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9 Apr 20

Are You Listening? The poster as a site for resistance


In 1908, every day for a week, suffragette Mary Maloney followed Winston Churchill to his public engagements. Each time he spoke, she loudly rang a bell, drowning him out, as a way to express the concerns of her movement. Accused in 2015 of ‘shouting’ about gun violence, Hillary Clinton responded, ‘First of all, I’m not shouting. It’s just when women talk, some people think we’re shouting’.1 Maggie Astor, ‘“A woman, just not that woman”: how sexism plays out on the trail’, 11 Feb. 2019, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/11/us/politics/sexism-double-standard-2020.html, accessed 4 Sep. 2019. In 1929, Virginia Woolf published the essay ‘A room of one’s own’; in 2016, Solange released the album A Seat at the Table. Even if one woman offers another a seat at her table, or gets a space to operate within or a platform to speak from, this doesn’t guarantee that she or they will be heard.

The Guerrilla Girls have fought to be heard since 1985. The members of this anonymous collective, formed in New York City, describe themselves as ‘feminist activist artists’ and their work as the use of ‘facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture’. The idea to wear gorilla masks in public was inspired by an early misspelling of the collective’s name, and most of the members adopt pseudonyms inspired by deceased female artists. They argue that this anonymity keeps the focus on the issues: ‘we could be anyone and we are everywhere’.2 ‘Guerrilla Girls: reinventing the “F” word: feminism’, Guerrilla Girls, http://www.guerrillagirls.com/, accessed 4 Sep. 2019. The Guerrilla Girls’ work understands that investigations of representation, power and subjectivity are complex and multifaceted. Their practice deals with these issues through a radical use of popular media, most notoriously the poster.

With the advent of colour lithography in the 1890s, the French avant-garde embraced the poster as a low-cost way to disseminate their work for sale, and artists such as Jules Chéret, Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became renowned for their illustrated advertisements. It wasn’t until the First World War that posters became political and a vehicle for propaganda, and during the Second World War artists such as John Heartfield used the poster to decry the fascist movement. In May 1968, the poster became infamous in France, signalling the protest of a nation of workers and university students and what would turn into five years of social upheaval. The poster was a statement as well as a communication – and the street became its gallery.

Museum collections have, in many historical and contemporary senses, failed to adequately collect the work of female artists, designers and makers. The Guerrilla Girls formed in response to the lack of women in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. They drew attention to inequality in the museum at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to do so. Despite the gains made by the women’s movements of the 1970s, the 1980s was a time characterised by social conservatism and corporate ambition. The loaded term ‘working girl’ became part of the vernacular of the time, popularised by the 1988 film Working Girl, directed by Mike Nichols, in which Melanie Griffith played a secretary who pretends to be her boss. Fashion, too, was dominated by power dressing – a twisted nod to the system within which women were often oppressed. The Guerrilla Girls eschewed institutional popularity and instead critiqued the museum, biting precisely the hand that was meant to feed them as artists.

The collective began to independently research and compile data on issues of representation in major American collections and arts institutions as evidence of a bias that they knew existed but was rarely spoken about in the art world. During the mid 1980s, gritty downtown Manhattan had slowly begun to change, and the artist studios and late-night clubs were disappearing and being replaced by polished commercial galleries. The Guerrilla Girls transposed their statistical research onto anonymous posters and pasted them around the city, specifically in SoHo, which was saturated with commercial galleries.

One key poster from 1989 depicts the 1814 painting Grande odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, (Louvre, Paris), with the unclothed subject wearing a gorilla head. The imposed text, also the title of the poster, reads, ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’, and is accompanied by the statistic that less than five per cent of the modern artists shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time were women, while more than 85 per cent of the museum’s nudes were female. The poster not only calls out the museum but also critiques the ideologies implicit in Western oil painting and problematises the existence of nudes in art collections. As John Berger states, ‘Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own’.3 John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin, London, 1972, p. 55.

The Guerrilla Girls have since repurposed this poster a number of times to draw attention to representation in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and in popular music videos. In 2012, twenty-three years after its debut, the original poster was updated with a contemporary statistic for the Met: ‘Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are female’. The limited improvement of the statistic in two decades suggests that there is much to be done in the continued public work of the Guerrilla Girls and reaffirms its validity.

In New York, a city of famous and near untouchable cultural institutions, these posters asked questions as to the purpose of a museum, queried collecting and exhibition decision-making, and raised the public’s consciousness in relation to gender and representation. To convey their message, the Guerrilla Girls used the communication design devices of commercial advertising in their posters – humour, nudity, colour and provocative copy that cannot be ignored. More so, they played squarely into material feminist Rosemary Hennessy’s argument that ‘gendered, racialized, and sexualized bodies are dense transfer points in the history of capitalist value accumulation’.4 Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, Routledge, New York, 2018, p. xvii. It was important to subvert the medium of the poster in order to be heard, but it was mandatory to play on well-known cultural signifiers in order for the public to actually listen.

Perhaps influenced by the work of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, the Guerrilla Girls adopted the typeface Futura, which has been described by Douglas Thomas, author of Never Use Futura, as ‘the lingua franca of 20th-century advertising’. Thomas notes, ‘If you think of 1950s “Mad men” using Futura to target women in a stereotypical housewife mold, I think it’s very significant that in the 1980s and ’90s, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and the Guerrilla Girls were turning these typographic messages back on advertisers’.5 Ariela Gittlen, ‘How feminist artists reclaimed Futura from New York’s mad men’, 11 Aug. 2017, Artsy, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorialfeminist-artists-reclaimed-futura-newyorks-mad-men accessed 4 Sep. 2019.

In recent times the Guerrilla Girls have expanded their social commentary, focusing on gender and race representation in media, in academia and in positions of power, as well as on health reform, male-perpetrated domestic violence and the Trump administration. Their broader social critique through art practice acknowledges the range of intersecting oppressions, injustices and issues facing women. The Guerrilla Girls’ printed posters are now complemented by social media campaigns, digital communications and exhibitions in formal gallery environments; their practice has long included public lectures, protests and sit-ins. To ensure their own representation, the Guerrilla Girls have compiled complete archives of their portfolio for acquisition by museum collections. The NGV holds one, comprising some 129 projects. The archivisation of the oeuvre is deliberate and necessary: a move to be heard, to ensure their legacy.

A 2019 survey of representation in eighteen major art museums in the United States indicated that out of 10,000 artists, 87 per cent were male and 85 per cent were white.6 Chad M. Topaz et al., ‘Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums’, 20 March 2019, PLOS ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0212852, accessed 4 Sep. 2019. Further, in an international study of 820,000 exhibitions across the public and commercial sectors in 2018, only one third were by women artists.7 Anny Shaw, ‘Gallery representation dwindles for “established” female artists, new research finds’, 25 Jan. 2019, The Art Newspaper, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/galleryrepresentation-dwindles-for-more-established-female-artists-new-research-finds, accessed 4 Sep. 2019. These studies in the art industry alone suggest a prevailing attitude to be overcome, a bias to unpack, and a need to ask the difficult questions to understand what is urgent and what might be productive. The Guerrilla Girls’ contribution is as important now as ever.

Notes

1

Maggie Astor, ‘“A woman, just not that woman”: how sexism plays out on the trail’, 11 Feb. 2019, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/11/us/politics/sexismdouble-standard-2020.html, accessed 4 Sep. 2019.

2

‘Guerrilla Girls: reinventing the “F” word: feminism’, Guerrilla Girls, https://www.guerrillagirls.com/, accessed 4 Sep. 2019

3

John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin, London, 1972, p. 55.

4

Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, Routledge, New York, 2018, p. xvii.

5

Ariela Gittlen, ‘How feminist artists reclaimed Futura from New York’s mad men’, 11 Aug. 2017, Artsy, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorialfeminist-artists-reclaimed-futura-newyorks-mad-men, accessed 4 Sep. 2019

6

Chad M. Topaz et al., ‘Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums’, 20 March 2019, PLOS ONE, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0212852, accessed 4 Sep. 2019.

7

Anny Shaw, ‘Gallery representation dwindles for “established” female artists, new research finds’, 25 Jan. 2019, The Art Newspaper, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/galleryrepresentation-dwindles-for-moreestablished-female-artists-new-researchfinds, accessed 4 Sep. 2019.