It’s 1988. The Soviet Union is still intact, the Berlin Wall erect, Kylie Minogue’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ is riding high in the charts, the Jamaican bobsled team and the self-taught ski jumper Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards are making their debut at the Winter Olympics in Canada, big hair and Dr Martens boots are everywhere, and the first students are beginning their studies with the Open College of the Arts, the brainchild of social innovator and visionary Michael Young. Confounding the experts – who thought the arts couldn’t be taught by distance methods – OCA is now celebrating thirty years of creativity, of making high quality arts courses accessible to everyone.
The call to break down the access barriers to the arts was echoed loudly in New York by the Guerrilla Girls, feminist art activists and the self-proclaimed ‘conscience of the art world’, who in 1988 created the famous poster The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist. As International Women’s Day on the 8th of March shows (a day that reminds us to keep motivated in striving for gender equality), the provocative work of the Guerrilla Girls is as vital as ever. Using humour to ‘convey information, provoke discussion, and show that feminists can be funny’, the group’s members don gorilla masks (to focus on the issues rather than their personalities) and sport pseudonyms of deceased female artists like Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz.
A prime example of the Guerrilla Girls’ early work, The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist poster, with its bold black type on white paper, usurps the spaces of advertising to bridge the gap between, on one hand, museums, curators, collectors, critics and art dealers and, on the other, the general public, using razor sharp wit to shed light on the inequality of the art world. Simple yet effective, the poster offers a list of tongue-in-cheek ‘advantages’, among which are: ‘Working without the pressure of success’, ‘Having an escape from the art world in your 4 freelance jobs’, ‘Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood’, and ‘Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius’. (The latter picks up on art historian Linda Nochlin’s influential 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?)
The Guerrilla Girls’ coolly ironic salvo not only challenged the art world powers-that-be, but also called on artists to start agitating for changes. Which brings us back to Michael Young’s original, distinctive, radical and optimistic conception of the OCA as a means of transforming people’s lives, of affecting real purposive change. Thirty years ago, he advocated for education providers (and arts institutions), big and small, to be open and encouraging to all learners, regardless of their social class, race or gender. So let’s applaud the men and women of 1988, whose intense commitment to equality and ambitious exploration of new possibilities continues to stimulate the creative industries and education sector today …the gorilla mask is optional.
Tate Modern’s Andy Warhol and the Guerrilla Girls exhibition
The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art – it reinterprets art history to include (and celebrate) female artists previously ignored.
Guerrilla Girls, The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist, 1988. © Guerrilla Girls courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com.
Guerrilla Girls, 2015. Photograph: Andrew Hindraker. © Guerrilla Girls