Meeting someone you’ve read about in the history books (or, more accurately in this case, heard about in a “Stuff Your Mom Never Told You” podcast) is always a surreal, almost metaphysical experience. Last night, at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery in Chicago, I had such an adventure when I met two founding members of the infamous Guerrilla Girls.
If you don’t already know about the Guerrilla Girls, please Google them – I couldn’t possibly do their fascinating history justice in this post. Suffice to say, their brand of artistic activism confronts the sexism, racism, and classism inherent in the art world. As Käthe Kollwitz (the Girls use pseudonyms inspired by female artists – Kollwitz being a 20th Century German painter, printmaker and sculptor) put it, the work they do is “a way to talk about things we’re really pissed off about and have a creative, fun time.”
Through a fellowship with Columbia, the Girls have been gracing Chicago with their presence since October – leading student workshops and helping to install the exhibition that premiered to the public last night: “Not Ready to Make Nice: The Guerrilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond.”
Their newest piece, pictured below, was designed specifically for the Columbia College exhibition and caters to Chicago’s population – reminding us Midwesterners of the Art Institute’s shameful gender parity statistics.
Although I am not an artist in the sense that many other attendees and Columbia students are, the public conversation that accompanied the opening deeply resonated with me as a writer. I one day hope to be gainfully employed, period, more the better if I could be paid to write about my passions. I’ve had three blogs in my short writing career – one for the Associated Content website (I even made a few dollars from their pay-per-1,000-hit system), one for my alma mater’s newspaper (and for this, I was well compensated), and this lovely, new blog – birthed as I began my journey post-grad. Strangely and illogically enough, Half-Way To a Mid-Life Crisis, the only one that hasn’t netted me a dime, has been my favorite child.
As my readership goes up and I begin to collect comments, I’m gleefully propelled to my next post with the sense that I’m writing something that matters in some small way. Having lunch with one of my high-school friends this past weekend, and bemoaning his steps towards success (I’m up to my neck in neurobiologists and future lawyers on their ways to prestigious grad schools), he reminded me that I have a blog. I rolled my eyes and replied, “Anyone can have a blog.”
And this is true. In the post-modern world of wide-spread Internet proficiency, writing has become democratized. I could be posting pictures of cats that look like Hitler and no one could tell me that I was wasting my time/the space (is there such a concept when it comes to the web?). In fact, I’d probably have some sort of creepy, cult following. But putting your work before the public on WordPress is different than being afforded editorial space in the New York Times. Or is it?
At this point in their career, the Guerrilla Girls are showing in galleries, but this mainstream format is by no means their signature. Stickers featuring images like the one pictured have been plastered in museum bathrooms, postcards delineating the embarrassing gender breakdown of a gallery’s art have been sent to its curator, bus ads have run asking if a woman needs to be naked to get into the Met (think shapely Renaissance portraiture subjects). As the Girls reminded us at the panel last night, putting something on the street is no different than displaying it in a gallery – your idea has entered the public sphere and there’s no forcing it back into the shame and shadows of the private.
And in this decade’s period of economic inequality, where women and artists of color are making fifteen cents on the dollar for their work compared to white males, the traditional means of cultural production are closed to women. Those of us with dissenting voices not only may be forced to get creative in order to disseminate our ideas, we may find that taking this road less traveled by makes all the difference.
An audience member spoke of her frustration, as a playwright, with the male-dominated theatre world (in which there is an intriguing movement called 50/50 in 2020 which aims for gender parity in play production by that year). She summed it up thusly, “I’m getting really tired of asking Daddy for the keys to the car.”
So maybe I’m driving a 1976 Pacer (and yes, I had to search “lame cars” to make this metaphor realistic – I know that little about the automotive world) instead of Daddy’s Porsche, but the deed is in my name and I decide where I go.