One of the more iconic progenitors of today’s data-driven activist art collectives is the Guerrilla Girls, which arose in 1985 amid a frustration with the commercialism of art. The Guerrilla Girls, who wear gorilla masks and use the names of deceased female artists as noms de guerre, targeted spectators in public with posters and slogans that challenged the status quo using language borrowed from advertising. “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” one 1989 poster asked, beside a graphic of an odalisque wearing a gorilla mask, noting in the text that while less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern section were women, 85 percent of the nudes were female. Then, as now, critics of these movements suggested there was a certain hypocrisy afoot, given that many artists involved in institutional critique were having their work funded by and exhibited at those very institutions. But this was, according to the artists, always the point: Rather than purifying the art world, it’s about liberating it.
“We still do street posters and banners dissing museums, but we also diss them right on their own walls,” Käthe Kollwitz, a longtime Guerrilla Girls member, wrote to me in an email (her name is a pseudonym). Their latest project, “The Male Graze” (2021), is a series of billboards that reveal a history of exploitative behavior by male artists. Their focus remains largely unchanged: “We say to everyone who cares about art: ‘Don’t let museums reduce art to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among big-time dealers, curators and collectors,’” Kollwitz writes. “Unless institutions show art as diverse as the cultures they represent, they’re not showing the history of art, they’re just preserving the history of wealth and power.”
Revolutions, like art, begin as works of imagination: a reshaping of the world in a new image. Nitasha Dhillon, a co-founder, along with Amin Husain, of Decolonize This Place, points me to a 1941 essay by the surrealist theorist Suzanne Césaire, in which she envisions a “domain of the strange, the marvelous and the fantastic. … Here are the poet, the painter and the artist, presiding over the metamorphoses and the inversion of the world under the sign of hallucinations and madness.” We can all agree that the world has gone mad; can the art of reckoning and trauma show us a way forward?
The fact is, there’s no blueprint for decolonization; nothing involving people working together for greater justice is especially utopian or marvelous. There will always be disagreement, imperfection, more to learn, more work to be done. This kind of art is nothing if not effortful; it comes at a personal cost. And so, while groups like Forensic Architecture and Decolonize This Place have already had their proven successes — in courts of law, in art spaces — I can’t help but think that it’s the less measurable impact that might, in the end, be the more powerful one, as models of cooperation and correction in a cynical, self-interested and often violent world. If nationalism and greed are globally transmissible, then so, perhaps, is idealism. Accountability, in the end, means paying attention to whose suffering is footing the bill for our lifestyle, our comfort, even our beauty. The fear of being canceled is, after all, about the fear of facing those hard truths and being found complicit. The question, maybe, has never really been whether or not art can heal us but rather to what extent we have the courage to heal ourselves.