Reviewed by Bean Gilsdorf
Chronicle Books 192 pp.
In 1989 an anonymous group of women artists calling themselves the Guerrilla Girls transformed Ingres’s famous painting La Grande Odalisque into a symbol of protest. In the original, a naked woman reclines on a drapery-hung bed, looking back over her shoulder passively, with her smooth derriere angled towards the viewer. In the altered image, the woman’s head is replaced with an oversize gorilla mask. Alongside is a text that reads, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” The gorilla’s sharp fangs reinforce the biting sarcasm of the text, characteristic of the sociopolitical satire embodied through the Girls’ roughly thirty-five-year oeuvre. Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly is a retrospective of the group’s efforts in fighting sexism and racism, mainly in the visual art world, where there is more than enough for them to do. The 192 pages of Behaving Badly are arranged chronologically to document their many projects, and above all, the book highlights the Girls’ methodologies for presenting facts in ways that are concise, culturally legible, engaging, and damning.
How and where women and minority groups get the shaft is only half of the lesson this book imparts; the other is that works of political satire hinge on format. The Guerrilla Girls have used various formats to great strategic effect, and this volume is a solid primer on how to compress and transmit information effectively while catching the eye. The Girls have produced flyers, street posters, billboards, banners, video projections, exhibitions, performances, workshops, and books in order to convey the dismal statistics of women’s disenfranchisement. They have used a wide array of visual strategies that play on conventional forms: a school report card for galleries that only represent men (with remarks like “boy crazy” and “not paying attention”); a stereotypically girlish note to a generic art collector, complete with a doodled flower on pink paper; an illustration of twin engraved stones to reference the ten commandments for a code of museum ethics; classified ads for women of color (“tokens wanted”); tabloid pages to underscore the scandalous nature of bias in museums; a soccer scoreboard to show the number of men and women artists at institutions in Ecuador; and a list of celebratory toasts positioned next to a pint of stout to bring awareness to bias in Ireland. If you’re looking to study pop culture strategies for exposing injustice, you’re in the right place.
The book also highlights the ways the Guerrilla Girls have recycled some of these formats to revise and extend their cultural critique across the decades. The information in the famous 1989 Odalisque poster was updated in 2012—it’s worth noting that the Met didn’t fare any better in the recount. That same year, the format was recycled again for a gender count at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. In 2014 the poster was revised to read “Do women have to be naked to get into music videos?” In addition to reusing formats, the Girls also rework some of their ideas; for example, a 1990 poster reads: “Q. If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year?” This riddle is answered upside-down in the style of a child’s game: “A. discrimination.” Two decades later, the concept was expanded and put into a new format for a Women’s March poster. “President Trump Announces New Commemorative Months!” proclaims the red text at the top, and below it the usual tributes are crossed out and replaced by the bigoted fanaticism that has become the hallmark of the Trump presidency: African-American History Month has been supplanted by Ku Klux Klan Month; Women’s History Month has been usurped by Locker Room Talk Month; and Latino Heritage Month has been ousted in favor of Mass Deportation Month. Seeing these modifications made over the decades is a little like watching a stand-up comic workshop a joke at a succession of open-mic nights, in which the comedian is an exhausted woman and the humor gets both sadder and more pointed.
In many instances, I wished for more information to contextualize the wealth of images in Behaving Badly. A press release accompanied the Girls’ first poster campaign, but the one-sentence caption that appears beneath the photo of this document doesn’t indicate who it went to, or if it garnered any notice. The four-page spread that records the Guerrilla Girls’ show at the 2005 Venice Biennale notes, “Our work was included in the first Venice Biennale ever directed by women.” But why doesn’t the caption tell us the names of those directors? It’s a puzzling omission from a group whose purpose is to bring attention to systemic disregard of women in the art world. (I looked it up, the curators were Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez.) As I read the texts of the campaigns, I wondered what internal metrics the Girls have for judging the success of their labors, and I would have been gratified by an analysis of project selection, scope, and efficacy.
If you don’t conduct business in the arts, it might be easy to underestimate the time, energy, and courage it takes to challenge its powerful people and institutions. In 1988, the Guggenheim Museum SoHo proposed to open in downtown Manhattan with an exhibition of four white men; in response, the Guerrilla Girls partnered with the Women’s Action Committee to send director Thomas Krens a deluge of sarcastic postcards. As a result of the campaign, he added a token white woman, Louise Bourgeois, to the show, and in response, WAC and the Girls staged a protest at the opening. Hundreds of women and men marched outside with pre-printed paper bags on their heads; the front of the bag featured a gorilla’s face, and the back denounced the museum for “racism, sexism, classism, ageism, Eurocentrism, nepotism, elitism, and phallocentrism.” As I looked at the documentation of this protest, I was reminded of a letter, penned in June 2020 by “The Curatorial Department” of the Guggenheim, that appealed to the museum’s leadership to fix “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices” (the letter was not signed with individual names because its authors were afraid of retaliation). The Guerilla Girls’ aim of equity is still far from realized, but that doesn’t mean that they, and we, shouldn’t keep trying.
Bean Gilsdorf is an artist and writer. Her reviews, interviews, and essays have been published in Artforum, Art in America, BOMB, Frieze, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She was a 2018 columnist-in-residence for SFMOMA’s Open Space, and was the 2018 Art-Writer- in-Residence at SPACES in Cleveland.