The Art of Complaining – The Guerrilla Girls | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

The Art of Complaining – The Guerrilla Girls | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

August 16, 2019 51 By Cedric Fleming


We are in London
today– at Tate Modern– to meet up with the
Guerrilla Girls, who are currently operating a
complaints department within the Tate Exchange space in the
new Switch House building that opened this past summer. The Guerrilla Girls
have invited the public to come join them in the
gallery and post complaints about art, politics, culture, or
anything you might care about. And the Guerrilla Girls
are experts at complaining. They are an anonymous group
of women artists who– since 1985– have
served valiantly as the conscience
of the art world, using a wide variety of
tactics to question and disrupt art world practices, and
to expose sexism, racism, and corruption in
our culture at large. They are also here in London
revisiting their 1986 poster “It’s Even Worse in
Europe” with a new display at the Whitechapel Gallery
based on questionnaires they sent to museum
directors across Europe. They asked them about their
representation of artists who are female,
gender nonconforming, or from places other than
North America or Europe. And the project aggregates
these responses and shares new and revealing statistics. Playing upon the word guerrilla,
as in freedom fighter, and gorilla, the animal,
the group members wear masks when in
public, each choosing the name of a dead woman
artist as a pseudonym. Today we’re sitting down with
Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz, who are gonna talk with us a
bit about the art of complaining and prompt us to find
our own ways to question the worlds around us. Hi. We’re the Guerrilla Girls. And this is your art assignment. All right, so maybe,
basically, a lot of us were complainers,
but mostly because we saw so much injustice in
politics, of course, but also in our own little world of the
art world in New York City, where we were artists. And we saw no opportunities
for women artists and artists of color. And everyone was pretending
that everything was OK. So we got this idea– let’s
do something about it, and let’s use some new
media savvy techniques to break through people’s
ideas that whatever they see in galleries and museums
is the best– which we knew so many great artists
who weren’t getting anywhere. So we decided to blame
one group after another. We had this idea to do a new
kind of political poster. We had a meeting in Frida’s
loft of a bunch of colleagues and friends, named ourselves
the Guerrilla Girls, passed the hat around to pay
to print the first posters, and the Guerrilla
Girls were born. It’s more than pointing
your finger at something and saying this is bad. We have to figure
out a way to change people’s minds about things. And we discovered
that statistics do that, outrageous statements,
and, in the end, humor. If you can make someone who
disagrees with you laugh, well, you kind of have a hook,
you know, in their brain. And once you’re there, you
just have an opportunity to change their minds. Your assignment is to
think of something you really want to complain about. Then communicate your message
in some unique, creative way. So John, I really think that
you should just sit and listen for this one. Yeah, no, I agree. So if we think back
through art history, we can really see a lot
of art as various forms of complaining. You can think about abstraction
as a way that artists are complaining
about the way things had been represented
in the past. And, you know, complaining
is really protest, and then that widens
our consideration to all sorts of art–
historical painting– that thinks about war or inequities. But in thinking about
what moment in history we’re going to
talk about here, I couldn’t help but realize that
I had a very handy resource for this– the Guerrilla
Girl’s own book– the “Bedside Companion to the
History of Western Art.” And I’d love to just
read you the beginning. It says, “Forget the stale,
male, pale, Yale textbooks, this is Art Herstory 101!” And I’ve actually selected
one of the moments in art history–
or art herstory– for us to talk about today–
from the Middle Ages. At the age of 25,
Christine de Pizan found herself widowed with
kids and a mother to support. She had been allowed
an education– a rarity in medieval France–
and became a copyist and writer to support her family. She achieved renown for her
ballads, poems, and allegories, as well as her
vociferous objection to the popular 13th
century poem, “The Romance of the Rose,” which depicts
women as wanton and immoral seductress. She countered with her 1405
allegory “The City of Ladies,” in which three women,
personifying reason, rectitude, and justice, describe
an entire city populated by strong, virtuous
women throughout history. Told entirely by
women and about women, her story used fashionable
tropes and techniques to counter the prevailing
narrative of women as illogical and inferior. Rooted in Christian
morality, her work got away with its harsh
critique of patriarchal society and highlighted women
for their skills in discourse and peacemaking. Like De Pizan, the
Guerrilla Girls have found their
own [INAUDIBLE] way of complaining in their time. The question is, what’s
your way in your time? And how will you use
the culture of now to voice your
dissatisfaction and dissent? All right, so
everyone’s always said to the Guerrilla
Girls, you’re just a bunch of complainers. So when we were
invited to do this– some kind of interactive
residency project at Tate, it suddenly seemed like
a really great idea– why not let everyone
else complain? You know, we are complainers. We consider ourselves,
you know, creative, kind of unique complainers,
but it is what we do. And everyone has
complaints, so we’ve invited anyone who
wants to come to bring their complaints in,
make their complaints, put ’em on the board. And it took about one
day for all the places we have to put them
to be filled up. And every day people are
coming with more things that they just have to
get off their chest. FRIDA KAHLO: It’s kind of a riff
off the old idea of complaints departments in department
stores– in a way, it allowed the consumers
to sort of complain. Well, we’re allowing, you know,
the audience of this museum to– instead of come and
be passive– to actually come and think critically
about what they’ve seen, about what bothers them,
and to really think about, you know, how a lot of art
comes out of complaints, comes out of a very strong
reaction to the world. You can’t really think of
a complaint as one thing, one time in a vacuum. One thing we’ve learned is
that if you do one thing, put it out there, if it works–
you know, you do one thing, you put it out there, if
it works, you do another– and if it doesn’t,
you do another. So this is true for all of us. You can’t expect one thing
to make a difference, but if you keep doing it and
keep chipping away, over time you can make a difference. Obviously, you know,
we have a unique way of trying to find a new
idea about an issue, combining it with some weird
things that don’t really belong there, so
you wind up thinking about it in a different way. But there’s so many
ways to comp– I mean, try to stop people
from complaining. It’s great to brainstorm
with other people, identify a target, realize
that you probably can’t deal with a huge issue all at once. You can only deal with
some small aspect of it. And then to think about who
your target audience is– what would– you know, what would
catch their attention, what would change their
mind, and, you know, what components would
change their mind? Usually information is a
real– you kn know, is a help. And if you can twist
something around, you know– you know, you put
out an outrageous headline, you back it up, and you
try to do it in a way that you’ve never seen before. And then try it out
on other people. Make sure that, you know, you’re
just not convincing yourself. You know, let other people test
drive it, say, what does this communicate to you? Cause sometimes being
angry and complaining is a good place to start, but
it’s not a great place to end. You have to craft your message. And I think reading
the other complaints, looking at their complaints,
thinking about what they complained about is– is
going to have an effect. It’s had an effect
on me, and I’ve been complaining for years. [MUSIC PLAYING]