Guerrilla Girls criticize lack of female artwork in museums

| 2/13/12 11:00pm

By wearing masks and adopting pseuodynms that range from Georgia O'Keeffe to Gertrude Stein, the Guerrilla Girls remain anonymous and keep the attention focused on the issues, rather than on the women delivering the message, Kahlo said in her lecture. The group calls itself "the conscience of the art world," she said.

The total number of women in the group is not publically known, she said. The Guerrilla Girls, adopting the spelling of the fighter and not the animal, run campaigns to expose the paltry numbers of women artists and artists of color represented in major museums, according to Kahlo. The group has pressured the art world to take a more inclusive look at the art being produced around the world, according to Kahlo.

"[The Guerrilla Girls] focus on injustices in the art world," art history department chair Ada Cohen said. "They try to showcase a feminist agenda in a performative and humorous way."

Cohen organized the event as part of the art history department's culminating experience for majors.

The Guerrilla Girls were first organized after the debut of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1985 titled "An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture," according the Guerrilla Girls website. Out of 169 artists showcased in the exhibit, only 13 were women, and only white artists were represented. The museum's curator, Kynaston McShine, said that any artist not included in the show should rethink his career, according to the website. Women protesting the exhibit began a conversation ranging from the lack of a reponse they saw in the community to the near-exclusion of female artists in the exhibition, according to the website.

The Guerrilla Girls began their work in New York, initially putting up posters to raise awareness, and later delivering lectures and publishing books. One such book, titled "Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes," explores and mocks female stereotypes. The cover features a woman in a backless black dress, peering over her shoulder in a gorilla mask.

As for its name, the group aims to reclaim the word "girl" to avoid it being used against members of the Guerrilla Girls in belittling ways and to harness the fear in the word "guerrilla," according to the website.

Kahlo's lecture at the College included images of the Guerilla Girls' posters a hallmark of their work and statistics about the art world to raise awareness, and it even included some singing. Their posters, which all rely on authenticated facts, grab one's attention with their bitterly saracastic yet comical statements.

"Humor helps you fly under the radar," Kahlo said in the lecture. "If you can get people who disagree with you to laugh, you have a hook in their brains."

On one poster was written, "Do women have to be naked to get into the [Metropolitan Museum of Art]?" followed by the statistics, "Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female." A traditional nude poses by the text in this poster, but she is donning a gorilla mask. The data was collected by conducting a "weenie count" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kahlo said jokingly.

Since gaining recognition in the art world, the Guerrilla Girls have been invited to install shows in major museums, and many museums have begun to showcase their posters. In many cases, the group has used the opportunity to point out the shortcomings of its host museum.

"It's always a thrill to criticize an art museum right inside the museum itself," Kahlo said.

The Guerrilla Girls also aim to reinvent the identity of "the F-word" feminism, that is and make it fashionable, she said.

"So many people who believe in the tenets of feminism refuse to call themselves feminists," Kahlo said.

In the lecture, Kahlo said that little has changed in the art world for women and minorities. The fact that such conversations are now taking place, however, is an improvement, she said. Kahlo said she sees most change as occurring in educational institutions and in the creation of new art outlets. Rather than taking traditional routes of earning Masters of Fine Arts degrees and pursuing gallery space, more students are interested in creating alternative art worlds, she said.

Cohen also noted an increased interest in gender in the study of art history.

"Gender has become a very big part of [art history]," Cohen said. "Groups like the Guerrilla Girls have played a big part in bringing gender to the forefront of the field."

The lecture co-sponsored by the art history department, the Leslie Center for the Humanities, the Women's and Gender Studies Program and the Hood Museum of Art served as the first memorial lecture for the late art history professor Angela Rosenthal, who passed away last year. The department plans to honor her legacy with an annual lecture series, according to Cohen.

In her lecture, Kahlo encouraged students to engage in activism, telling them not to fear radicalism.

"Reasonable people never change the world be irrational, but be precise," Kahlo said.