The Guerrilla Girls’ long fight
Activist artists on stage at Anderson Ranch on Wednesday
What: Artist Lecture with The Guerrilla Girls
Where: Schermer Meeting Hall, Anderson Ranch Arts Center
When: Wednesday, 12:30 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets and more info: andersonranch.org; also streaming online
The Guerrilla Girls have spent the past 36 years fighting the powers that be in the art world, producing inspired public art campaigns to identify sexism and racism in museums and galleries and in wider cultural history.
This masked, anonymous collective — who wear gorilla masks and use the names of female artists past — has helped change the trajectory of culture with works like “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” — their now-iconic 1989 poster that starkly identified that less than 5% all of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern wing were women but that 85% of its nudes were female. That breakthrough poster identified The Guerrilla Girls as the “conscience of the art world” and they’ve served as such ever since.
This week, The Guerrilla Girls are at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village as part of its Recognition Week events. The Guerrilla Girls known as “Frida Kahlo” and “Käthe Kollwitz” began teaching a Ranch workshop Monday on political art. On Wednesday, they’ll give a public talk in Schermer Meeting Hall (The Ranch recently released expanded capacity, opening up public seats for what had been a sold-out event).
The Aspen area, this strange nexus of global wealth and power, is an interesting and apt forum for The Guerrilla Girls mission.
“It’s in the belly of the beast really,” Kahlo said in an interview on campus Monday.
The Recognition Week crowd is likely to include some of the most prominent contemporary art collectors in the world, board members of major museums and institution, representatives of multi-national art galleries and others with art world clout during 2021’s bizarre and overheated moment in the commercial art market. The Guerrilla Girls are excited to be in dialogue with these power players, some like-minded and some perhaps not.
“It’s a tragedy that art and culture are controlled by big money,” said Kollwitz, “and by very, very few people. When you look at museums, it’s very sad that they are so beholden to people who can give them money.”
Big donors may influence museums in a way that reinforces their own power and the value of their own collections, she noted, which historically have tended to be white and male artists, and marginalizes others while sending prices for the top blue-chip artists into the stratosphere.
“There are so many great artists, and they don’t all cost $100 million,” added Kollwitz. “Museums need to cast a wider net, and collect the real story of our culture. And collectors need to do that, too.”
The commercial art market, smashing records amid the pandemic and its attendant economic crisis, is yet more frustrating for The Guerrilla Girls as sales prices now appear to dictate cultural significance in the U.S. and art appears on the same financial planner’s docket as a real estate investment or stock.
“It’s troubling the way artists become an instrument of investment, when people are more interested in the monetary value of a work of art than its cultural significance,” Kahlo said.
Elsewhere in arts and culture, history is not written by money, they noted. If the history of film was only about blockbusters or literature by the bestseller list, for example, those would be woefully incomplete representations of culture.
The art world has gone far off track. After four decades of fomenting revolution and achieving incremental change, the Guerrilla Girls are still hopeful they can change minds and change the system by their provocative form of muckraking.
“We feel you have to attack the problems of the art world from the inside, from the outside, from the top and from the bottom — from all over,” Kollwitz said. “Which is one reason why we’re here.”
The group’s latest book is “The Art of Behaving Badly,” a gorgeously produced sort of capstone that collects nearly all of The Guerrilla Girls’ work from 1985 to today. But they’re still at it.
Their newest art project, spread on billboards across the U.K. and online for a global audience, titled “The Male Graze,” documents the misogynistic and sexually exploitative behavior of lionized male artists from Gaugin and Picasso to Chuck Close.
Discussing these damning portraits of the artists, it’s striking how nuanced The Guerrilla Girls’ mission is on this new project. They’re uninterested in the idea of “canceling” artists alive or dead in any media, they explained. They want these men’s abuses to be known, to be documented, to be taught in art history and placed on museum labels to give a fuller understanding of, say, the child brides Gaugin raped and infected with syphilis.
“To look past that, or just consider them beautiful pictures, is not really looking deeply enough into it,” said Kollwitz. “It’s not to censor them. It’s not to moralize at all. It’s saying, ‘We need a deeper understanding of how ingrained sexual violence and objectification of women has been.'”
In their two-day workshop and seminar this week — titled “Realization, Activation and Agitation” — the duo worked with artist/activists who are using their work to create change across a wide spectrum of society. While they’re still frustrated by the art world and its institutions, The Guerrilla Girls have seen a generation of activist follow them and thrive in the new movements for women and people of color.
Far from embittered by their decades on the battlefield, The Guerrilla Girls are themselves inspired by and hopeful about this new generation, the future of activist art and its potential impact.
“We’re just sort of provoking them to think another way and to think about using your art for messaging and think about the possibility of art pointing to a better world,” Kollwitz said.
Added Kahlo: “The world of artists is great. Unfortunately, the system sucks. And now more than ever.”