San Francisco

Judy Chicago

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

The Dinner Party, JUDY CHICAGO’s visual tribute to the history of women, is comprised of a 48-foot triangular table with 39 individual place settings. Each setting commemorates a female personage (either mythological or historical) with an abstract butterfly/vaginal motif. Plates rest on fabric runners embellished with needlework and weaving, illustrative of the history and culture surrounding that particular woman. The table stands on the “Heritage Floor,” white opalescent porcelain tiles inscribed with 999 women’s names in gold. Preceding this installation is a hallway of banners that pay homage to the Feminine Principle—“She,” the Goddess. The exit is a collection of monumental photographs documenting the creation of The Dinner Party, and a timeline compilation of historical data relating to women’s history.

The problems inherent in The Dinner Party do not lie so much in the artist’s goal—a celebration of women’s achievements and an attempt at making them a permanent part of our culture—as in the mode of presentation and the scholarly limitations underlying the project. Chicago’s conception originates in her own interpretation of medieval art: just as art taught the Bible to illiterates, so should The Dinner Party instruct us. To this end, the presentation is obsessively literal and cloyingly ecclesiastic. In actuality, The Dinner Party is an enlarged restatement of the Last Supper motif, with 39 vaginal symbols ensconced in cathedral-like splendor. Ceramic plates, the nucleus of the installation, fluctuate between repetitive symbolism and blatantly simplistic association. Ethel Smyth, English composer and writer, is commemorated by an elegant black, baby grand piano; Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate, is a pulsating red orifice, and Emily Dickinson, a demure, pink lace vulva.

The symbolism and reliance on craft, china painting and needlework is an attempt to move away from male-dominated imagery, and to employ and call attention to the more female disciplines. The execution of this project, articulated through collaborative or guild-type arrangement, is a substantial accomplishment. The piece is underscored, however, by a proselytizing self-righteousness that replaces art with cultism and offers literalism under the guise of education. Chicago not only underestimates the viewer’s intellectual capacities, but unsuccessfully tries to sidestep the modernist tradition. Her medieval assumption that we are all unknowing illiterates is naive. The contemporary audience is not comprised of uneducated peasants, and playing down to the public does not add credence to the feminist sensibility.

Since Chicago sees feminist art as having to forge its own esthetic—to release itself from male domination—some of her extremism is understandable. But in so doing, and in overcoming the oppression she sees in modern art, Chicago adopts an anachronistic viewpoint fraught with its own forms of repression. Rather than functioning within an intellectual milieu, The Dinner Party relies on the most tedious sort of model, and a not-so-subtle cult mystique promulgated by years of media attention. The controversy that The Dinner Party generates has nothing to do with its craft esthetic, the West Coast in particular has always been sympathetic to mainstream alternatives. Nor is it a shocked response to the subject matter, which is neither threatening nor confrontational. What is controversial is the vast territorial claims made by this piece, and the blatant almost anti-intellectual manner in which spectacle is substituted for concrete information or originality. Just through its sheer size and attention, The Dinner Party pretends to set a course for feminist art.

Nevertheless, The Dinner Party is grounded in some rather incomplete scholarship and assumptions that seem contradictory to feminist politics. For example, in the description of the Amazon plate, the word Amazon (literally, without breast) and the sacrifice it implies are never explained. Omissions of this sort as well as arbitrary ranking of women in the historical chronology occur with regularity. A more central weakness in the project, and one that points up an operational elitism, is that The Dinner Party only takes into account Western civilization women. With the exception of one black and one native American, this work bypasses women’s achievements outside the Occidental world. This conscious absence seems at odds with the goals of feminism as well as the broader Marxist dialectic of viewing art in a global context.

The Dinner Party, much like “The Splendor of Dresden” or “King Tut” exhibitions, seems one more blockbuster way to shore up museum attendance. The attention lavished on the Chicago extravaganza speaks not only of the economic realities of the ’70s, but also the awkwardness with which cultural institutions respond to political reality. It is apparent that the absence of discernible direction in contemporary art has created a vacuum in which uncritical popular enthusiasm, often without intellectual or esthetic substance, can be a major determining factor in establishment support.

Hal Fischer