In 1979, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was exhibited in San Francisco. This project, which has been celebrated as an icon in feminist art, involved the contributions of nearly 400 individuals. Its debut was met with a myriad of negative and positive reactions from both the art and political world. Now, nearly 25 years later, this piece is still a source of interest as a representation of both the significance of women in history and their previous denial of recognition.
Chicago’s The Dinner Party was five years in the making (1974-1979). She initially began alone, but the combined efforts of hundreds of artisans made this unique endeavor a collective piece signifying the awakening of the female identity in history. The 1970s Feminism called for women to redefine their relationship to each other, to society, and to the natural world. This led to feminist collaborations in the art world to address societal sexism and oppression. A collaborative art project was a political demonstration of female empowerment-combining the history of women and their history in the making. Chicago indicated that she wanted to produce something, “Ã¢Â?Â¦so far beyond judgment that it will enter the cultural pool and never be erased from history, as women’s work has been erased before.” Did she accomplish this goal? Clearly the implications of the project have already taken on monumental staying power.
The exhibit was a triangular table that featured 39 mythical and historical women on identified place settings; each side measured 48 feet, with 13 place settings to a side. The white tile “Heritage floor,” which supports the table, is inscribed with 999 more names of women-foundational women of the western world. Writer Charlotte McNaughton cited this overwhelming feature as a “Ã¢Â?Â¦sudden recognition of what and how much we have been missing by ignoring or trivializing women’s accomplishments.” Although, the initial crowds who have viewed this piece may have long forgotten its variety of specifics, the ’embarrassment’ of only knowing a handful of the hundreds of names proves to be a startling memory. This clearly probes the question, how could so many women have gone unrecognized?
Completing each place setting is an iridescent goblet, a ‘silverware’ set, and a gold-edged napkin. The textile runners are dyed with intense colors and incorporate a number of techniques, including embroidery, weaving, appliquÃ?Â©, braiding, beading, knitting, drawn thread work, and quilting. As these art forms have been traditionally seen as women’s crafts, Chicago uses them to tell the ‘story’ of their history. The careful detail that went into each setting provides a glimpse into the life of the woman whose seat is reserved at this great table in history. For example, Boadaceia’s runner displays Viking motifs and employs felt in muscular curves, while Trotula’s portrays a tree of life motif, flowers and birds, and is quilted with diamond shapes.
Accordingly, each table setting allows the viewer to understand the life of each woman invited to the Dinner Party through careful details imitating the crafts common in the time period in which they lived. Above Mary Wollstonecraft’s plate, for instance, are rudimentary scenes depicting her life in stumpwork (i.e. a form of stuffed embroidery common in her lifetime). But why did Chicago employ so many careful details? Why work on such a vast, unconventional scale?
The appearance of conceptual art may be seen as part of the answer. The progression of conceptual art into the 1970s seems to give context to Chicago’s chosen medium of expression for The Dinner Party. In standard histories of contemporary art, conceptualism is generally defined as an American or Western European art form emerging circa 1960. Conceptual art was intended to convey an idea or concept to the viewer, and rejected traditional forms of painting and sculpture. It focused on an analysis of the art object, implying that the piece was not an end in itself. Anastasia Shartin, a curatorial assistant at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, explained it as an art form that, “Ã¢Â?Â¦really questions what art is and can be. It shows that art doesn’t have to be an object but can be just an idea, a text or an activity used to question the status quo.” Conceptual artists have sought to awaken change in political, social, economic, and cultural systems.
Within this context, it seemed the most appropriate medium to work The Dinner Party in full scale, involving hundreds of volunteers to bring it to life. Though The Dinner Party is engaging as an artistic product, Chicago described it as a ‘project,’ rather than an artistic work. Most of the individuals that volunteered to contribute were amateurs and were learning about women’s history through the process of creation, making this a “study project.”
This idea of focusing on the process, rather than the end product was an emerging concept to the American art world as well. The late 1960s saw a number of American artists placing greater emphasis on the process of making art, rather than the appearance of the art itself. This was known as “process art,” and those artists that followed this movement were concerned with letting the natural properties of materials determine the final outcome of the art object. Clearly Chicago had these ideas in mind as she pieced together the dinner party of women’s history. The fact that it was a collaborative effort lent to the impact of its meaning; hundreds of women had created the historical legacy and hundreds of women were now commemorating their achievements. The ‘process’ was a celebration of female empowerment, and the product merely spoke of the vast collaborative efforts behind it.
Nevertheless, critic Robert C. Hobbs objected to Chicago’s method of collaboration, which granted her ultimate artistic decisions. Hobbs wrote that she was “less a collaborator than an enterprising businessperson.” Chicago did in fact follow the method of Christo or Red Grooms and Mimi Gross who were in control of the design and direction of their projects, though enlisting many assistants to help in carrying it out to completion. Nevertheless, Chicago did not individually research each woman represented in the exhibit, and thus allowed those she collaborated with to find an individual bond with their specific contributions.
At the time The Dinner Party was constructed, feminist ideas had been forming in the art world as the 1970s Feminist movement pressed forward in the social and political forums. Chicago wanted art to function as a teaching tool in the study of women’s history and set to work on this goal. Before working on The Dinner Party, she had been previously developing her personal iconography relating to what has become known as “central core” imagery. This imagery visually references the definably female “core” as relating to sexuality (i.e. the vagina). Such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe employed central core imagery through enlarged visual perspectives of flower centers. Chicago particularly stylized this core in her butterfly-vagina images, which vividly characterize the place settings of The Dinner Party.
The emergence of this centrally oriented imagery was met with mixed reactions from men and women alike. Initially, Chicago disguised her naturally ‘centered’ images for in the 1960’s, she explained, it was “simply impossible” to make art that revealed gender and be taken seriously. She learned the formal language of art in order to code her forms in contemporary art. In an interview in 1993 Chicago described, “One needs visual tools, and needs to understand the language of contemporary art in order to violate it if you want to, or to expand it, or extend it, or challenge it.” Cleary, Chicago found no need to re-invent the wheel, but to observe its structure before violating or adding to it.
Chicago soon learned in her graduate studies, that the clear messages she received from her representations of the female revealed ‘repugnance’ for the female natural forms as subject matter. Nevertheless, she held onto this vision, lamenting, “I had internalized the idea that, if I let go of my real forms, they would be considered ugly.”
Amid these tensions in the art world, Chicago began working on her first plate images for The Dinner Party in 1975. But when she saw her direction in the definitively central core images she “Ã¢Â?Â¦felt terrified by the images that were coming out.” Her mentor at the time, Anais, was impressed by the images and encouraged it, tying this discovery to her ‘awakening’ of the long denied ‘female power.’ Chicago noted that this denial was conditioned in society and harkened back to the historical views of female power being negative; this feature linked to the censorship of female sexuality in art and the feminist location of the “male gaze,” which set women as merely powerless, submissive objects. Chicago observed that, “it’s not about talent, it’s about the degree to which [women] can fully realize [their] creative power, because it is tied to self-power, and [women have] been taught that female power is destructive.”
However, Chicago’s brand of Feminism regards values and not gender. The Patriarchal oppression, which is a hierarchy of power over others, is not specific to gender. Accordingly, feminists cite women who subscribe to it with the same ideals of power that has historically been attributed to the ‘evil male.’ But Chicago’s artistic representations do not pose the polarizations of earlier art or her contemporaries, which display the pure ‘woman goddess’ against the power-hungry and lascivious male.
While devil-angel motifs were popular in the writings of certain branches of feminism, Chicago focuses on a system of values rather than stereotypes. According to many feminists, feminism is a set of principles and a way of redefining power, not just transferring it. Historically, traditional gender roles have supported men as being on the top of the structure as addicted to power; but with feminist ideas, power is self-empowerment and not power over another.
Chicago thus presents this self-empowerment through her central core imagery on the ceramic plates of The Dinner Party, brilliantly conveying life and individuality through intense color combinations. For example, Kali, a Hindu goddess’ plate is fashioned with purple and red gradients, moving into grays, while the central eye opens with crimson life-the viewer’s eye pulling toward this core power.
The exhibit is chronological as it presents the linear history of women from mythical fertility goddesses of ancient lore to the mid-20th century women gaining public voice (e.g. Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe). The settings are ceramic plates that have been decorated with central core imagery and are accompanied by an intricate runner, all carefully combined into individual motifs for each woman, as previously noted. Each china plate is powerfully presented with central symmetry. Chicago actively communicates female sexuality in these abstracted vaginal images of butterflies and flowers. Her use of bold color combinations and strikingly vivid shapes is not to be ignored; the sexual oppression of women seems to be freed in coiling and lively images.
As the eye moves along the place settings, they begin to rise in relief, starting with Caroline Herschel; this corresponds to the increasing acknowledgement of the female voice in history, as women are breaking from the traditional models.
The shape of the table-a triangle-is an ancient symbol for female and the equilateral nature of it symbolizes equality. However, some have criticized the emptiness of the center as being a “design flaw,” detracting from the unity. But more than this, Chicago has been criticized particularly by other women as “reducing women to vaginas.” Many women were outraged by this degradation and condemned the use of central core imagery to another form of inaccurately presenting women in art.
Despite the negative reactions, Chicago insisted her vagina references in The Dinner Party were not a form of degradation, but rather a form of unity. Chicago relays poignantly,
Ã¢Â?Â¦these women are not known because they have vaginas; that is all they had in common, actually. They were from different periods, classes, ethnicities, geographies, experiences, but what kept them within the same confined historical space was the fact that they had vaginas.
Without a historical context to the enormous variety of personalities who have been reserved a seat at this table, many critics have disqualified it from the art dialogue as presenting a banal form of ‘essentialism’ (i.e. simplifying women to their sexual parts and ignoring their individuality). However, as Chicago pointed out, the only common factor connecting these women is that they share biological features.
It’s more difficult to understand the reactions incurred by this exhibit in our present time, as Feminism is no longer a new or seemingly revolutionary ideology. It has become a part of the popular culture with only a few remaining subtleties (i.e. the current directions of the movement). Those studying feminism now are familiar with the reactionary results of the movement-increased recognition of women past, present, and future. But, as Art History professor Amelia Jones of the University of California pointed out, the lack of a historical view on the movement will invalidate the importance of feminist art; now it is taken for granted that something occurred, but then it was revolutionary and unheard of. Thus, it becomes very important to study the history as much as the present-a feature Chicago displays in her exhibit.
Socially speaking, Chicago’s feminist approach involved representations of the female body that counteracted the mostly male portrayals of women in pornography and high art. She achieved this most poignantly in The Dinner Party by linking visuals of female intimacy and texts to present women’s power and achievement rather than passivity and submission. Of course, not all feminists agreed with her methods of achieving this. Some of Chicago’s contemporaries believed she was drawing attention to herself more than giving historical perspective on women. Their main protests were in the use of central core imagery that promoted the concept that gender identity was anatomically decreed rather than socially constructed-an idea contrary to the feminist cause. It was primarily because Chicago was overt about her intentions that she was so criticized by her fellow feminists. Chicago’s forerunner O’Keeffe used a subtle approach to her central core imagery by masking it in the forms of still life flowers. However, Chicago’s plate paintings in The Dinner Party are not an attempt in ‘hinting’ at female genitalia-they are vibrant, obvious depictions.
Not only did the overt meaning of her art attract social responses from feminists but it also was met with unpleasant political response. Political rejection of the exhibit was best seen in Chicago’s failed attempts to place the work. She arranged to donate the exhibit to the University of the District of Columbia to be in a planned multicultural center. However, The Washington Times responded with a campaign against it, and Robert K. Dornan, a Republican representative from California, termed it a repulsive display of “ceramic 3-D pornography.” Even student groups formed at the university, demanding that she take back the donation. It wasn’t surprising then when Congress denounced the piece on C-Span as well.
Nevertheless, The Dinner Party has survived with immense staying power. It’s collaborative history, vivid imagery, and enormous 3-D presence made this exhibit a memorable feminist icon. The artist once stated, “My images are about struggling out of containment, reaching out and opening up as opposed to masking or veiling.” Certainly Chicago was revolutionary in her overt style and unashamed presentation of the female body. It seems as though Chicago was successful in her goal-whether with positive or negative response, The Dinner Party will not be erased from history. Women now have a reservation at the table of history.
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