Tales of women having to fight tooth and nail for recognition — let alone equal representation — are as old as patriarchy, especially in the arts. The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of feminist activist artists who have, since 1985, taken to the streets to broadcast clever and scathing informational campaigns about discrimination and dysfunction in the art world. The group counts their official membership, past and present, at 60 individuals over the course of 3 decades, all of whom work on behalf of the collective by taking the name of a dead woman artist as a pseudonym.
Initially, they focused on revealing the extraordinary sexism and racial bias toward women and artists of color in the New York art world. As Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly demonstrates, their work quickly evolved. The text catalogs their tireless advocacy around issues like homelessness, unequal pay, reproductive control, education, national healthcare, abortion, rape, sexual harassment, political hypocrisy, and environmentalism — each of which the Guerrilla Girls see as inextricable from the precarity of women artists and those of color.
As the self-proclaimed “conscience of the art world,” it’s notable how much of the Guerrilla Girls oeuvre essentially constitutes information design (though it has expanded over time to include performance art, museum shows, demonstrations, and books). Their earliest campaigns, deployed as wheat-paste posters across downtown New York City, are indictments of male fellow artists and their galleries, as well as museums, critics, and even the New York Times for their dismal numbers in terms of fair art world representation. But the masked activists did (and continue to do) more than simply highlight gender and racial biases among art world institutions and their darlings; some of their most famous works are cheeky, irony-laced missives on the lived experiences of women in the art world. Take for example, “Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” (1987); the work lists, among its benefits: “working without the pressure of success, knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty,” and, of course, “getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.”
This last quip refers to one of the group’s signature motifs: Planet of the Apes-style gorilla masks that maintain the anonymity of members when they appear at protests and art world events. In addition to being the instantly-recognizable visual signifier of Guerrilla Girl culture, the masks embody the group’s characteristic wit and hard-hitting messages — delivered with goofy humor. Theirs are guerrilla tactics in the art wars, executed by sister soldiers dressed as gorillas. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, put on a Halloween mask and publicly indict their terrible record of human rights infractions.”
In another (better) universe, this accounting of three decades of advocacy would close on a discussion of how the art world — confronted by cold, hard facts about its inequity, revelations of insider trading among institutional boards and collectors, and mass disenfranchisement of wage workers — rose to the call and did better. But alas, the numbers remain incredibly skewed in the direction of cis white males. This isn’t a problem of the book’s making, of course; it’s a problem of the art world — one that can only be changed by greater demands upon institutions to be more accountable to those they employ, represent, and serve (or by eating the rich, but you didn’t hear that from me).
The Art of Behaving Badly engagingly summarizes the exhaustive organizing and advocacy work undertaken by the Guerrilla Girls — in addition, presumably, to their individual art practices, the recognition of which was the initial motivator for their political actions. “30 years and still counting,” they proclaim; decades on, they Guerrilla Girls haven’t quit. As the book’s press release frames it, “This isn’t a monograph — it’s a call to arms.” If there was any doubt to whom that call is directed, the back cover insert provides a cutout cardboard gorilla mask, inviting you to join the movement.
Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly, by the Guerrilla Girls (2020, Chronicle Books) is now available on Bookshop.