NEW YORK — IN the back streets of the Soho district, guerrilla warfare is taking place. The target: white patriarchal thinking of the New York art world. The agitators: a group of women veiled by gorilla masks who call themselves `The Guerrilla Girls: Conscience of the Art World.' Their weaponry: posters that bristle with bold graphics, sarcasm, and statistics on discrimination against women artists and artists of color. The Guerrilla Girls - a band of anonymous artists whose membership figure is unknown - are fighting for the elimination of sexism and racism in the art world. During the interviewing process, members insisted upon maintaining individual anonymity. In Guerrillaesque fashion, they required this interview procedure: All inquiries were to be left on the office answering machine; members returned calls at unknown days and times.
The embryonic stage of this grass roots organization took seed from an intimate circle of N.Y. women artists who shared a mounting grievance over their experiences in the art world - in particular, the low numbers of women represented in exhibitions and shows. The specific event that launched these women into Guerrilla Girl warfare was the Museum of Modern Art's 1984 blockbuster exhibit `International Survey of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture.' Of 165 artists represented, 19 were women.
One member discussed the political setting surrounding their birth: ``During the Reagan years, we really felt a lot of social progress across the board had slipped. Suddenly we were back in a situation which predated the women's movement, where women artists and artists of color were hardly visible at all. When we actually started collecting statistics, they were appalling. So we felt that we had to find a method appropriate for the 80s.
The spring following MoMA's exhibit, a bold-face-typed poster - mysteriously signed `THE GUERRILLA GIRLS: Conscience of the Art World' - appeared along the walls of the East Village district. With a bracketed list of 42 prominent male artists, it asked a simple question: `WHAT DO THESE ARTISTS HAVE IN COMMON?' and gave a simple answer: `THEY ALL ALLOW THEIR WORK TO BE SHOWN IN GALLERIES THAT SHOW NO MORE THAN 10% WOMEN OR NONE AT ALL.'
In time, the Guerrilla Girls moved their hit-and-run street campaign to the Soho district and added more bite to their message. A poster surfaced in report card format, listing galleries and their `progress report' of two years. Under `remarks' came a saucy list of responses, such as: `underachiever,' `not paying attention,' and `doesn't follow directions.'
Within their five year history the group has produced 30 posters. All have exclusively appeared along the walls of New York art districts.
Over the years, members have conducted interviews with dozens of publications and have publicly appeared - a la gorilla masks - in panel discussions and in lecture halls of universities and museums around the country. Coast-to-coast exposure has produced a rippling effect on the birth of other women artists political groups. Some of them have even cloned the `Guerrilla Girl' name and imagery, while others have chosen alternative routes. Says Marcia Tucker, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, ``I think they are telling the art world things it doesn't want to know. Certainly the major museums must know on some level that what they do does not represent the actual composition of the art community. In my experience, over thirty years of being in this field, there are certainly as many women working as men - and there are at least as many interesting women as men.''
The press liason for the group, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds, ``I don't know if they thought they were going to make a change, but they wanted to poke fun at the problems and keep a sense of humor about the whole thing - and it's been a spectacular success.''
Some New York gallery directors also concede that the Guerrilla Girls are influencing the landscape of the art world.
``I think they're the innovators in starting a movement to get women and minorities into galleries that have not shown them before,'' says Eugenia Foxworth of Soho 20, a cooperative women's gallery.
Bill Arning of White Columns believes the Guerrilla Girls have done a lot of good work. ``There's a lot of peculiarity about the numbers when people percentage out who gets shown and who doesn't. It's helpful to have someone pointing that out. I think they have made a real difference.''
Yet some directors from galleries who did poorly on the Guerrilla Girl's `progress report,' say otherwise.
``I will never represent someone because they're a woman or not represent them because they're not a woman. That's really not an issue on why I choose to represent an artist,'' argues Diane Brown.
David Leiber of Sperone Westwater, says he doesn't know anyone who might make an immediate decision in response to Guerrilla Girl tactics. ``Some galleries might show more women than others, but I think it's a reflection of their tastes in different works, and not a reponse to a quota system.''
David Adams of Allan Frumpkin maintains that the art world has improved dramatically for women in the last five years - but refuses to attribute the shift to this band of anonymous women. ``There are people who have simply grown up a little bit, and have gotten a little smarter.''
When asked, `What do you gain in anonymity?,' one Guerrilla Girl declares, ``We do it to keep the attention focused on the issues and off of us.''
Their method for cloaking identity via gorilla masks, goes beyond the practical and into the memorable. What is eye-catching to most are the handful of members who pose on posters, or make public appearances coordinating snarling masks with leather mini-skirts, fish-net stockings, and stilletos.
Explains one Guerrilla Girl, ``We have fun playing around with our image. A lot of what we say and do is tongue-in-cheek. We are aware that there are people who have a very negative take on the word `feminist,' but we're not about to do away with the word. For us, it just means social justice and equality. We are trying to get across a certain amount of humor - that's one way in which you engage people. I think if we hadn't used irony and humor and had come off as shrill and bitter and negative, we wouldn't have gotten our message across.''
In contrast to the history of female artistic expression, where anonymity was often the only recourse, the Guerrilla Girls use anonymity strategically to gain power. Members can be anywhere - even within the New York art establishment, subtly affecting decisions. The director of a gallery could have a studio assistant or secretary who is a Guerrilla Girl and not even know it.
The group believes secret membership is also a matter of survival. If membership was discovered, says one member bluntly, `our careers as artists would be dead.'
Armed with tongue-in-cheek weaponry, the Guerrilla Girls are challenging age-old myths imbedded within the walls of art institutions. Explains one member, ``There is this myth of the heroic male genius that we have all been taught. Even if you're not aware of it, it's somehow implanted in the brain there.'' And says another in a Taxi magazine interview, ``Whether you can ride a motorcycle or fall flat drunk on your face has nothing to do with making art, but all those myths about creativity and self-indulgence make these images of the artist palatable. These stereotypes sound ridiculous today, but they still really do exist.''
Trickling down to the marketing level, the Guerrilla Girls say these heroic myths work to taint, if not sabotage, the success of women artists.
``There is a belief that men's art sells for more than women's, and in fact, if you look at the statistics, it's true. But it may be true because all the dealers think it's true and their putting their effort into selling the male art. They think it's harder to sell women's work, and therefore they're less likely to make the effort.''
Although the group typically chooses to target attacks towards flavor of the month art trends, their goal is to illuminate the discrimation that permeates these trends.
As the Guerrilla Girls fuel an increasingly noisy debate on art world white-male elitism, the crusty soil surrounding the ideological barriers that define `art' and `art history,' is consequently cracking. The mere presence of this group in the art world, along with the growing momentum of the 20-year-old feminist art history movement, is raising the bigger and tougher questions: `What does it mean to say a piece of art has `masterpiece' or `genius' quality?' `Who defines quality, and what prejudice does it reflect?' And, the all-inclusive: `How has racial and sexual biases narrowed our understanding of history and culture?'