Oct 27, 2011

REVIEW| The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, The Guerrilla Girls, PENGUIN BOOKS, 1998

The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art is a feminist look back at women throughout art history, presenting information about what life was like for these women and highlighting some of the women artists who have been marginalized in most art history textbooks.  The authors of this book, the Guerrilla Girls, are a group of anonymous females that take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and spread images and information that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and culture.  I found this book to be a fun, witty, hopeful and humorous take on what could be a potentially upsetting subject. 
The Guerrilla Girls state in the beginning of this book that their point is to "present our irreverent take on what life was like for some females in the West who managed, against all odds, to make art. It's ammunition for all the women who are-or will become-artists."  The book itself is short, with plenty of imagery in bold colors and design. The language is simple enough for children to read, and the design layout of the images also seems geared towards young people. I think the intent of this layout and simplicity is meant to draw a wide and varied audience without scaring away readers from feminism with a boring, serious and academic text. In this simplistic layout, the Guerrilla Girls get away with not citing their information presented, but at the end of the book they thank "the art historians who have shared their research." Perhaps they don't want to reveal the art historians because it might put their jobs in jeopardy. 

The book is set up in six chapters, each covering a time period that is traditionally featured in art history textbooks.  Starting with the classical period and ending at 20th century art, they describe the social environment the women lived in and the struggles they had to overcome to be artists.  They also include sexist quotes from men who are historically viewed as geniuses.  An example from the 19th century chapter as stated by world-renowned painter Auguste Renoir: "I consider women writers, lawyers, and politicians as monsters and nothing but five-legged calves. The woman artist is merely ridiculous, but I am in favor of the female singer and dancer." In these time periods they pull out specific women artists and give a short biography of their lives and how they broke the mold of the art world.

The Bedside Companion is relevant to contemporary art because female artists have yet to achieve equality with male artists. The Guerrilla Girls make sure to draw contemporary examples of still-existing sexism:

In 12th-century England, men were embroiderers too, and naturally, they got paid more: women earned only 83 percent of what men earned per day. Believe it or not, this was better than it is today in the U.S.: women average less than 70 cents for every dollar earned by men.
 The humor and ease of this book is successful in the way it can provide hope for girls, women artists, and even women in general to overcome discrimination. It challenges the view of a lineage of male master-genius artists that is presented in traditional art historical texts. This book also does a great job of featuring women artists from several ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and includes two pages on how contemporary women artists are making progress and how there is still plenty of room for improvement. There is also a list of further reading materials for whoever is interested. It is a good read for women, children, and men alike, enlightening us on where we came from and our gradual path to equality in art, the workplace, and society itself.

-Syraya Horton


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