While a crowd of roughly 150 people sat and chatted in the Brooklyn Museum’s auditorium last Thursday night, waiting for the appearance of the Guerrilla Girls, Christina Aguilera played over the sound system. “What a girl wants, what a girl needs,” she sang — lines and a melody that came as something of a surprise throwback. What year was it? Why did I still know the words to this song? And shouldn’t we have been listening to Beyoncé?
As it turned out, Aguilera was the perfect choice for opening music: her presence set the pseudo-nostalgic tone for an evening that was heavily retrospective more than current or cutting edge.
The event began with a video montage covering the history of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous female artists and activists who’ve been calling out gender and racial disparities and discrimination in the art world since 1985. The montage gave attendees an overview of the kind of work the Guerrilla Girls have done — posters, billboards and, more recently, installations — and a taste of some of the hideous reactions they’ve incited (men spouting blatantly sexist remarks in TV interviews, for instance).
After this, two of the founders of the group, who go by Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz (all members take the names of dead female artists), entered the aisles of the auditorium, wearing their trademark gorilla masks and all black outfits. They offered audience members the most phallic fruit of all, bananas, dubbing them “feminist bananas” in the process. They made their way to the podium, where they began to rattle off misogynistic quotations from men throughout history, from Martin Luther to Renoir.
Then the slideshow began.
The event description had promised “a multimedia performance in full jungle drag.” What we got instead was a straightforward lecture with slides. Not only that, but most of the presentation was simply a recap of where the Guerrilla Girls have been — pictures of some of their most famous work and pages from their Art Museum Activity Book. While these images themselves are funny and sharp, seeing them projected and explained in an auditorium like so many art-history slides made for a cross between being forced to sit through your parents’ vacation photos and watching a comedian explain his jokes (thereby rendering them unfunny).
It’s not that the Guerrilla Girls aren’t relevant anymore. The issues they’ve spent decades calling attention to remain as pressing as ever, and their posters are still paradigms of intelligent protest art. It’s just that they’ve become a brand name themselves by now, an institution of their own, muddying the clarity of their relationship to art-world and social protest. What’s more, their presentation felt a little cheesy and too safe. Pointers like “Be crazy” and “Give museums some tough love” don’t exactly make you want to jump out of your seat and fight for change. Their final tip was “And don’t forget to have fun along the way.” OK, sure, but … really?
There were, however, a few high points. For one, Kahlo and Kollwitz were refreshingly honest about the shift they’ve undergone, from outsiders to insiders. “What do you do when the system you’ve been attacking embraces you?” one of them asked. And they took jabs at the Brooklyn Museum itself, particularly when discussing tokenism in the art world. While showing their poster “Top Ten Signs That You’re an Art World Token,” they pointed out number 7:
“A museum that won’t show your work gives you a prominent place in its lecture series.”
“Kind of like what the Brooklyn Museum is doing with us tonight!” they said.
The women also spoke about their group’s involvement with and admiration for Occupy Wall Street, which they said had “created a total game-changing paradigm,” and mentioned their support for the locked-out Sotheby’s union workers. (Their comments about the union were met with a tentative silence; this writer may or may not have broken it by starting some applause.)
One of the most charged moments came when an audience member asked Kahlo and Kollwitz when the Guerrilla Girls had started focusing on people of color (their founding concern was solely sexism) and what percentage of their own group was made up of people of color. The audience immediately clapped at the question, but the answer was somewhat less than satisfactory. The Guerrilla Girls said that because of their group’s anonymity, they couldn’t give statistics or numbers or much identifying information.
“You just have to trust us,” they said. It’s not clear if everyone did.