New York

Judy Chicago, “The Dinner Party”

An interior dialogue occasioned by The Dinner Party:

It is not a hoax, it is not hokum: The Dinner Party is a Pop phenomenon on the order of bra-burning and The Women’s Room. That is to say, an artwork that’s larger-than-life, perhaps larger even than the 1,038 lives it honors. It addresses all aspects of social, esthetic, and religious practice. From the moment of its installation at the San Francisco MoMA last year, it became, indisputably, a landmark—a monument to art and the women’s movement. I envision historians and critics of feminism, feminist art, and goddess spiritualism adopting the chronological abbreviations, BDP and ADP—“Before Dinner Party” and “After Dinner Party.”

Monuments are built to be defaced. DP indeed! A Displaced Person in every sphere! It’s pooh-poohed by feminists and non-feminists alike for its female imagery which reduces the history of women to 39 labia, and continues to depict Woman-as-Vessel in its 39 patens and chalices. Disowned in the art world for being sociological, The Dinner Party additionally suffers from the reverse stigma of bringing the Consciousness Raising group into the museum. Believers and agnostics alike reject The Dinner Party for its pop-sacramental attributes, the believers reacting against the deification of mortals along with goddesses, the non-believers chary of mixing religion with art.

The sensitivity of the secular! Art has always been responsible for inspiring awe—religious or emotional. And art has often been conceived and made in a communitarian way, mixing social and spiritual needs, as in the great Gothic cathedrals, whose function was to educate their populace in belief systems, legends, and history.

But the architecture and function of the cathedral grew out of religious practice. Judy Chicago and the community that produced The Dinner Party, on the other hand, aren’t dealing with symbols that have evolved from a belief system; rather, they’re self-consciously constructing a pseudo-iconography in criticism of patriarchal Christianity’s icons. It’s as though they expect a theology to develop out of their jane-built symbols! This is reactionary art of the worst sort. In place of patriarchal Christianity, The Dinner Party substitutes a matriarchal Supreme Court—a Sanhedrin comprising both ecclesiastical and civil figures, freely associating Church with State. In place of the crucifix (a symbol of suffering and injustice), The Dinner Party substitutes the delta, a reference (equilateral, non-hierarchical, to be sure) to female fertility and pleasure. The Dinner Party replaces The Last Supper with The First Supper, 39 representations of legendary and real women, their blood (in the chalices), their flesh (on the patens). The Dinner Party is less spiritual paradigm than religious parody. Does Chicago expect that by changing the “hymns” to “hers,” several thousand years of malign neglect can be corrected?

It is crucial for women to be aware of their history in order to determine their future. The biographical material related in The Dinner Party is staggering. Were all aware of such figures as St. Bridget, patron saint of Ireland, who headed a flourishing monastery where Celtic as well as Christian beliefs were fostered? Or of Trotula, the 11th-century Italian physician who compiled Diseases of Women?

So why not a history, à la Plutarch, of the lives of these women? Honor Thy Mother, yes, but why the insistence on veneration? Isn’t substituting patriarchal authoritarianism with matriarchal authoritarianism just old whine, new chalice?

You keep harping on the spiritual appurtenances of The Dinner Party, the embroidered vestments and decorated porcelain relics, without seeing the possibility of using a ritualistic framework on which to build a secular piece, a ritual that is not a religious experience, but an esthetic one.

And you keep skirting the contradiction of exploiting religious icons for their esthetic frisson. Isn’t this a safe, best-of-both-worlds strategy? Those who wish to read religion into The Dinner Party can, and those who don’t can read it as art. What of the DP’s art attributes? Doesn’t it capitalize on the rediscovery of forgotten crafts techniques to gain its esthetic pungency in much the same manner it capitalizes on the rediscovery of forgotten women to validate its content?

Certainly the research into various ceramic, weaving, and embroidery techniques—not to speak of the painfully long trial-and-error experiments in relief ceramics and jiggering on the plates—contributes to The Dinner Party’s aura. It’s a glossary of the so-called “lesser arts”—tatting lace, weaving, making ceramic household vessels, embroidering—that women have been consigned to for thousands of years. But that all these crafts are brought together, synthesized for a ritual (and it’s men who usually make the ritual art in preliterate cultures), is just one of the canny reversals The Dinner Party undertakes. It proposes that sum of the lesser arts is great art.

But you’re arguing a rear-guard, reactionary line. You’re saying that The Dinner Party is important esthetically because it demonstrates the significance of the traditionally woman-made, lesser crafts vis-à-vis the traditionally man-made, ritual art. You’re not saying it’s important on its own. On the content level, too, you’re arguing that rearguard polemic citing the educational importance of women learning their history so they can take charge of their future. You’re particularly slippery about the religious angle, by saying on the one hand that it’s important to know about goddess worship, that female deities were once venerated as authoritarian religious figures, and on the other hand that The Dinner Party exploits religious ritual only to give coherence to its presentation of 39 heroines. The sum total of your rear-guard actions is to say, “The history of the world is but the biography of great women.” To say, “You gotta have a gimmick, a framework, for this and the DP’s gimmick is heroine-worship.” Judy Chicago wrote in her DP journal, “Sometimes I feel as if I take five steps backwards for every step forward.” This piece is about looking backwards, it has the naive belief that gods are despotic, goddesses benevolent, that men are authoritarian, women libertarian. This is history using the Great Women theory; what happened to the anonymous women?

The DP is about education and celebration, not retardataire revisionism. You can’t criticize a project this large for not doing everything—at least it does something, namely, making the history of women accessible to an enormous population ignorant of it. You rant about its policies and politics for not being forward-looking, but don’t mention anything about the optimism of the piece. The way The Dinner Party illustrates the history of women as progressing from the flatness, the primitivism, of the Primordial Goddess, to dimensionality. The way the 20th-century women emerge from their plates, as the relief ceramic on Georgia O’Keeffe’s paten, illustrates that until now, the confines of culture has flattened them. Politically speaking, you’re the social cynic and The Dinner Party the cultural optimist, suggesting the liberation of women from their one-dimensional image.

But that is The Dinner Party’s most serious failure—its reliance on metaphor. Normally, a metaphor is a figure of speech that likens one thing to another, thus conveying meaning. The Dinner Party employs metaphors awkwardly, mixing them into oblivion. The metaphor of each woman is her symbolic paten, the metaphor of Woman’s progress ranges from the flatness on the first plate to the increasing depth of form. Metaphor ceases to be conveyor of meaning, instead, metaphor becomes conveyor of metaphor. Impossibly, The Dinner Party asks its audience to get deeper into progress, a mixed metaphor that perfectly sums up this mixed message of an exhibition. It’s prepared to progress along a historical surface, but at the same time wants to probe beneath—a feat of mental acrobatics that falls flat on its keester.

What you’re trying to say is that The Dinner Party is dense—in both senses of the word.

Carrie Rickey