Essay: Protest, Provoke, Prevail: the Guerrilla Girls and the ‘Art’ of War

Haley Fox

ASIAN 358 – Final Paper

Prof. Sonya Ozbey

20 December 2016

 

Many women (and men) write to us, asking us how to join the Guerrilla Girls. Well, there’s bad news and there’s good news. The bad news is, it’s not possible.

The good news is, you don’t need us.

 

  • The Guerrilla Girls

 

Arbiter of the Enemy’s Fate

Anonymous feminist activists. Pranksters. A damned bunch of communist whores. Avatars of deceased female artists in gorilla masks. Anti-white man-haters. The conscience of the art world. The Guerrilla Girls have been called many things over the course of their 30-some years.  These masked avengers, who proclaim their enemy to be “sexism and racism in the art world,” (Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls) have been picking apart the line where art meets politics with uniquely biting humor since the 1980s. In 1989, they famously posed the question, “Do women have to be nude to get into the Metropolitan Museum?” by imposing a gorilla’s head over an image of Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, citing the fact that less than 5% of the artists but 85% of the nudes in the Met were female. This juxtaposition of ridiculousness with a data-backed message garnered them many fans, and soon went on record in Vogue, the New York Times, and other publications to spread their message of feminism and fake fur.

They remain to this day an anonymous yet well known presence in the art world (Ryzik, 2015), and despite progress, recognize that their work is far from over. Although guerrilla art is a rather common sight today, with artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey (creator of “Obey”) having achieved world renown, the Guerrilla Girls were one of the first to recognize that a bathroom stall could become a battlefront for activism. According to the Girl known as Frida Kahlo, when they began their crusade they “didn’t have a plan… [they] were just pissed off” (Brockes, 2015). How, then, were these ‘pranksters’ able to successfully combine the theories of guerrilla warfare with something as peaceful as art?  By looking at the Girls’ tactics, Mao Zedong’s treatise on guerrilla warfare, and Sunzi’s The Art of Warfare, it becomes clear that guerrilla strategies can be applied in a multitude of contexts, one of which is the tenuous intersection of art and politics. By examining the phenomenon of the Guerrilla Girls’ methods and results, it is clear that effective, aggressive political change can be brought about by the use of straightforward and surprise means.

Go Where They Will Not Expect You

Guerrilla warfare, literally meaning “little war” in Spanish, is the engagement of large forces through irregular tactics. Although it is most commonly associated with the Vietcong, guerrilla warfare has an expansive and detailed history. To explore the broader contexts of guerrilla warfare, it is important to examine Mao Zedong’s book On Guerrilla Warfare as well as Sunzi’s The Art of Warfare. War, according to Mao, is an “inevitable result of the clash between oppressor and oppressed when the latter reaches the limits of their endurance” (41), which is easily seen in the Guerrilla Girls’ actions. In their Confessions, the Girls said that they “wanted to play with the fear of guerilla warfare to make people afraid of who we might be and where we would strike next” (15).

Additionally, Mao recognizes that guerrilla warfare is distinctly political, and it must stem from an ideology that “coincide[s] with the aspirations of the people” (43). Although the Guerrilla Girls do not work at the level of the state and therefore do not advance society’s dominant ideologies, the people for whom they are fighting suffer from societal barriers and frustrations, and thus empower the Girls with “their sympathy, cooperation, and assistance” (43). The overall goals of guerilla warfare outlined by Mao are to arouse and organize the people, to politically unify a nation, to establish bases of operations, to equip forces, to recover national strength, to destroy the enemy’s will to fight, and to regain lost territories (43). The Girls do differ on some of these goals in important ways, which will be discussed later in this essay. Despite this, many of these goals can be seen in the their mission to “reinvent the ‘F’ word: feminism” (GuerrillaGirls.com 2016).  

All Warfare is Based on Deception

In The Art of Warfare, Sunzi provides a strong methodology for subverting opposing power structures (“the enemy”) that has been readapted many times throughout the years. Mao’s advice that guerrilla warfare “must be adjusted to the enemy situation, the terrain, the existing lines of communication, the relative strengths, the weather, and the situation of the people” (46) is referential to Sunzi’s five criteria: tao, climate, terrain, command, and regulation. But one of his most important teachings, which mutated into the tactics now known as guerrilla warfare, is that of deception.

In the first chapter of his book, Sunzi says bluntly that “warfare is the way of deceit” (104)  and that the path of victory is to “attack where [the enemy] is not prepared” (105).

“go by way of places where it would never occur to [the enemy] you would go” (105). Thus, the Guerrilla Girls attacked the art world in museum bathrooms, in gallery-adjacent bus stations, and in the mailboxes of curators and critics (Confessions 15). Especially heinous perpetrators were bestowed with phony awards, like “The Most Patronizing Art Review of 1986” (18) and “The Norman Mailer Award for Sensitivity to Issues of Gender Equality” (19). Just as Sunzi advocated for the use of spies, the Girls often used their non-Guerrilla personas and partners to gain entrance to art sales, men’s restrooms, and museum records (15). While these actions seem trite in “the age of social media, when anybody can fill thousands of email boxes with boldly designed political messages” (Fusco 2016), the Girls were able to conduct a viral campaign before ‘viral’ was viable.

The Guerrilla Girls often used unorthodox methods of data collection to make their indisputable claims about racism and sexism in the art world. One ‘official’ member of the Girls recalled having lunch with a chief curator of their next target when he said conspiratorially, “You know, I think [my assistant] is a Guerrilla Girl” (Confessions 24). Their anonymity, first used to protect their careers (14), lent them other advantages: invisibility and replicability. Since they’re a “large, powerful, anonymous group… [they] could be anyone, anywhere” (21). By following the way of deceit, the Girls became formless, unanticipatable; “the enemy [could] not know where to defend” (Sunzi 123). Furthermore, by using “irony to make institutional critique entertaining” (Fusco 2016), the Girls were able to harass the enemy in their places of power while generating discussion about the patriarchal power structure of the art world at large.

Assaulting Walled Cities

Despite the successes of their movement, the Guerrilla Girls have faced many challenges that have arisen from the discrepancies between guerrilla art and guerrilla warfare. The main problem of the Girls is there seems to be no ‘straightforward’ to their ‘surprise,’ no entrenched forces to compliment their guerrilla unit. Perhaps this is less applicable when the war is fought with ideologies rather than weapons, but since “guerrilla operations must not be considered as an independent form of warfare” (Zedong 41), having a main ‘army’ that held enough power to actually win the war could only be a good thing. Another problem of the Girls is that of their internal cohesion. Mao notes that one of guerrilla warfare’s main goals is to “organize the people” (43), but among the Girls’ ranks, there is little real leadership. They “rarely vote, and proceed by consensus most of the time” (Confessions 21), and don’t have a firm grasp on the size of their army–while there are approximately 60 core members, there are possibly “thousands [of members nationally]; internationally millions” (21). This indeterminate answer reveals that the Guerrilla Girls do not have leaders who are able to “establish severe discipline” (Zedong 45), and this may cause them to have a difficult time ending the war on racism and sexism.

To Subdue the Enemy without Fighting

Even with these shortcomings, the Guerrilla Girls have achieved many victories in their three-decades-long crusade. The Girls have “made [the art world] accountable, and things have actually gotten better for women and artists of color” (Confessions 32). The famous gallery director Mary Boone “never represented any women until [the Girls] targeted her” (32). Tee Guardian credits the Guerrilla Girls for the fact that “galleries that once showed only 10% women artists now show up to 20%” (Brokes 2015). However, there is still progress to be made. In The Guerrilla Girls’ Updated Art Museum Activity Book, the Girls did a recount of the Metropolitan Museum’s artists-to-nudes ratio and stated:

We were sure things had improved, but surprise! Only 4% of the artists in the Modern and Contemporary sections were women, but 76% of the nudes were female. Fewer women artists, more naked males. Is this progress? Guess we can’t

put our masks away yet.

 

  • The Guerrilla Girls

 

In spite of this, it is clear that the Guerrilla Girls prove that guerrilla strategies can be used for a vast number of applications, including the enactment of social change, and that the Girls’ tactics are a continuation of the lineage laid by Sunzi’s The Art of Warfare. Go bananas.

Works Cited

Bollen, C., & Fimmano, R. (2012, March 23). Guerrilla Girls. Retrieved December 20, 2016, from http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/guerrilla-girls

Brockes, E. (2015, April 29). The Guerrilla Girls: 30 years of punking art world sexism. Retrieved December 08, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/apr/29/the-guerrilla-girls-interview-art-world-sexism

Chave, A. C. (2011). The Guerrilla Girls’ Reckoning. Art Journal, 70(2), 102-111. doi:10.1080/00043249.2011.10791004

Fusco, C. (2016, January 13). Taste as a Political Matter. Retrieved December 20, 2016, from http://www.walkerart.org/magazine/2016/coco-fusco-guerrilla-girls

The Guerrilla Girls. (1995). Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls. New York City, New York: HarperPerennial.

The Guerrilla Girls. (1998). The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York City, New York: Penguin Books.

The Guerrilla Girls. (2012). The Guerrilla Girls’ Art Museum Activity Book. New York City, New York: Printed Matter, Inc.

The Guerrilla Girls. (2016). Recent Press. Retrieved December 20, 2016, from http://www.guerrillagirls.com/press/

Kahlo, F., & Kollwitz, K. (2010). Transgressive Techniques of the Guerrilla Girls. Getty Research Journal, 2, 203-208. doi:10.1086/grj.2.23005421

Mao, Z., & Griffith, S. B. (2007). On guerrilla warfare. Thousand Oaks, California: BN Publishing.

Ryzik, M. (2015, August 05). The Guerrilla Girls, After 3 Decades, Still Rattling Art World Cages. Retrieved December 08, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/arts/design/the-guerrilla-girls-after-3-decades-still-rattling-art-world-cages.html

Sunzi, & Ames, R. T. (1971). The Art of War. London: Oxford University Press.

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