“Just Get a Seed Started” – A Masked Model of Activism

Originally Published in PolicyMic as “Guerrilla Girls Not Ready to Make Nice Review: Feminists Inspire Future Generation of Artists”. All referenced images are available through through this link.

I knew that something special was taking place at the Montserrat College of Art when, for the first time in my life, I felt comfortable enough to come out to a group of strangers, which included two women clad in black and donning terrifying yet somehow inviting gorilla masks.

It was a small room filled with passion, with rage, with people brimming over with an urge to change the world. The personal was undoubtedly tied to the political with the bonds of lived experience. As each person gave a brief introduction, it became clear that I was in a space that was incredibly special, a space that can act as a model for student activism today, when it so desperately needed.

The two women presiding over this silently abuzz atmosphere were two of the most innovative and visible, though ever-disguised, figureheads of both feminism and art history – Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz of the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist collective that exploded onto the art scene in 1985 with their protest of the male-dominated exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Ever since, they have masked their identities with pseudonyms drawn from the wealth of accomplished female artists throughout history, as well as with layers of fur that is faux only in its chemical makeup. These masks are symbols that have only grown in potency. The Guerrilla Girls continue to tour across the world with ferocity, bringing their message of female empowerment wherever they go.

They were there to offer their expertise to a host of eager students who hoped to produce a tangible object of protest. In the words of Frida Kahlo, we were all there to change “things that male minds over the centuries have said about women,” especially the historical legitimization of “ownership of [the female] body.” In this political climate, wherein the rights of women sit precariously on the edge of a knife, these words could not be any timelier. As Frida and Käthe reminded us, however, “you don’t have to do too much to make a point.”

Instead, just “get a seed started” and watch it grow into a beautifully subversive entity.

Montserrat, an arts college located in the beautiful town of Beverly, Massachusetts, invited the Guerrilla Girls to accompany the traveling exhibition Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond, as well as a companion symposium, Agents of Change: Art as Activism. However, the event moved beyond academia with the Guerrilla Girls’ early morning workshop to support participants in starting their own grassroots feminist projects that utilize the arts as an explosive force in the face of unthinkable inequities.

Frida and Käthe asked everyone to discuss a few personally relevant issues around which they would like to design an act of culture-jamming.Everyone came with a story, a potent and inspiring reason for seeking the guidance of the art world’s masked avengers. Frida and Käthe listened intently, reminding each person that every struggle is equally worthy of discussion, and, eventually, illustration in the public sphere.

As people delved into their work in groups based on similar interests, ranging from rape culture to youth education to societal expectations of women, the twosome offered tangible advice for anyone hoping to follow the Guerrilla Girls’ example. Käthe reminded us that one of the best methods of engendering lasting change is to “use standard forms and pervert them,” especially “official college announcements and brochures,” prime fodder for parody and interrogation.

As one can see in the public art of the Guerrilla Girls, especially their recent co-opting of Michelle Bachmann’s own words in her home state, this method has immense power to both shock and invite productive inquiry. Finally, never editorialize, and allow the viewer to come to hir own conclusions about the irony in the imagery and its meaning on both individual and societal levels.

I floated from group to group in order to see how each art piece matured throughout the brainstorming process. Each was egalitarian and brimming with personal stories and unbridled ideas, all of which were facilitated by Frida and Käthe, whose encouragement to find “kernels and beginnings” resulted in outstanding examples of student activism in the making. As each poster, comic, meme, or drawing was posted around the room, I realized that this was more than an isolated exercise.

With campaigns telling us that all we need to do is vote, an important, though anonymous means of political involvement, it is easy to forget the power inherent in something as simple as a pamphlet or a poster. Arts-based activism encapsulates a transformative process of collaboration, of sisterhood or brotherhood, of a multiplicity of shared fears and hopes that have the ability to puncture unthinking psyches with life-changing facts that are as amusing as they are deadly serious.

For example, the students who created Middle School Dictionary proceeded to make copies of their pamphlet for distribution after the workshop. It was a simple act, but I know that my copy will always hang on my wall as a reminder and a call to action.

Some might call me naïve, or say that what I witnessed were simply remnants of the naïveté of a long-gone feminist urge for collectivity. However, this exercise was nothing short of revolutionary. Turn on the news; listen to the radio. We need a revolution.

Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond will be on view at the Montserrat College of Art until December 15, 2012.

The author would like thank Ms. Leonie Bradbury, curator of the Montserrat Art Galleries, Maggie Cavallo, Assistant Curator of Education, and the Guerrilla Girls, for their support, kindness, and generosity, in addition to the workshop participants, whose projects will change the world. All images are reproduced with the permission of the Guerrilla Girls.

Will Simmons can be reached at wsimmons@college.harvard.edu, or followed on Twitter at @WJ_Simmons.


Addressing Harvard-Yale Humor

And bringing back the spirit of the games

There is no denying that the annual Harvard-Yale game is a time to party and let loose. It is one weekend in the year where age old rivals let go of their inhibitions and their problem sets, and seniors ignore their impending thesis deadlines to engage in revelry and merriment. Friendly competition and ridiculous jokes abound on the football field, between the school bands, the spectators, in weekend acapella jams and parties and most prominently through merchandise. As my fellow intern Suzanna pointed out last year, this merchandise is a way to build school pride albeit tongue-in-cheek. But along with these traditions, the issue of problematic Harvard-Yale gear still persists.

This year, an independently run student business, Harvard State apparel is promoting a new kind of joke: the classist and sexist kind. One of their t-shirts quotes Nicki Minaj: “Yale You a Stupid Hoe.” The description on the website states: “Have you ever wanted to call Yalies “Stupid Hoes?” We sure have… Make sure that you aren’t just at the Game, but also beez in the trap, this November with this stylish tank.” In a publicity email, Harvard State describes life at their school: “State might not offer too many diplomas, but we have a kick ass time.”

On both counts, I fail to understand the “funny” part. In our culture, insults are often considered good jokes, but those insults are usually supported with a statement that allows us to laugh and acknowledge our shortcomings. It is part of what makes us human and what brings communities together. The statements on this apparel do not have punchlines, puns or other traits that constitute the structure of a joke.

One t-shirt simply states that by wearing it, we are calling Yalies (according to Oxford dictionary) stupid “promiscuous women” or women who have lots of sex. Sure, they may be quoting Nicki Minaj and there are many arguments for why her use of the words are either problematic or reclaiming a term normally used by men. But this is very clearly being used to insult the other team. H-Y gear is supposed to represent school spirit and not alienate half of the Harvard and Yale populations. In the same vein, we are labeling state schools as belonging to a lower intellectual and social class simply through the name “Harvard State” and the description offered along with it.

I want to be productive in this criticism. If we don’t get the joke, then lets offer up our own. The kind of joke that does not require labeling another group of people as stupid without ascribing any actual humor there. We recently held a contest at the Women’s Center asking for a t-shirt that was genuinely funny and still carried that spirit of competitiveness. Here is our winning shirt design:

I encourage everyone to stop by the Women’s Center and pick up a free t-shirt for themselves before the Harvard-Yale game next Saturday. This week, we are open 9:30- 5:30 pm Tuesday-Friday and 6-10 pm Tuesday and Wednesday.

As much as I feel strongly about the problematic nature of the shirts, I also think that the people who made them can offer up an appropriate defense. Whatever the reasoning behind these shirts, we can use this example to create a campus atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable, where women don’t have to look at a shirt and cringe because it is meant to target and insult their gender.

Perhaps a joke could be understood if there was an element of humor to it. Perhaps we could represent Harvard not as an elitist close-minded environment, but as an open, friendly, welcoming and fun-loving place that doesn’t need to degrade other communities to gain the upper hand in a competition. Then we can truly say that we deserve the title of winners at this year’s games.

Lesson #282749 from Virginia

Disclaimer: I LOVE Virginia Woolf, so this is a very biased post. I would apologize for this in advance, but I can’t because I LOVE her that much. You should too.

One of the many perks of going to Harvard Divinity School is taking super interesting and unique classes like “Literature of Journey and Quest” or “Children’s Literature and Religion.” This semester, I’m taking another literature course, this time on Virginia Woolf and religion. I had read Virginia’s (yes, I love her so much I’m going to refer to her as Virginia throughout this post because if she were alive, we would be on a first name basis) masterpiece, To the Lighthouse last year in my Literature of Journey and Quest course, and immediately fell in love. Therefore, when an ENTIRE course on Virginia and Religion came up on the course list, I jumped at the opportunity to delve into her canon.

What I didn’t realize was that delving into Virginia’s canon would mean delving into a very personal and emotional search for meaning. Virginia’s writing is riddled with grief. Virginia lost her mother at age thirteen and was never the same. She also experienced multiple emotional breaks and was barred from having children by her doctors, something that she never quite got over even though her writing projects sustained her. Of this grief, she writes, “The tragedy of [my mother’s] death was not that it made [me], now and then very intensely, unhappy. It was that it made her unreal; and [me] solemn, self-conscious. We were made to act parts that we did not feel; to fumble for words that we did not know. It obscured, it dulled” (“A Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being, 95).

This essay was one of my first assignments of the semester and has become the lens through which I read Virginia’s entire canon. Her description of loss as a person becoming “unreal” has resonated with me so strongly that I have tried to find a way to integrate it in as many commentaries as possible on her novels. (Hence, this post.) It is such a powerful description because it is so true. For me, that is. I think through her writing, Virginia has tried to make the people she lost, most especially her mother, real again. She knows that she can never actually accomplish it, but through the very act of writing, she can cope. And, for me, through the very act of reading Virginia working through this has helped me to cope. As human beings we are constantly in the face of suffering. Finding a way to break through that suffering—finding a book to break through that suffering—is invaluable. And, such a gift.

Why I choose to write about Virginia here though is the way in which she has also got me thinking about women’s and gender issues, also something I did not expect to delve into when I delved into her canon. Virginia wrote at a time when much of women’s writing was thought of as “stream of consciousness” writing instead of organized, structured, re-structured, and well thought out writing. Virginia wrote in a man’s world, and had to stake her claim not only among men, but also among a group of writers trying to do something different. Virginia wanted a new form of the novel, not one that simply went from beginning to end like the Victorian form, but one that followed a circular pattern of time, one that more accurately portrayed life, the human mind, and the complexity of emotions that are felt every moment of every day. Virginia wanted to find meaning and create meaning (which she does, read To the Lighthouse, it will change your life), but do so in a way that expressed her world.

Some thought that this new form was very “stream of consciousness” and “typical” of what a woman would produce. But, this could not be further from the truth. Virginia wrote and re-wrote, worked and re-worked all of her stories. They were mapped out in her mind, then on her paper, and then re-mapped again and again until they were mind-blowing portraits of life. Virginia revolutionized writing in the face of naysayers and a patriarchal world. Virginia showed them if you ask me.

This got me thinking about how we can harness grief and anger about gender issues for good. Virginia reveals that it is not despite her grief and the world in which she wrote that she produced such amazing work, but it is IN SPITE of her grief and the world in which she wrote that she changed the form of the novel forever.

I have this joke with my roommates that when we’re tired and don’t want to go to class, or when we’re hungry but there’s nothing to eat, or when we have papers due in two hours and haven’t written one word that we remain active. We say, “I AM NOT A VICTIM” and then get up and go to class, or make something for dinner that we actually do have, or get those blasted papers done. (Or we just stop being lazy.) I think that this is what Virginia did too. Virginia was not a victim to the losses she has experienced or to the way that her world told her that her writing was not masculine enough. Virginia was revolutionary.

Do I think that suffering exists and women are discriminated against in order for action to occur? Absolutely not. But, do I think that even though it exists (and while we fight the fight for this discrimination to cease to exist) can we harness our anger from discrimination for action? Absolutely. Thank you, Virginia, for bringing even more meaning to my life.