I’m going to do my best with a work and artist who is near and dear to June’s heart. Feel free to jump in, June and anyone else, with more and better insights.
The work is permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum and is now open to the public. The description of the exhibit:
The Dinner Party, an important icon of 1970s feminist art and a milestone in twentieth-century art, is presented as the centerpiece around which the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is organized. The Dinner Party comprises a massive ceremonial banquet, arranged on a triangular table with a total of thirty-nine place settings, each commemorating an important woman from history. The settings consist of embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and china-painted porcelain plates with raised central motifs that are based on vulvar and butterfly forms and rendered in styles appropriate to the individual women being honored. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the triangular table. This permanent installation is enhanced by rotating biographical gallery shows relating to the 1,038 women honored at the table. Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses is the first such exhibition.
According to the 20th-Century Art Book, Phaidon Press:
On a triangular, ceramic table, place settings anticipate the arrival of distinguished guests. To each is assigned the name of a famous woman. Most striking are the plates themselves, which resemble labial folds. This pivotal piece celebrates celebrates femininity and explores the symbolic meanings of the form of the vagina. Born Judy Cohen in Chicago, the artist adopted the name of her birthplace, aiming to establish an independent identity. Her work owes much to the feminist art theories of the early 1970s, in which traditional forms of women’s labour, such as sewing and quilting, were elevated to the status of art. Later, a new generation of women artists and critics, whose economic independence took them beyond the sphere of the home and family, rejected this approach. Nonetheless, the profusion of tapestries, ceramics and quilts which emerged in this period signalled a shift in emphasis from the closed world of art to a wider debate about gender and sexuality.
I have to admit, I’ve heard of this seminal piece for years and knew little of it and never looked at images of it very closely or even really realized what components and media formed its structure and parts (ceramics, sewing). Admittedly I was 15 when it was created and have lived my adult life in a post-feminist world, but I find this work remarkable now that I’ve taken the time and thought to really look at it and think about it. Not being able to appreciate fully either the cultural context of the time (only from a historical view – I can hear June snorting here) or the shock to which it was greeted, it still has an import and weight to its message not easily ignored. You can read a lot more about the artist, this work and the reaction of the critics on Judy Chicago’s organization’s website.
Cynthia Freeland, in “But is it Art?” wrote of The Dinner Party:
Since 1979 when The Dinner Party was first exhibited, many writers, including feminists, have criticized it as either vulgar or too political, or else as too “essentialist”. Some critics argue that art that focuses so much on anatomy and sexual embodiement ignores differences due to women’s social class, race, and sexual orientation. The Dinner Party has been called simplistic and reductive — as if the achievements of women it is meant to celebrate are cancelled out by the omnipresent and repeated vaginal imagery of each place setting.
More from Cynthia Freeland’s book on the topic of “feminine art”:
And when quilts, pots, blankets and rugs got into art museums, they often were described as being made by “anonymous” or “nameless masters” — even when it was known (or could have been discovered) who produced the work! This suggests that women’s art flows naturally, without struggle or training, and is too naive to exemplify an artistic style or tradition.
And further on the topic of The Dinner Party:
The Dinner Party celebrated female bodily experiences by linking visual representations to texts that conveyed women’s power and achievement rather than passivity and availability.
Another aspect of this piece worth considering is its collaborative nature. Many artists and craftspeople made the components that went into the finished work under Judy Chicago’s direction. This piece is huge, 48 feet long on each side, 13 complete place settings on each leg of the triangle. It would have taken many hands to create it. How completely fascinating it would have been to be part of this undertaking. Were all of the contributing artists women? What kinds of things did they discuss while making each individual part? The larger social aspects or the more immediate technical issues?
So, some things to think about,
Where would we as female artists be today if not for Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party?
Is it necessary to shock and possibly offend to “transcend” or “elevate” a traditional “female” medium to high art? Are there examples of this “elevation” minus the shock?
Is it important to know the gender of an artist when looking at an artwork? Could a male artist have made the same work and how would our view of it be different?
If this work were made today what impact would it have on society and on the art world?
Anyone want to join me on a road trip to the museum to see it in the flesh, so to speak?
- submitted by Jane Davila