The Dinner Party

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The Dinner Party
The dinner party book cover.jpg
Artist Judy Chicago
Year 1979 (1979)
Type Mixed media
Location Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
Owner Brooklyn Museum

The Dinner Party is an installation artwork by feminist artist Judy Chicago depicting place settings for 39 mythical and historical famous women. A further 999 women are honored by named floor tiles. It was produced from 1974 to 1979 as a collaboration and was first exhibited in 1979. Subsequently, despite art world resistance, it toured to 16 venues in 6 countries on 3 continents to a viewing audience of 15 million. Since 2007 it has been on permanent exhibition in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

About the work[edit]

"The Dinner Party" at the Brooklyn Museum.

The Dinner Party was created by artist Judy Chicago, with the assistance of numerous volunteers, with the goal to "end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record."[1]

The table is triangular and measures 14.63 m (forty-eight feet) on each side.[1] There are 13 place settings on each of the three sides of the table making 39 settings in all. Wing I honors women from Prehistory to the Roman Empire, Wing II honors women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation and Wing III from the American Revolution to feminism.[1]

Each place setting features a table runner embroidered with the woman's name and images or symbols relating to her accomplishments, with a napkin, utensils, a glass or goblet, and a plate. Many of the plates feature a butterfly- or flower-like sculpture as a vulva symbol. A collaborative effort of female and male artisans, The Dinner Party celebrates traditional female accomplishments such as textile arts (weaving, embroidery, sewing) and china painting, which have been framed as craft or domestic art, as opposed to the more culturally valued, male-dominated fine arts.[1]

The white floor of triangular porcelain tiles, called the Heritage Floor, is inscribed with the names of a further 999 notable women each associated with one of the table place settings.[1]

The Dinner Party was donated by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation to the Brooklyn Museum, where it is now permanently housed within the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, which opened in March 2007.[2]

Details of the Making[edit]

The completed Dinner Party took six years and $250,000 to complete, not including volunteer labor.[3] The work began modestly as "Twenty-Five Women Who Were Eaten Alive", a way in which Chicago could use her "butterfly-vagina" imagery and interest in china painting in a high-art setting.[3]

Chicago soon expanded it to include the thirty-nine final women arranged in three groups of thirteen. The triangular shape has significance because it has long been a symbol of the female. It is also an equilateral triangle to represent equality. The number thirteen represents the number of people who were present at the Last Supper, an important comparison for Chicago, as the only people involved there were men.[3] Chicago developed the work on her own for the first three years before bringing in others. Over the next three years, over 400 people contributed to the creation of the work, most of them volunteers. About 125 were called "members of the project", suggesting long-term efforts, and a small group was closely involved with the project for the final three years, including ceramicists, needle-workers, and researchers.[3] The project was organized according to what has been called "benevolent hierarchy" and "non-hierarchical leadership", as Chicago designed most aspects of the work and had the final control over decisions made.[3]

The 39 plates themselves start flat and begin to emerge in higher relief towards the very end of the chronology, meant to represent modern woman's gradual independence and equality, though it is still not totally free of societal expectations.[4] The work also uses supplementary written information such as banners, timelines, and a three-book exhibition publication to provide background information on each woman included and the process of making the work.[4]

Women represented in the place settings[edit]

The first wing of the triangular table has place settings for female figures from the goddesses of prehistory through to Hypatia at the time of the Roman Empire. This section covers the emergence and decline of the Classical world.

The second wing begins with Marcella and covers the rise of Christianity. It concludes with Anna van Schurman in the seventeenth century at the time of the Reformation.

The third wing represents the Age of Revolution. It begins with Anne Hutchinson and moves through the twentieth century to the final places paying tribute to Virginia Woolf and Georgia O'Keeffe.

The 39 women with places at the table are:

Wing I: From Prehistory to the Roman Empire
1. Primordial Goddess
2. Fertile Goddess
3. Ishtar
4. Kali
5. Snake Goddess
6. Sophia
7. Amazon
8. Hatshepsut
9. Judith
10. Sappho
11. Aspasia
12. Boadaceia
13. Hypatia

Wing II: From the Beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation
14. Marcella
15. Saint Bridget
16. Theodora
17. Hrosvitha
18. Trotula
19. Eleanor of Aquitaine
20. Hildegarde of Bingen
21. Petronilla de Meath
22. Christine de Pisan
23. Isabella d'Este
24. Elizabeth R.
25. Artemisia Gentileschi
26. Anna van Schurman

Wing III: From the American to the Women's Revolution
27. Anne Hutchinson
28. Sacajawea
29. Caroline Herschel
30. Mary Wollstonecraft
31. Sojourner Truth
32. Susan B. Anthony
33. Elizabeth Blackwell
34. Emily Dickinson
35. Ethel Smyth
36. Margaret Sanger
37. Natalie Barney
38. Virginia Woolf
39. Georgia O'Keeffe

Women represented in the Heritage Floor[edit]

The Heritage Floor, which sits underneath the table, features the names of 999 women inscribed on white handmade porcelain floor tilings. The tilings cover the full extent of the triangular table area, from the footings at each place setting, continues under the tables themselves and fills the full enclosed area within the three tables. There are 2304 tiles with names spread across more than one tile. The names are written in the Palmer cursive script, a twentieth century American form. Chicago states that the criteria for a woman's name being included in the floor were one or more of the following:[5]-

  1. She had made a worthwhile contribution to society
  2. She had tried to improve the lot of other women
  3. Her life and work had illuminated significant aspects of women's history
  4. She had provided a role model for a more egalitarian future.

Accompanying the installation are a series of wall panels which explain the role of each woman on the floor and associate her with one of the place settings.[5]

Response[edit]

Immediate critical response (1980–1981)[edit]

The Dinner Party prompted many varied opinions. Feminist critic Lucy Lippard stated, "My own initial experience was strongly emotional... The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings", and defended the work as an excellent example of the feminist effort.[3] These reactions are echoed by other critics, and the work was glorified by many.[6]

Just as adamant, however, were the immediate criticisms of the work. Hilton Kramer, for example, argued, "The Dinner Party reiterates its theme with an insistence and vulgarity more appropriate, perhaps, to an advertising campaign than to a work of art".[7] He called the work not only a kitsch object but also "crass and solemn and singleminded", "very bad art,... failed art,... art so mired in the pieties of a cause that it quite fails to acquire any independent artistic life of its own".[7]

Maureen Mullarkey also criticized the work, calling it preachy and untrue to the women it claims to represent.[7] She especially disagreed with the sentiment she labels "turn ‘em upside down and they all look alike", an essentializing of all women which does not respect the feminist cause.[7] Mullarkey also called the hierarchical aspect of the work into question, claiming that Chicago took advantage of her female volunteers.[8] Similarly, Roberta Smith stated that "its historical import and social significance may be greater than its aesthetic value".[9]

Mullarkey focused on several particular plates in her critique of the work, specifically Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Georgia O'Keeffe, using these women as examples of why Chicago's work was disrespectful to the women it depicts. She states that Dickinson's "multi-tiered pink lace crotch" was opposite the woman it was meant to symbolize because of Dickinson's extreme privacy.[8] Woolf's inclusion ignores her frustration at the public's curiosity about the gender of writers, and O’Keeffe had similar thoughts, denying that her work had any gendered or sexual meaning.[8]

"The Dinner Party" was satirized by artist Maria Manhattan, whose counter-exhibit "The Box Lunch" at a SoHo gallery was billed as "a major art event honoring 39 women of dubious distinction", and ran in November and December of 1980.[10][11][12][13]

Race and Identity[edit]

In 1984, Hortense J. Spillers published her critical article, "Interstices: A Small Drama of Words," wherein she critiques Judy Chicago and the "Dinner Party," asserting that, as a White woman, Chicago recreates the erasure of the Black feminine sexual self. Spillers calls to her defense the place setting of Sojourner Truth, the only Black woman of color. After thorough review, it can be seen that all of the place settings depict uniquely designed vaginas, except for Sojourner Truth. The place setting of Sojourner Truth is depicted by three faces, rather than a vagina. Spillers writes, "The excision of the female genitalia here is a symbolic castration. By effacing the genitals, Chicago not only abrogates the disturbing sexuality of her subject, but also hopes to suggest that her sexual being did not exist to be denied in the first place..."[14]

Larger retrospective response[edit]

Critics such as Mullarkey have returned to The Dinner Party in later years and stated that their opinions have not changed. Many later responses to the work, however, have been more moderate or accepting, even if only by giving the work value based on its continued importance.

Amelia Jones, for example, places the work in the context of both art history and the evolution of feminist ideas to explain critical responses of the work.[15] She discusses Hilton Kramer's objection to the piece as an extension of Modernist ideas about art, stating, "the piece blatantly subverts modernist value systems, which privilege the ‘pure’ aesthetic object over the debased sentimentality of the domestic and popular arts" .[15] Jones also addresses some critics’ argument that The Dinner Party is not high art because of its huge popularity and public appeal. Where Kramer saw the work's popularity as a sign that it was of a lesser quality, Lippard and Chicago herself thought that its capability of speaking to a larger audience should be considered a positive attribute.[15]

The "butterfly vagina" imagery continues to be both highly criticized and esteemed. Many conservatives criticized the work for reasons summed up by Congressman Robert K. Dornan in his statement that it was "ceramic 3-D pornography", but some feminists also found the imagery problematic because of its essentializing, passive nature.[15] However, the work fits into the feminist movement of the 1970s which glorified and focused on the female body. Other feminists have disagreed with the main idea of this work because it shows a universal female experience, which many argue does not exist. For example, lesbians and women of ethnicities other than white and European are not well represented in the work.[15]

Jones presents the argument regarding the collaborative nature of the project. Many critics attacked Chicago for claiming that the work was a collaboration when instead she was in control of the work. Chicago, however, had never claimed that the work would be this kind of ideal collaboration and always took full responsibility for the piece.[15]

Artist Cornelia Parker nominated it as a work she would like to see "binned", saying, "Too many vaginas for my liking. I find it all about Judy Chicago's ego rather than the poor women she's supposed to be elevating – we're all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It's almost like the biggest piece of victim art you've ever seen. And it takes up so much space! I quite like the idea of trying to fit it in some tiny bin – not a very feminist gesture but I don't think the piece is either."[16]

Controversy at the University of the District of Columbia[edit]

In 1990, The Dinner Party was considered for permanent housing at the University of the District of Columbia. It was part of a plan to bring in revenue for the school, as it had proved to be very successful.[17] The work was to be donated as a gift to the school, with the understanding that one of the school's buildings would be repaired to house it. The money for these repairs had already been allocated and did not come from the school's working budget.[17] However, misunderstandings about the monetary situation were emphasized and perpetuated by media sources.[17] Eventually, the plans were cancelled owing to threats to affect the school's working budget.[17]

Further reading[edit]

  • Chicago, Judy. The Dinner Party: A Symbol of our Heritage. New York: Anchor (1979). ISBN 0-385-14567-5
  • Chicago, Judy. Through The Flower: My Struggle as A Woman Artist. Lincoln: Authors Choice Press (2006). ISBN 0-595-38046-8
  • Jones, Amelia. Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party in Feminist Art History. Berkeley: University of California Press (1996). ISBN 0-520-20565-0

Documentary films[edit]

  • Right Out of History: Judy Chicago, Phoenix Learning Group (2008) (DVD)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Chicago, 10.
  2. ^ Brooklyn Museum Official website. Accessed Jan 2013
  3. ^ a b c d e f Lippard, Lucy. "Judy Chicago's Dinner Party." Art in America 68 (April 1980): 114–126.
  4. ^ a b Koplos, Janet. "The Dinner Party Revisited." Art in America 91.5 (May 2003): 75–77.
  5. ^ a b Chicago, Judy. The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation. London: Merrell (2007) , Heritage panels , page 289. ISBN 1-85894-370-1.
  6. ^ Caldwell, Susan H. "Experiencing The Dinner Party." Woman's Art Journal 1.2 (Autumn 1980-Winter 1981): 35–37.
  7. ^ a b c d Kramer, Hilton. "Art: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party Comes to Brooklyn Museum." The New York Times. October 17, 1980.
  8. ^ a b c Mullarkey, Maureen. "The Dinner Party is a Church Supper: Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum." Commonweal Foundation, 1981.
  9. ^ Smith, Roberta. "Art Review: For a Paean to Heroic Women, a Place at History's Table." New York Times. September 20, 2002.
  10. ^ Manhattan, Maria. "The Box Lunch". Maria Manhattan. 
  11. ^ Wolf, Bill. ""The Box Lunch" By Maria Manhattan July, 1979". Bill Wolf Installations. 
  12. ^ Wolf, Bill. ""The Box Lunch Goes to New York!"". Bill Wolf Installations. 
  13. ^ Newkirk, Walter (2008). MemoraBEALEia. AuthorHouse. pp. 40–41. 
  14. ^ Routledge Press, Spillers, Hortense j, "Interstices: a small drama of words,' from Pleasure and Danger: Exploiting Female Sexuality, ed. Carole Vance (London: Pandora, 1992), pp. 74–80.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Jones, Amelia. "The ‘Sexual Politics’ of The Dinner Party: A Critical Context." Reclaiming Female Agency. Eds. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 409–433.
  16. ^ Michael Landy: modern art is rubbish..., Hermione Hoby, The Observer, Sunday 17 January 2010
  17. ^ a b c d Lippard, Lucy R. "Uninvited Guests: How Washington Lost The Dinner Party." Art in America 79 (Dec 1991): 39–49.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Chicago, Judy. The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation. London: Merrell (2007). ISBN 1-85894-370-1.

External links[edit]

  • The Dinner Party exhibition website from the Brooklyn Museum, including a searchable database of all the women represented.
  • The Dinner Party from Chicago's non-proift organization, Through the Flower.

Videos[edit]