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This essay explores the visual rhetoric of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist art activists based in New York. Kenneth Burke's related concepts of the comic frame and perspective by incongruity provide a particularly fitting conceptual foundation for examining these specific strategies and the Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric in general. The analysis focuses on three rhetorical strategies used by the group: (1) mimicry; (2) an inventive re-vision of history; and (3) strategic juxtaposition. By demonstrating the means by which strategies of incongruity operate visually, this essay illustrates how visual rhetoric functions as both a site and resource of feminist resistance.
THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A WOMAN ARTIST Working without the pressure of success. Not having to be in shows with men. Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs. Knowing your career might pick up after you're eighty. Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine. Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position. Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others. Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood.... Getting your picture in art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.
The preceding excerpt, taken from a 1988 poster plastered throughout the streets of lower Manhattan, satirically encouraged passers-by to consider the so-called "sunny side" of institutionalized sexism (Guerrilla Girls, 1995, p. 53). Created by the Guerrilla Girls--a feminist collective of women artists and art world professionals--this sardonic chronicle of art world double standards has been translated into more than eight languages and immortalized in feminist literature and pop-culture postcards. The poster's litany of contradictions illustrates both the spectrum of sexism that women artists face and a principal strategy of the Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric: perspective by incongruity.
The growing literature on Kenneth Burke and dramatic frames well establishes the potential for perspective by incongruity to function as a discursive tool for enacting social change (Allen & Faigley, 1995; Carlson, 1986, 1988, 1992; Christiansen & Hanson, 1996; Dow, 1994; Powell, 1995). According to Burke, perspective by incongruity works by "a constant juxtaposing of incongruous words, attaching to some name a qualifying epithet which had heretofore gone with a different order of names" (Burke, 1954, p. 90). The use of terms, images or ideologies that are incongruous reorders--even remoralizes--a situation or orientation in a process akin to consciousness-raising (Dow, 1994). This essay is indebted to much of the literature on dramatic frames and seeks to further contribute to the study of marginalized (specifically feminist) discourse by examining how strategies of incongruity engender a comic politics of subversion. My analysis focuses on three strategies found in the rhetoric of the Guerrilla Girls: (1) mimicry, (2) an inventive re-vision of history, and (3) strategic juxtaposition. I argue that the organizing logic for these strategies in particular, and Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric in general, is the technique that Burke labels perspective by incongruity. I foreground strategies of incongruity because of their potential to both denaturalize and restructure a particular context, ideology, or sedimented meaning through "comparison, re-classification, and re-naming" (Dow, 1994, p. 229). Even though perspective by incongruity structures the Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric, its more general function is to create a comic politics of subversion and is, therefore, closely linked to Burke's discussion of the comic frame, The Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric, then, demonstrates how planned incongruity not only pokes fun at the failures of the social structure but also offers a comic corrective to such failings.
Many critics have recognized the symbiotic relationship between perspective by incongruity and the comic frame in Burke's work (Christiansen & Hanson, 1996; Dow, 1994; Gusfield, 1986). Described as a frame of acceptance, the comic frame hinges on the ambivalence engendered by incongruities. The comic frame privileges audiences by providing a unique vantage point from which to see the inaccuracies of a situation--creating what Burke labels "maximum consciousness" (1937/1984, p. 171). Likening the process to a play, Burke explains, "The audience, from its vantage point, sees the operation of errors that the characters of the play cannot see; thus seeing from two angles at once, it is chastened by dramatic irony" (1954, p. 41). For Burke, the comic frame functions as a middle ground: "It is neither wholly euphemistic, nor wholly debunking--hence it provides the charitable attitude toward people that is required for purposes of persuasion and cooperation" (1937/1984, p.166). As William Rueckert maintains, the comic frame "does not believe in absolutes, in categorical Nos" (1990, p. 11). This outlook is key to the Guerrilla Girls' rhetorical approach, as one member explained it in a 1991 interview: "Making demands are the tactics of the 70s and let's face it, they didn't really work very well. So we decided to try another way: humor, irony, intimidation, and poking fun" (Lederer, 1991, n. p.). The machinery of perspective by incongruity and the comic frame, then, engenders a form of social criticism that seeks to correct the inadequacies of the present social order through demystification rather than revolution (Burke, 1937/1984, p. 167).
The line of inquiry pursued throughout my analysis responds to recent calls for increased critical attention to nontraditional forms of feminist rhetoric (Carlson, 1992; Dow, 1997) and for critiques engaging the activist potential of specific comic strategies (Carlson, 1988; Christiansen & Hanson, 1996). Despite the Guerrilla Girls' visibility and longevity, they have received limited interdisciplinary attention (Loughery, 1987; Schor, 1990; Withers, 1988). This academic silence stands in stark contrast to the group's stature as a model for grassroots activists. Gloria Steinem even cited the Guerrilla Girls as a "group that symbolized the best of feminism in this country ... Smart, radical, funny, creative, uncompromising, and (I assume) diverse under those inspired gorilla masks, they force us to rethink everything from art to zaniness" (Guerrilla Girls, 1995, back cover). In addition, the aesthetic style of the group's posters has been widely recognized by their inclusion in museum and gallery exhibitions. As a group who communicate their message through primarily visual forms and in unconventional public fora, the Guerrilla Girls demonstrate how comic strategies function within a visual idiom.
This essay unfolds in four sections. I begin with a brief overview of feminist art activism as it bears most directly on the Guerrilla Girls' rhetoric, while highlighting feminist antecedents and the cultural pretext for the group's formation. The second section examines the conceptual linkages between feminist rhetoric, perspective by incongruity, and the comic frame. The analysis that follows features three strategies of incongruity: the role of mimicry in the group's performances and formation of their public personae; the Guerrilla Girls' inventive approach to the history of women artists; and strategic juxtapositions in two broadsides created by the Guerilla Girls. I conclude by discussing the potential for unconventional forms and fora of persuasion to enact social change.
Feminist Consciousness Raising in the Visual Arts: Precedents and Pretext
The history of women's exclusion and marginalization within the arts is well documented (Nochlin, 1988; Chadwick, 1990). More than twenty years after American women were granted suffrage, formal and informal obstacles to art world institutions remained intact. The birth of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1950s, however, appeared to usher in a new sensibility regarding what was considered art and who could create it. Artists like Lee Krasner, Dorothy Dehner, Joan Mitchell, and Elaine de Kooning (all members of the New York School of Art) began exhibiting alongside male contemporaries like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Andrew Gottleib. Even as these and other women artists gained some visibility, however, their careers remained at the periphery, tethered by an art establishment doctrine that "only men had the wings for art" (Chadwick, 1990, p. 302).
The convergence of the modern feminist movement and art activism opened gallery doors that had long been closed to women artists. In the late 1960s, the striking arm of the Women's Liberation Organization, the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), began masquerading as crones during protests over women's subordination. Their demonstrations consisted primarily of theatrical events such as showering the "Sociology Department at the University of Chicago with hair cuttings and nail …