Activism in Art: The Anonymous Guerilla Girls
The fine arts began as a predominantly white, male-dominant profession. While still true today, activism and calls for diversity have increased, and many artists strive to break these boundaries. One of these major activists includes the anonymous Guerrilla Girls of New York City. Most known for their anonymity by wearing gorilla masks, the Guerrilla Girls began creating public service announcements regarding racism and sexism in the art industry. Formed in 1985, the group of women have evolved from a small group of women based in New York City to 55 total members with work displayed worldwide. With the tag line “the conscience of the art world,” the Guerrilla Girls seek to educate the public of intersectional-feminist issues in the art world with a combination of irony, humour, facts, and art. Many of their pieces openly acknowledge artists, art collectors, galleries, museums, and critics who do not represent female artists. The group of women unapologetically bring worldwide attention to problematic behaviours and practices running rampant through the art industry.
The Guerrilla Girls’ establishment began with the goal of emphasizing feminism in the arts. However, in 1989 the Guerrilla Girls became most known for their piece, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” followed by a statistic that states, “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Arts section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” Debuting three years after the group’s establishment, this piece has been republished multiple times in a variety of languages, making appearances as recently as 2018. The irony behind the given statistic only furthers the narrative that women in the art industry, considered progressive in modern employment, are still exploited by men. When considering the challenges women face to be taken seriously as artists, the Guerilla Girls bring worldwide awareness to the gender inequalities of the art industry. The piece also provides a deeper understanding that rather than being taken seriously as artists, women are used as objects to appeal to the male gaze. This idea adds to the Guerrilla Girls’ work regarding sexual assault in the art industry. Other pieces created by the Guerrilla Girls openly reveal artists who are sexual predators and criticize museums who choose to display artists’ work regardless of any misconduct. By publicly calling attention to the artists’ wrongdoings, the Guerrilla Girls force the art industry to recognize its problematic virtues.
Expanding from misogynistic behaviours of the art industry, the Guerrilla Girls currently use their platform as artists to bring attention to the issue of class as well. Many of their recent pieces call attention to the museums, art collectors, and art galleries that fail to pay their employees living wages. Due to the exploitation of these workers, many are unable to afford things such as paying their rent, paying bills, or providing themselves with reliable transportation to and from work. By addressing the labour issues in the art industry, the group aims to expose the greed of many art institutions.
Living up to their tagline, “the conscience of the art world,” the Guerrilla Girls work to unravel the sexism, classism, and racism in the art industry. Many problematic behaviours begin at the top, from artists who are predators to wealthy art collectors who fail to provide their employees with a decent living, to the “white-out” of artists featured in museums. Regardless of the possible backlash for criticizing leaders in the industry, the Guerrilla Girls are not afraid to acknowledge the art industry’s flaws and push for institutional change.