, who got herself to Rome, where there was a little less discrimination. She made huge marble sculptures of Civil War and anti-slavery heroes and mythological figures. She managed to survive by crating up huge sculptures and sending them to collectors in the United States along with invoices, even though they hadn’t ordered them. Often enough, they would send money back.

Where do you get your news? 

Frida: We have moles in every major art institution in the United States.

Are there museums that seem to be taking the Guerrilla Girls’ message to heart? 

Frida: Museums on the West Coast do very well. We found that the further you get from New York, the more responsive museums are to the work of women and artists of color. Everyone thinks that New York is the center of the art world, and the most progressive place. Well, it ain’t true.

What books and authors have influenced you? 

Frida: Many scholars–mostly women–have been dealing with issues of feminism and the poverty of art history as we know it for years. But their work is buried in tomes, and we wanted to popularize what they had done. Art critic Linda Nochlin posed the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” We turned that around in our book to ask, “Why have so few women artists been considered great?” For instance, there’s a wonderful book by Dore Ashton about Rosa Bonheur. Or Rozske Pollach and Griselda Parker’s Old Mistresses, a take-off on Old Masters.

What are the greatest problems in the art world today? 

Käthe: Because the public still thinks that the art world is a meritocracy, there is little activism and it lags way behind the culture at large in terms of the representation of women and people of color. Somehow, everyone insists on believing that art is above it all.

Frida: The glass ceiling is a big problem. There are lots of women artists at the entry level having their first shows, but if you start looking at the auction records where you see museum participation, the same women come up every time, and their prices are lower than those paid to white males.

What trends give you hope? 

Käthe: Right now things are better than ever before, but there’s still a long way to go. Last year the Museum of Modern Art did a survey show called Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life, and out of 74 artists there were four white women, one woman of color, and no men of color. If very few women and artists of color are included in a group exhibit, there has got to be some prejudice at work, unless it’s called White Men over 60 with Blue Hair.

If you could make one law, what would it be? 

Frida: A group of women artists centered in New York is investigating how the Title IX laws–the laws that equalize spending in major institutions and in women’s and men’s sports–can be applied to museums. The task force is starting to challenge the National Endowment for the Arts and other government funding for institutions that don’t have a balanced exhibition schedule. It’s a great idea.

What’s next? 

Käthe: We’re interested in applying our talents toward redeeming affirmative action in some way. One idea is to replace affirmative action with other forms of favoritism, like nepotism. For example, I think 10 per cent of Harvard’s entering class are legacies, or children of alumni, and many of those students have grades or SATs a point or two lower than other students. We thought it would be good if everyone who went to a good college adopted 400 or 500 people whose families didn’t go to good colleges. So, instead of getting in under affirmative action, they’ll get in as a legacy and nobody will mind.

Will the Guerrilla Girls ever take off their masks? 

Frida: No.

Käthe: Please take them off us! We started this to keep attention on the issues and to protect ourselves. But we found we’re much sexier in the masks, and we’re certainly more beautiful. People love the mystery. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get rid of them.

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