For my fifth and final paper in the textiles section of this course, I chose to write about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a large-scale, multi-media work of art/installation created between 1974-9. I have visited this work several times and am very moved by its scope and strength and ambition. It’s not a perfect or all-inclusive expression of feminism, but–having read and thought so much about it now–I believe it is an authentic expression of one artist’s quest to express herself as a woman (in a world that makes so that other women artists may follow, to shed light on women’s (traditional) crafts and often unpaid labors, to offer tribute and respect to contributions of diverse women across (Western) history, despite a (cross-)cultural environment that is historically and still so often hostile to or suspicious of our contributions.
More than in any of the previous papers (although this is something I consistently struggle with) I felt frustrated by the word limitations (1,000-1,100) of this essay because there were so many points and layers I wanted to be able to touch on. In the past, Dr. Rees has encouraged me to explore points I ultimately had to omit from my paper in my learning log; until now, it’s not a process I felt truly compelled to engage with. The final version of my paper usually reflected the best of what I had to say at that time, and often I submitted with (100 – 200+) more words than I should have.
In the case of this paper, Dr. Rees’ feedback on Assignment 4 made it impossible for me to submit a paper longer than 1,100 in good faith. Cutting out the last 200 words seemed like torture to me, as it involved eliminating or (re-)describing with almost no detail some points salient to my argument that the textile component of Judy Chicago’s piece (which is more (in)famous for its ceramic vulvar/central-core/butterfly-inspired plates, which Chicago originally intended as the work’s “main course”) offers more visual interest and narrative value.
I’d like to include in this post a sort of visual bibliography, to give a sense of the dense volumes Chicago and others have written about The Dinner Party. All the images below reflect books I purchased used online or brought home from the library and pored over for several weeks before beginning writing.
As I am genuinely interested in this work–and have been for some time–reading so much about the artist’s evolution toward this work, intentions for it as she was making it, and reflections about it so many years after its making and diverse receptions was a rich pleasure.
Some of the aspects of this piece and the artist that interest me that didn’t quite fit into the scope of my brief paper included:
- Through the Flower’s International Honor Quilt (1980), aka The International Quilting Bee) which invited women to contribute a small patch of quilt honoring the woman of their choice; some 600 of these quilts were made and circulated alongside The Dinner Party. These symbolize the project’s expansiveness and inclusiveness well beyond its initial scope and how it impacted/touched the lives of women internationally.
- Chicago’s impact on “women’s crafts” today, and how some contemporary textile artists (Orly Cogan, for example) cite (without always acknowledging) Chicago’s legacy/ambition to bring to the fore crafts and art forms that were historically dismissed as kitsch or low art.
- I’m also interested in how social media changes the visibility of these artists, and brings a lot of women’s work out of the private and into public spheres, regardless of whether or not the artist or their art is part of “high” or “low” art worlds; also how social media changes what these (somewhat out-of-fashion but far from irrelevant to discussions of art) divisions mean.
- Unpacking “cunt art” (Judy Chicago’s language) and how it sought to recast both the word and its connotations symbolically and discursively– did it succeed? What do I think of criticisms about this and related work featuring “female (metaphorically genital) imagery” (as opposed to masculine, or phallic imagery, which is everywhere)? In what ways does The Dinner Party use this kind of imagery or other essentially female symbols and visual narrative (ie: Wollestonecraft’s death-by-childbirth scene) to generate a tangible sense of (Western) feminist (his)story/vision/agency?
- To what extent Chicago’s studio environment (The Dinner Party was completed with the help of 400+ volunteers, mostly women) embodied and insisted upon feminist principles and examining/correcting what Chicago considered to be problematic aspects of “women’s culture” (developed as direct/indirect consequences of patriarchy and women’s oppression). I would have liked to include more details about how Chicago sought to empower volunteers to take control/full responsibility/artistic agency of their contributions to the project; for example, the anecdote about the redesign of Aubusson tapestry looms, which women had historically been prevented from using and which further crippled their makers in that they were unable to see the “big picture” of their creation as they made it. Chicago wanted to offer a sense of agency by encouraging and literally enabling larger-picture thinking and making.
- Also worth noting the feeling of sisterhood achieved by having groups of women working painstakingly on the extremely challenging task of expertly reproducing historical styles of needlework to tell the story of women who struggled for the rights of future women, and who themselves stood on the shoulders of women who had come before them but whose concrete accomplishments were somehow less significant. They were literally experiencing the stifling physical environment within which many of these women did their work, and it bound them to that history in a powerful, embodied way.
- Also: the physically crippling/literally painful aspect of this kind of work, as expressed in the “Thursday-night rap sessions” and guest-book/studio journal entries left by many of the volunteers.
- The link between patriarchy, women’s oppression, the cultivation of “small thinking” by systematically, cross-culturally, historically giving women small-scale, detail-heavy, slow work like needlework and embroidery to perfect skills in from a very young age, and how this informs psychology and Chicago’s theory of “women’s culture”. How do these trends inform previous and even contemporary occupational trends across gender?
- The textual aspect of the piece, as expressed via its textile components. This includes Chicago’s extended visionary poem, extracts of which are featured in the entry banners, and which was intended to become a sort-of illuminated text (yet another companion piece to the work).
All of the above only begins to touch on some of the thoughts I had and notes I scribbled down while thinking through this piece and conducting research.
I’ve decided to include here the link to the PDF of a slightly-longer version of my final paper, in case any reader of this entry cares to peruse:
Revisions to original assignment
I did some light revisions to my paper following (and in accordance with) Dr. Rees’ feedback. Word restrictions simply didn’t afford me the space to explore all her questions, but I felt it was important to address them explicitly. Questions she included in her assessment are indicated in bold italics below). My thoughts and responses follow; perhaps one day they’ll work their way into a longer essay:
- “Have attitudes towards women changed since the 1970s, and does this in any way change the way the work is seen?
- I think attitudes toward women in the Western world have changed a lot since the 1970s. More women are educated and working in more diverse fields, for one thing; laws have been created protecting women’s sexual/reproductive freedom/autonomy; social media gives almost anyone (regardless of gender) a platform to be seen and heard (so the notion of “invisible work” or craft seems less relevant. Folks who want to share their skills and talents with the world/online community generally have the tools to do so at their fingertips. The “global culture” facilitated by the Internet and social media connects people and means that ideas and movements can gain traction and reach faster than they could historically. These cultural shifts inform the way feminist art is understood and viewed, and likewise inspire more feminist art. Chicago’s work was first received by critics and viewers whose experience with visceral representations of women’s bodies were probably quite limited. This was never the case for me; I’ve long been aware of women artists who use the(ir own) visceral body (or representations of it) to make statements about or against sexual violence, objectification, the impact on women of patriarchy, etc. Today, Chicago’s “central core” imagery would be hard to experience as shocking, vulgar or pornographic. That all said, feminism continues to be a hot-button word/topic, and while the dominant/acceptable discourse about the subject has changed, actual attitudes seem to fluctuate.
- “If “historical reviews focus on the ‘vaginas on plates’; do you think a modern critic would be able to see beyond that or take a different approach?”
- I think modern critics do and have taken diverse approaches to this work.
- Some cite the problem of “essentialism”: associating vaginas with feminism, or allowing a vagina to stand in as a metaphor for “woman”. Nowadays–at least, in more progressive circles in the Western world–we embrace a “gender spectrum” which means that many self-identified “women” don’t have vaginas. These women (or however they identify) might feel excluded or invalidated by an art work that identifies a biological woman’s “central core” as central to her feminist struggle/accomplishments.
- In addition to the (non-Western, non-White, for example) women excluded from Chicago’s round-up, critics have taken issue with certain women’s representations, for example, that of Sojourner Truth, one of the only women of color, and one of the few whose plate features a face instead of “central core imagery.” This raises all kinds of questions about sexualization and/or treatment of Other in the work…
- The New York Times critic Roberta Smith reviewed Chicago’s work, describing it as “important” and now “as much a part of American culture as Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney, W.P.A. murals and the AIDS quilt.” [Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/20/arts/art-review-for-a-paean-to-heroic-women-a-place-at-history-s-table.html, accessed 4 Sept 2018]. Her focus is less on the aesthetic (and she owns that, aesthetically, the work can be read many different ways, not all of them flattering) and more on the cultural value of this piece as a prominent, ambitious and influential work at the beginnings of a feminist wave that focused on/employed women’s bodies as expressive sites; also as an antecedent to the crumbling distinction between high art and low craft. Says Smith in her review:
- “So how does Ms. Chicago’s ”Dinner Party” look now? Moving, illuminating, irritating, flawed, powerful. It is, as the artist intended, a highly informative, entertaining teaching device, designed to raise consciousness in a single bound by providing an unforgettable glimpse of the tremendous contribution of women through history. No one is knowledgeable enough not to learn from it, and most viewers will enjoy the process.”
- Some articles featuring more recent reviews (of Chicago’s piece specifically, but also as part of mixed-artist, feminist-themed exhibitions) include:
- http://nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/29707/ %5Baccessed 4 Sept 2018]
- https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/04/09/womens-work-3 %5Baccessed 4 Sept 2018]
- https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/insider/judy-chicago-dinner-part-art-reviews-times.html %5Baccessed 4 Sept 2018]
- https://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/20/arts/art-review-for-a-paean-to-heroic-women-a-place-at-history-s-table.html %5Baccessed 4 Sept 2018]
- I think modern critics do and have taken diverse approaches to this work.
- “The triangle shape is also symbolic; does this also come through on a smaller scale (for example is it repeated in the runners also?) or just as a whole?”
- The equilateral triangle is indeed a key motif that runs throughout Chicago’s work “signifying the vision of an equalized world”: from its appearance in the welcome banners, to the three-sided table, to the shape of the room which was now houses The Dinner Party (and was conceived for this purpose; see Fig.1 below), to the triangular hand-cast porcelain tiles comprising the work’s heritage floor, to the exquisite needlework motifs (called “Millennium triangles, see Fig.2 below) decorating each of the banquet table(cloth)’s three corners.
- On a much smaller scale, the triangle appears regularly as a decorative motif, particularly upon runners in the first wing. Chicago cites the triangle as also referencing a woman’s pubic triangle, and thus fertility.
Further online reading and viewing:
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yMtdWxAc60 (a video tour of the exhibit narrated by Judy Chicago)