Last Thursday, March 29 in Hubbell Auditorium, UR welcomed the outlandish, outspoken, sometimes loved, sometimes hated, but always talked about Guerilla Girls. The Guerilla that graced our presence was introduced as Frida Kahlo, who, as most know, is a 20th century communist-supporting Mexican artist who is no longer alive. One of the requirements of being a Guerilla Girl is anonymity. This anonymity is kept by the Guerilla mask that members wear when playing the part and by donning the name of a dead woman artist.
That’s what the Guerilla Girls are: women artists. Our Frida was one of the founding members of this feminist art group established in New York City in 1985 in response to years of discrimination in the art world where sexism and racism are so inbred that nobody seems to notice. Even today, in contemporary art galleries, most of the artists are men and most of the nudes are women. Art history books only very recently began including a few women or colored artists in the entire history of western art. The public does not seem to notice that most of the art critics and authors of art books are men, even though the majority of art history majors are women.
Frida’s response to the ignorance of the public was, “If someone went up to the information desk at a gallery and said, ‘Gee, where are the women artists?’ they would put them on the walls.” Because this does not happen, the Guerilla Girls use posters, books, performance and the Internet to bring the discriminatory aspects of the art world to the public.
So Frida walked down the stairs wearing all black, a guerilla mask and handed out bananas as she descended. She stood in front of us and read sexist and racist quotes from celebrated men, Martin Luther to Renoir, the latter having a particularly sexist philosophy of women as artists. While it was hard to hear every word she said through her Gorilla mask, it was hard not to be taken with her persuasive statistics and theories.
Frida next announced that we were going to be talking about the ‘f’ word. Not the ‘f’ word that all of us think of; the ‘f’ word here is feminism. She asked the crowd to raise their hands if they called themselves feminists. A little more than half the crowd raised their hands. I did not. Then she pointed out that if you believe in equal rights for women, you are the definition of a feminist. But most people wouldn’t call themselves one because of the stigmatism that goes along with it. I realized that I was a part of this double standard and I wished she would do it over so that I could raise my hand.
The Guerilla Girls formed because “we [women artists in NYC in the mid ’80s] were really pissed off.” They began to put out posters with statistics and used ironic humor to grab attention. One example is the “Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” poster in which a couple of the advantages are “Working without the pressure of success” and “Getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a Guerilla suit.”
They went from posters to billboards with their very famous poster that was seen on every bulletin board on campus to advertise for this event, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” It features statistics like “Less than five percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” The group then went through the history of western art to find the women artists and issues with femininity in the art world.
“The 19th century is where the switch from religion to sex became the preoccupation,” Frida said. Before the 19th century, women were not the focal point of every “master’s” masterpiece; Jesus and company were. So the 19th century, when most of the beloved artists of all time painted, was also the most sexist and racist period in all of art history. Yes, they set the standards for every artistic movement to come, but they also set the standard of racism and sexism for every movement to come.
During this survey of art history, the Guerilla Girls realized that they should make their own art history book. This book became “The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art,” and it is very popular and humorous. Then more books came out such as “The Art Museum Book” and “Bitches, Bimbos, and Ballbreakers,” which is a study of stereotypes given to women. One of Frida’s ideas was that women were broken into three categories: “girls who do, girls who don’t, girls who do girls.”
In terms of race, the Girls did a billboard on the Oscars in which they changed the shape of the Oscar and said, “He’s white and male, just like the guys who win.” It featured the statistic that only three percent of acting awards have gone to people of color. Frida boasted that the year this was put up, 2001, was the same year that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Oscars.
Overall, listening to Frida was very educational and shocking. Unfortunately, the amount of women featured in art galleries has not risen that much since 1984. Recently, many of the most respected museums in the country are featuring all-female exhibits, so some people are listening.
In the question and answer portion of the talk, she was asked about her double life: the life of a woman artist with a name, and the life of the Guerilla Girl. Her response was that sometimes anonymity is good – like Batman, it helps to remain a mystery. “If you put a mask on,” she said, “you’ll be surprised at what comes out of your mouth.”
Conrad is a member of the class of 2007.