How to Turn Your Complaints into Art According to the Guerrilla Girls
Cover design for Sarah Urist Green’s book, “You Are an Artist.”
Portrait of Sarah Urist Green. © Marina Waters.
For six years, former curator Sarah Urist Green has been interviewing artists about their practices on the PBS digital series The Art Assignment. In each episode, viewers are treated to an original art lesson inspired by the artist’s work. Now, Green is publishing those lessons and brand-new ones in a book, You Are an Artist, out today from Penguin Books. The volume brings together over 50 art assignments intended to show that you don’t need to be an artist to develop your own creative work. Below, we share an excerpt from the new title—an assignment inspired by the work of activist art collective the Guerrilla Girls.
The Guerrilla Girls are expert complainers. They’ve been doing it very effectively since 1985, when they first organized and began distributing posters and stickers around New York City. A group of feminist art activists, the Guerrilla Girls had become increasingly aware that the art they were seeing in galleries and museums in New York City wasn’t necessarily the best of what was around. And after an ineffectual 1984 demonstration outside the Museum of Modern Art, protesting a survey exhibition that included only 13 women artists out of more than 150, they decided to try a different approach.
Their posters name names and use information, statistics, and humor to expose gender bias, racism, and corruption within and outside of the art world. In bold black type, one of their first posters, from 1985, clearly lists the names of galleries that were showing no more than 10 percent women artists, or none at all. A 1989 billboard asked: “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met Museum? Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” They updated the figures in 2005 and 2012, noting little to no improvement. Using the language of advertising, the Guerrilla Girls seek not only to point fingers but to change minds through the intrepid deployment of facts and sometimes outrageous visuals. Calling themselves “the Conscience of the Art World,” the group has produced hundreds of posters, billboards, books, stickers, animations, and actions—about not just art, but also politics, film, war, and more.
The members of the group are anonymous, wearing gorilla masks in public and choosing the names of women artists from the past as pseudonyms. This decision was made to keep the attention on the work instead of their identities, with the added benefit that founding member “Frida Kahlo” once explained: “If you’re in a situation where you’re a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won’t believe what comes out of your mouth.”
Although their work is now part of museum collections around the world, the Guerrilla Girls continue to cast their critical gaze upon the inequities they see around them. For this assignment, they ask you to use the culture of now to find your own way to creatively complain about the world as you experience it.
You’re going to complain anyway, so why not do it well? Resist the urge to hastily type out your latest gripes on whatever social media app is in front of you, and consider an alternative approach.
- Think of something you really want to complain about.
- Communicate your message in a unique, unforgettable way.
Tips, cheats, and variations
- Spend some time coming up with what it is you want to say and to whom you want to say it. Think about it for days, weeks, or months, and pay attention to the ways people around you broadcast their ideas. Make notes, take pictures, and give yourself time to craft your strategy.
- Large problems may be difficult to address, but smaller aspects of an issue can be more feasible. How does a widespread problem manifest itself in a given community? What is it that you, in particular, are able to see that others might not?
- Try it out. Find test audiences who will give you an honest opinion. If it doesn’t strike a chord, try something else.
- Be funny. If you can make someone who disagrees with you laugh, it might just be your opportunity to penetrate their consciousness.
- Consider both physical and virtual spaces to present your complaint. It can be tough to get noticed on the internet and in a world where people are often staring at their screens. Where are the places that their attention might be captured, and when might you capture it?
- Complaining is a good place to start, but not to end. See this assignment as a springboard for other actions, making a difference not all at once, but over time.
From YOU ARE AN ARTIST, by Sarah Urist Green, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Urist Green.