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The Guerrilla Girls

American Photographers, Designers, Activists and Conceptual Artists

The Guerrilla Girls Photo

Started: 1984

"If you're in a situation where you're a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won't believe what comes out of your mouth."

The Guerrilla Girls Signature

Summary of The Guerrilla Girls

In 1985, a group of vigilantes wearing gorilla masks took to the streets. Armed with wheat paste and posters, the Guerrilla Girls, as they called themselves, set out to shame the art world for its underrepresentation of women artists. Their posters, in the words of one critic "were rude; they named names and they printed statistics. They embarrassed people. In other words, they worked." In addition to posters (now highly-valued works of art), billboards, performances, protests, lectures, installations, and limited-edition prints make up the Guerrilla Girls' varied oeuvre. Their unorthodox tactics were instrumental in making progress. The group is still going strong, reminding the art world that it still has a long way to go. Referring to themselves as "the conscience of the art world," wherever discrimination lurks, the Guerrilla Girls are likely to strike again.

As their reputation has grown, they have encompassed targets beyond the art sphere, like Hollywood, right wing politicians, and same-sex marriage. They have collaborated with institutions that once shunned them, including the Tate Modern and MoMA, and yet their tactics remain as radical as ever. In a 2012 interview they revealed, "We've been working on a weapon, an estrogen bomb...If you drop it, the men will drop their guns and start hugging each other. They'll say, 'Why don't we clean this place up?' In the end, we encourage people to send their extra estrogen pills to Karl Rove; he needs a little more estrogen."

Key Ideas

The Guerrilla Girls' marketing tactics were more sophisticated than that of any previous feminist campaign. Imitating advertising, and appealing to the eye of the educated mass consumer, they engaged a much broader audience.
Gorilla masks are funny. Coopting this and other elements of humor into their communicative strategy helped dispel the notion that feminists have no sense of humor.
The Guerrilla Girls made feminism seem like a glamorous club one could join. As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith has written, they took "feminist theory, gave it a populist twist and some Madison Avenue pizazz and set it loose in the streets." In admitting women only, and exclusively by invitation, the group mirrored power circles in the male-dominated art world.
While adopting masks and pseudonyms like Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stein, and Kathe Kollwitz heightened the theatricality of their public appearances, it also served a practical purpose. It afforded anonymity for working artists who had every reason to believe the institutions would launch counter attacks on their professional reputations.
Their decision to remain anonymous is pointedly connected to the history of women in art. In the 1980s, many art history courses did not include a single woman artist, and many of the women artists whose works are now well known were relatively undiscovered.
The Guerrilla Girls Photo

Two main events inspired the formation of the Guerrilla Girls. One was the publication of the influential feminist essay "Why have there been no great women artists?" in 1971 by art historian Linda Nochlin. As the title suggests, Nochlin accepts that throughout history, women have failed to achieve greatness on a par with the Michelangelos and Picassos of the art world. Nochlin blames the art world, eschewing the oft-repeated explanation that women must be somehow biologically or intellectually inferior. In a deeply segregated system with long-entrenched institutional biases, she argues, women had never had the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with their male peers. Laying the blame squarely on the art world, Nochlin writes: "The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, but in our institutions and our education."

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