Käthe Kollwitz, founding member of the Guerrilla Girls
Since 1985, the Guerrilla Girls have operated as anonymous underground culture jammers, challenging the art world’s long-held practices on the representation of women and people of color. More than three decades later the groups’ members remain unknown, their identities protected in public by furry gorilla masks. Still, their lasting impact is undeniable. In Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond, currently on exhibit at the Verge Center for the Arts, the collective’s history is documented via 32 years’ worth of works. And, on Thursday, October 5, founding member Käthe Kollwitz (not her real name, it’s a nod to the famous German artist) will appear at Sacramento State to discuss activism and the art of “creative complaining.”
You are traveling constantly—setting up this interview was tough—what’s a typical day like?
When we’re not on the road, we’re working on projects all the time. And when we are on the road, well, we’re still working on projects. When people bring you somewhere, they want as much as they can get out of you. We have meetings and installations and we have our gigs and we do workshops.
What will you discuss at Sac State?
We’ll be [talking about] the work and how we’ve done it in regards to intersectional feminism. We’ll also talk about the terrible arts system—how billionaires are, more and more, controlling everything. We’ll talk about how to be an activist and not being paralyzed because you can’t do everything: Just do one thing, and if it works do another, and if it doesn’t work, do another anyway.
Do you sense people are overwhelmed?
Our problems are so huge that people have always had a tendency to want to take on as big an issue as possible. And, you can’t really do that, especially if you want to do some crazy creative complaining like we do … you have to narrow the focus. We started out with that idea. We could have put out posters on the streets of New York that said ‘there’s discrimination against women in the world’ and I wouldn’t be talking to you today. Instead, we tried to find new and different ways into issues. Our most well-known poster … we could have done a poster that said, ‘The Metropolitan Museum does not have enough work by women artists hanging on its walls,’ but instead we did one that asks, ‘do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?’—and then we backed it up with facts: You have to be naked and only 5 percent of artists [shown] in the museum are women. But 85 percent of its nudes are women. Take a look at that poster and I dare you to go into a museum and not think about what’s on its walls.
In 2011, the Washington Post declared that you’d been ‘accepted’ by the same art world you set out to target. Do you agree?
Starting at about 2005, the fancy art world came calling. I think it came calling because [there were] so many people inside museums and institutions who wanted to effect change, and they saw us as a way to jump-start this. It began when we were invited to do an installation at the Venice Biennale and we asked ourselves, ‘is this what we really should be doing?’ [But] one of the things about the Guerrilla Girls is that we always want to get our work out to as large an audience as possible. We couldn’t resist giving it a shot. Anyone who criticizes that this takes from our edge—I think those are valid things to bring up—but what we’ve found is that every time we have work somewhere then we get hundreds of letters saying, ‘I didn’t know this stuff before.’ For that reason alone it’s worth it.
Do some question if you’ve lost your edge?
It’s the question asked of any activist group that seems to find any kind of acceptance. We started sneaking around New York in the middle of the night and we’re still anonymous and we’re still using the same strategies, although hopefully we’ve deepened our critiques. It’s something we think about. It’s something we’ve agonized over, but right now I think it’s something that gets our message out.
Are there places you think have made better strides in their representation of women or people of color?
Things are a little better now, but museums are stuck with their collections, and their collections are almost all old white males. There always were women artists, there always were artists of color, but they were never part of the fancy system. And even in their own time, even European women who were well-known in their own time, they were then forgotten about or left out of the history books. When you go into a lot of the museums in Europe in particular, a lot of the museums were the collections of kings, basically. If you start looking at the work from that perspective … you just can’t help but think, another royal family portrait, blah blah blah. If a museum wants to change that, it takes a long time.
And in the United States?
In the U.S., because the big private, nonprofit museums, the government doesn’t give any money, so they’re totally dependent on their boards of directors and major collectors to help them buy stuff. These same people have driven up the price of art so much, that stuff that a museum might want to buy and the stuff their [donors] might want to donate cost a million dollars. For a million dollars they could cast a much wider net and buy equally great work by a lot more artists.
It doesn’t seem like the Guerrilla Girls are anywhere close to hanging up the masks.
We have had 55 members over the years, but it’s always been a fairly small group at any one time. Some people have been members for a day, others for a decade. We have new people all the time and new ideas coming in. There’s no reason to stop yet. There’s no reason to hang it up.