GET THE MESSAGE? A Decade Of Art For Social Change
E. P. Dutton New York (1984)
Setting a New Place: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party*
An early meaning of the word craft was “power.” Judy Chicago’s cooperatively executed The Dinner Party (1973-79)—a multimedia sculpture, focused on china painting and needlework—now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art— gives this interpretation a new life. The Dinner Party opened March 16 to a media fanfare not associated with feminist art and certainly not with an artist who, though known internationally, has never had a New York show. Chicago is the founder of the first feminist art program (in Fresno, 1970), cofounder of the
*This was originally published as “Dinner Party a Four-Star Treat” in Seven Days (Apr. 27, 1979) and is reprinted by permission of Seven Days. Many of the quotations from Chicago, Gelon and Hill came from an interview in Chrysalis, no. 4 (1977). I wrote a much longer piece on The Dinnerparty, focusing more on the work than on its organizational politics,
first women’s art space, the first women’s art school, and the Los Angeles Woman’s Building. She is a leading women’s art theorist and activist. So it was no surprise, at least to the feminist community, when five years ago she initiated the Dinner Party project, conceived as no less than “a symbolic history of women in Western Civilization”—a project that became so overwhelming that even Chi cago was occasionally daunted.
Briefly, Tbe Dinner Party is a huge and elegant installation piece—an open- centered, triangular table (the inverted triangle being an ancient symbol of fe male power), 46 1/2 feet on each side, set on a raised triangular platform. The three wings of the table contain place settings for 39 women from the mythical past through history to today, from the Primordial Goddess to Georgia O’Keeffe. They rest on a foundation of 999 women’s names inscribed in gold in Chicago’s Palmer-method script on the white, luster-tiled floor. Each place setting includes a gold-edged napkin, porcelain flatware and gold-lined chalice, and centers on a four teen-inch, painted or sculpted porcelain plate and an elegantly ornamented needlework runner—image, style, and technique geared to the contribution and period of the woman honored. The plates all depart from a vaginally sugges tive butterfly image which has been a symbol of rebirth since the beginning of time and Judy Chicago’s trademark since 1972. As they move through the ages, from Ishtar and Amazon to Hatshepsut, Sappho, Boadicea, Queen Elizabeth I, Sacajawea, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and composer Ethyl Smyth (whose plate is a piano and runner, a tweed jacket), the plates gradually rise from flat to higher relief. After Mary Wollstonecraft, the images begin to struggle up off the plates into fully sculptured form, but even the last ones—Margaret Sanger, Natalie Barney, Virginia Woolf, and Georgia O’Keeffe—do not succeed in flying off the surface. Thus, Chicago notes, “All the women represented are still contained within their place setting.”
It is Chicago’s ambition to be one of the first women to break out of that containment. She fully intends Tbe Dinner Party to be a monument—a femi nist counterpart of the Sistine Chapel or the Matisse Chapel, consecrated in stead to the resurrection of female energy—political and spiritual. (Funds are being raised to build a permanent installation for The Dinner Party so it can take its rightful place rather than disappearing like so much women’s history to date.) She is not intimidated by those who feel that women should forgo the ego male artists enjoy. “Women need Big Egos,’’ she insists. “And anyway, the Sistine Chapel is not a monument to any individual but to the human spirit.”
Unlike the rest of the country’s major museums, which could not be less in terested, the San Francisco Museum, through its director, Henry Hopkins, has for years been immensely supportive of the project. But even Hopkins was not pre pared for the excitement, size, and scope of the five-day celebration around the openings, which indicated just how far we have come from being babies. The openings were attended by thousands: lines formed around the block; the brochures were gone the first week; when Chicago spoke in the 900-seat Herbst auditorium, hundreds were turned away; reporters for TV, radio, the national magazines were much in evidence; every event—two lectures, a panel, a colloqui um, films, concerts by Margie Adam, a local artists’ studio tour—was filled to ca pacity; posters, buttons, and the expensive, profusely illustrated book published bv Anchor/Donhledav were selling out. hopefully putting a dent in the project’s
of a financial bind. Aside from the sculpture itself, the exhibits included a sepa rate show of traditional china painting, a long hallway of handsomely designed photodocumentation of technique and process with bios of all the women com memorated, a foyer of banners executed by the San Francisco Tapestry Work shop, and Suzanne Lacy’s International Dinner Party,
Tbe Dinner Party is notable on three levels. First, it is good art, though a leading art magazine refused to cover the show because it was “merely sociol ogy.” The more time I spent with Tbe Dinner Party, with prolonged views across the table where the brilliant color of the needlework is best seen and with detailed scrutiny of the extraordinary ornament of each plate and runner, the more immersed I became in the beauty of pattern, texture, form and the more I was moved by the networks being revealed. Second, it offers an encyclopedic his tory of women’s hidden history. I had never heard of many of the 1,038 women the research team has resurrected, such as Wetamoo and Nancy Ward, respec tively, Native American chief and warrior; Elizabeth Talbot, an Elizabethan archi tect; Louyse Bourgeois, a seventeenth-century medical practitioner; Capillana, an eighteenth-century Peruvian manuscript illuminator; or Henrietta Johnston, “the first woman artist in North America.” Third, and most powerful of all, Tbe Dinner Party’s vision extends to the future through the unique process and struc ture by which it was created.
During the five years of its gestation, some 200 women and men worked cooperatively and voluntarily on Tbe Dinner Party for periods of one month to four years, donating in one documented month alone $15,ooo worth of labor. The turnover was large because few could afford to volunteer forever. No one was paid, and students sometimes paid to participate in what was surely an educa tion far surpassing that offered by most art schools. The gradually developed core staff fended for itself until toward the end a token salary was paid. (Art historian Diane Gelon—indefatigable administrator, PR person, grant getter, and woman of many more parts—drove a school bus in the mornings so she could continue to work on the project.) Everyone gave what s/he had to give, and from those who survived the grueling process there were few complaints. As Gelon said when asked about being exploited, “I wasn’t givin’, I was gettin’.” Needlework head Susan Hill pointed out, “We encouraged support for powerful women; this is new to most people. Women have a tendency to undermine a powerful woman; the idea is to emulate her. In a work situation like ours the amount of respect, au thority, good stuff you get is in proportion to how much hanging in there and producing you do.”
This “benevolent hierarchy” (as one participant called it) is based on the guild or atelier system. Chicago herself is clear about her own preference for a cooperative-leadership structure over a collective one. Tbe Dinner Party is in disputably her art and bears her personal stylistic stamp throughout. She con ceived it in 1973 as a private work—“a smaller project” than others she was then contemplating. She was going to “combine images of traditional women (symbolized by china painters) with radical women (those who were politically active).” In what was to become a monumental understatement, she noted in her diary on April 28, 1974: “There are a few aspects of the idea that are still unre solved.” $250,000 and five years of solid work and frantic fund raising later, she talked about something she had learned in the interim: “I think that the individ-
they aren’t really alone—they are alone in their studios supported by systems. But women are really alone , . . isolated and powerless. The system of the indi vidual artist has not worked for us, and yet women keep doing it and doing it. I think that one real contribution the piece will make will be to demonstrate an other mode of art making for a woman artist.”
The feminist purity and political correctness of The Dinner Party’s structure has been and will continue to be challenged. Chicago has indeed changed the rules, but then she made a lot of them, and feminism is committed to just such a dialectic of growth. Whoever heard of a male artist lecturing with two assis tants (Gelon grinning, in baggy pants; Hill twiddling an iris) sharing the stage, the questions, and the limelight? Whoever saw a factory-fabricated “high art” sculp ture accompanied by an exhibit of portraits and bios of some too workers? Such an amazing combination of accomplishment and professional intimacy cannot be credited merely to Chicago’s charisma. For all her magnetic personality and organizational brilliance, she is not Jim Jones, nor is she easy to work with. The women and men who worked on Tbe Dinner Party conquered internal and ex ternal conflict, doubt and exhaustion because they were convinced they were doing something important and participating in social change. Time and again they repeat how much they have learned and grown from the often difficult proc ess; how the example of Chicago’s own discipline could be oppressive but was fi nally inspiring; how they came to realize that they, too, could handle such a large commitment and responsibility and structure their lives around their art. They also noted that Chicago was inevitably working when they arrived at the studio in the morning and still working when they left at night and that every penny of her personal earnings from sales of work, royalties, lectures, tours, for over four-and- a-half years went into the project.
Chicago herself had no idea what she was getting into when she realized the project had outgrown the individual process. She found herself confronting “three fundamental problems that so far have prevented us women from making a real leap into the future”; the need to change consciousness to the point where substantial cultural change can take place; the absence of financial, social, and emotional support for large-scale, ambitious projects by women; and “the way women’s personalities have been damaged to the point where they cannot work” in the focused and automatically supported way in which men are trained by society itself. She believes, however, that there is no growth without conflict. Tbe studio insisted on “no bullshit, no mystery, no fantasy” (and no personal problems were to be discussed on work time). While I personally prefer to work collectively, I have to admit that there is no way this over-$1,000,000 project would have been completed if the constant turnover of untrained people had participated in all decisions. At the same time, Chicago was immensely re lieved when the whole process hit a turning point which showed that The Dinner Party had become common property and the burden of completing it a shared re sponsibility. Exhausted and discouraged, she was talking about giving up; the community said that if she quit, they would finish it without her.
Perhaps The Dinner Party (together with the Los Angeles Woman’s Building and a few other such centers of cultural and political energy) represents a new stage of feminism. The California women’s art movement has always operated on a scale and with a professionalism that is distasteful to New Yorkers, opposed
art world. Yet as women’s magazines, galleries, publishers, and other businesses get bigger and as our audiences continue to grow in spite of the backlash, there is an increasing realization of the frustration and wastefulness of planned ineffi ciency. We must learn to expand, to confront success as our earned right and to convert achievement into a triumph for feminist values that will affect both women and men. We are learning to respect structures like The Dinner Party that generate products as well as energize, while similarly refusing to abandon the consciousness-raising base and those aspects of working together which are unique and invaluable to the feminist movement.
For Judy Chicago, the Women’s Movement is in an intermediary stage. In the past all women alike were on low levels of consciousness; in the future all women alike will be on high levels of consciousness. In the meantime, she proposes that we adopt a broad variety of strategies for working together, guided by the knowl edge that we are not yet all in the same place. She and her Dinner Party col leagues are also committed to reintegrating men into feminist activities to offer them role models for another kind of existence. This will be one of the aims of the Through the Flower Corporation, which owns Tbe Dinner Party and will ad- minister and eventually house it, as well as found an educational program.
Finally, there is one last adjunct to The Dinner Party at the San Francisco Museum—Tbe International Dinner Party Event initiated by Suzanne Lacy, a Los Angeles performance artist who concentrates on collaborative, politically focused art structures in public and media contexts She and Linda Preuss contacted women all over the world to meet at the time of The Dinner Party’s opening in honor of living women. The visible part of Lacy’s piece was a huge black-and- white world map dotted by red inverted triangles marking the sites of these celebrations.
I heard one complaint that the notion of a dinner party was itself middle class—and inappropriate to those parts of the world where people are starving. I wonder if the Last Supper was ever criticized on those grounds. In fact, both were meant for everyone, since they represented a feast, not of food, but of hope, commemorating the past time when the wealth was not yet in the hands of the few, and making a move toward the future time when a feminized society will more equally distribute the world’s resources. The richness of color and texture, the gold and the glitter of The Dinner Party itself, refers not to ruling-class splen dor, but to the rightful creative heritage of all the women to whom The Dinner Party is dedicated—most of whom saw little gold in their own lifetimes. Watch ing the telegrams pour in from Europe, Japan, Swaziland, Guyana. New Zealand, and seeing more and more red triangles dot the map, provided graphic affirma tion of the kind of energy The Dinner Party has generated.