In 1984, MoMA opened an exhibition, “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” to showcase the most important contemporary artists in the world. In total, it included the works of 169 artists. Of those, 13 were female.
In response, a group of 7 female artists donned gorilla masks to protest the gender bias evident in that exhibition and in the art world as a whole. The Guerrilla Girls were born. More than 30 years later, they’re still donning masks to fight for equality today.
What Are They Beating Their Chests About?
As far as gender equality goes, 13 out of 169 artists is a pretty dismal number. Of course, a single show is generally not enough to spark the kind of outrage needed to fuel a 30-year movement. At the time of the Guerrilla Girls’ first protest, the New York Met boasted a roster of artists that was 97% male. To give even more context, 85% of the nude works at the Met featured female subjects.
But, you may be thinking, that was the ’80s! Things have changed! You would be right—sort of. Artist and educator Micol Hebron has recently started an art project, Gallery Tally, cataloging the gender imbalances at major art galleries. The results of the project are disheartening. The average ratio of male to female artists shown in galleries in LA today hovers around 70/30. It’s only downhill from there—a staggering 89% of the artists shown at Blum & Poe and 91% of artists at Sperone Westwater are male. Seriously. Just 1 in 10 of the artists in those galleries is female. For the record, far more than 1 in 10 artists in general are female.
While their initial protest focused on the gender disparity in the art world, the Guerrilla Girls quickly expanded the movement to address racial inequality as well. We’re still in bad shape there, as well—only 1 in 5 of the artists in the US who’s making a living from their work are non-white.
Mask-ulinity And Mayhem
The art world is a small place today and it was even smaller in the ’80’s when the Guerrilla Girls were formed. They wore disguises to avoid the backlash they expected from their protests. When asked about their masks, the Guerrilla Girls note that “guerrilla” came before “gorilla,” but an unintentional spelling error led to the choice of disguise. They call it an “enlightened mistake” that gave them their “mask-ulinity.”
The masks are a particularly poignant symbol of the struggle of women and minorities both in the art world and in general. Women and minorities have historically been systematically victimized by the largely white, largely male status quo. Both groups are at a much higher risk for violence than white males and both run the risk of losing the progress they’ve made so far if they speak out against bias and discrimination. So, the Guerrilla Girls wear masks to protect their identities. Given the threats of violence (and actual violence) that are consistently visited on those who dare to speak out on issues of equality (e.g., Gamergate), that seems like a sound decision.
Besides, the gorilla masks are a hell of a conversation starter.
More Than Monkey Business
One of their earliest and most famous campaigns featured a reclining nude in a gorilla mask with the caption, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” It’s funny, but it’s also a serious question. Remember that 85% of the nudes in the Met at the time featured female subjects, but less than 5% of the artists in the museum were female.
One of their more recent campaigns points out how many female artists had solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim, the Met, the MoMA and the Whitney in 1985 compared to 2015. It’s grim—there was 1 at the MoMA in 1985 and none at any of the others. In 2015, the Guggenheim, the Met, and the Whitney each had 1 while the MoMA had 2.
From the beginning, the Guerrilla Girls have used humor to get their message out. It’s an effective weapon—jokes get people’s attention and get retold and spread around. It’s also effective from a philosophical standpoint by highlighting the absurdity of the status quo rather than treating it as a serious topic of discussion. It’s why we love Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and Weekend Update on SNL. In fact, 3 of the Guerrilla Girls were recently on Late Night with Stephen Colbert to talk about their work and why it still matters 30 years down the road.
It’s Time To Evolve
We’re sad that this battle is ongoing, but it’s a good sign that the Guerrilla Girls and other advocates are out there raising a little hell and calling attention to the inequality that plagues the art world and the world at large. They’ve worked hard to shine a spotlight on this problem and the art world is taking notice. For example, MoMA has hosted exhibitions and seminars in recent years as part of its “Modern Women” project, celebrating female artists and reattributing their place in the history and future of art. This is a great start, although there has yet to be an institutional push or pledge to fairly represent female and minority artists. Perhaps that will be the next step.
The motto of the Guerrilla Girls is, “Fighting discrimination with facts, humor, and fake fur.” We can all get behind that.