The art world is an insular place with its own conventions and attitudes that can often make it feel like a world apart. But it was the insight of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of New York City rabble rousers formed in 1985 with a mission of uncovering sexism in the art world, that showed how much in this rarefied place was actually business as usual.
An art world that beat its own chest about innovation and taboo-breaking was taken to task by the Guerrilla Girls for often privileging one point of view and excluding those who didn’t fit within the power structure. Donning gorilla masks to obscure their identities and taking on the art world at its highest levels, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art to the hottest contemporary art galleries, the Guerrilla Girls set out to reveal the underrepresentation of female artists and decision makers in American and international cultural institutions.
The often humorous and enlightening ways that the Guerrilla Girls revealed sexism in the art world is the subject of the exhibition “Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond,” on view through March 1 at the Georgia Museum of Art. The exhibition features posters, street art, reproductions of hateful and loving letters to the activists and booklets created by the Guerrilla Girls as a feminism-inflected alternative to traditional art history.
Also included, though less successfully, are interactive elements that encourage viewers to take a selfie with cardboard representations of the Guerrilla Girls, or offer Post-it Note responses to Guerrilla Girl hate mail. It would have been better if such efforts to engage a new generation of viewers were done in the cheeky spirit of the group rather than with such conventional stabs at museum interactivity.
To counter a state of affairs in which male artists dominated the art scene, the Guerrilla Girls gathered statistics about the percentage of male artists shown in museums and galleries, and they called out an art world that has often seen itself as untouchable, too concerned with rarefied matters of culture to be bothered by real-world issues of discrimination.
Posters like the one that graced New York City buses in 1989 “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?” pointed out that less than 4 percent of the artists in the modern art section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were women , though 76 percent of the museum’s nudes were female (according to 2011 statistics).
The exhibition shows not just the fact-finding of the group, but how they employed humor as a strategy in their activism with their gorilla masks (which also protected their own art careers from repercussions in the incestuous art world), or by dubbing galleries like Mary Boone’s “boy crazy” for their stable artists who are predominately male.
Though the Guerrilla Girls remain an essential part of American contemporary art history, and a powerful precedent for today’s activist groups, there are some drawbacks to this treatment of their significance. The foremost problem with “Not Ready to Make Nice” is how a movement founded on street-art culture jamming and bringing the cause to the people suffers when it moves into the museum space. Much like the 1980s graffiti art movement, the activism and attitude depends on the energy of the street to flourish, so it loses some of its bite when imported into the gallery.
But despite some poor exhibition choices — such as interactive elements that tend to sink like a lead balloon — and the generally static dimension to the show, almost unavoidable when translating street art to the gallery, “Not Ready to Make Nice” is a necessary reminder of the power of activist art in an age when too little of it appears on museum walls.
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