Edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard








A Critical Context

Amelia Jones

Within feminist debate, an increasing problem has been to reconcile the apparent need to for­ mulate a politics which assumes the category of “women” with the demand, often politically articulated, to problematize the category, interrogate its incoherence, its internal dissonance,

its constitutive exclusions. judith BUTLER

SINCE ITS PREMIERE at the San Francisco Muse­ um of Modern Art in 1979, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (fig. 21.1) has engendered vehement responses, both positive and negative. In 1980 John Perreaultde- scribed the piece as “magnificent,” stating: “It is an important work; it is a key work. Certain conserva­ tive journalistic critics may call it kitsch to their dy­ ing day, may puritanically rage against its sexual im­ agery, may imply over and over again that it can’t be good art because it’s too popular; but I know it’s great. I was profoundly moved.”1 Kay Larson, conversely, insisted that The Dinner Party “manages to be brutal, baroque, and banal all at once,” and Hilton Kramer intoned, notoriously, that ‘“The Dinner Party’ reit­ erates its theme … with an insistence and vulgarity

more appropriate … to an advertising campaign than to a work of art.”2

In spite of these conflicting readings—or perhaps because of them—The Dinner Party, which was in storage from 1988 to 2002,3 has come to be seen as a

central icon of a certain period of feminist art. It has been positively viewed, by Perreault and populist feminists such as Lucy Lippard, as paradigmatic of feminism’s triumphant and uplifting celebration of female artistic expression. It has been negatively eval­ uated by modernist critics such as Kramer as epito­ mizing a loss of “artistic standards.”4 Feminist com­

mentators have criticized it as exemplary of 1970s feminism’s supposed naivete, essentialism, univer- salism, and failure to establish collaborative alterna­

This is an abridged, slightly revised, and updated version of an essay originally published in Amelia Jones, ed., Sexuat Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist in History [Los Angeles: UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 84-118. Copyright © 1996 by The Regents of the University of California. Reprinted with permission.

Figure 21.1. Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979. Mixed media. © Judy Chicago 1979. Collection of The Brooklyn Museum of

An, Gift of The Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation. (Photo: Donald Woodman.)



tives to the unified (and masculinist) authorial struc­ tures of modernist art production. Indeed, the very intensity of these responses to The Dinner Party and the extreme polarization of opinion seen in evalua­ tions of the piece testify to its importance as a cultural monument with which all historians of contemporary art, and perhaps especially feminist art historians, must come to terms. The Dinner Party and the issues it raises are central to an understanding of the poli­ tics of modernist, postmodernist, and feminist art the­ ory and art history.

The reception of The Dinner Party” highlights un­ expected intersections among critical models thought to be opposed; for example, some feminist responses to the piece converge uncomfortably with conven­ tional modernist evaluations. Here I would like first to outline the parameters of modernist critiques of the piece and then to explore its position within feminist arguments in order to highlight what the artwork can teach us about the ideological assumptions motivat­ ing critical thought about contemporary art. The his­ tory of The Dinner Party’s reception can tell us a great deal about the politics of art criticism and of feminism itself, foregrounding, in particular, the complexity of the feminist project, which attempts—as Judith But­ ler notes in the epigraph above— both to construct a coalition of women and to contest the exclusions that such a unification of subjects entails.

Returning The Dinner Party to a complex histor­ ical and political matrix is a crucial step in attempting to understand the “sexual politics” of feminist art the­ ory and practice and, by extension, the politics of identity in the 1990s and later. Today there appears to be little understanding of the complexities of 1970s feminism and its historical context. The results of this loss of history are damaging: younger generations of feminists have little access to the wealth of insights that were painfully developed in the art and theory of this period and waste time reinventing what has al­ ready been extensively theorized,’’ and writers such as Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe have capitalized on this lost history by dismissing earlier feminisms in order to pose themselves as the avatars of a “post­ feminist” (and, I would argue, misogynist) view­

point.6 Furthermore, this erasure has encouraged the tendency of mainstream nonfeminist historical ac­ counts of the 1970s to ignore the feminist advances that took place during this period, to emphasize male movements and conceptions of radicality over the ex­ plosively disruptive effects of feminist art, theory, and activism.7 The charged reception of The Dinner Party has much to teach us about the complexities of fem­ inist and contemporary art history.



Hilton Kramer’s account of The Dinner Party, which sticks obsessively on its populism, confirms the trans­ gressiveness of the piece within the conservative codes of modernist art discourse. The hysteria with which modernist art critics have accused The Dinner Party of being kitsch testifies to its enormous threat to these ostensibly disinterested discourses, which take their authority from the assumed inherence of artistic value. Through its overt celebration of craft and its explicit politicization of the history of West­ ern culture, the piece blatantly subverts modernist value systems, which privilege the “pure” aesthetic object over the debased sentimentality of the domes­ tic and popular arts.

The Dinner Party revises the history of Western culture by naming and symbolizing in visual form 1,038 women from various historical periods. Nine hundred ninety-nine of them are named on luminous porcelain floor tiles, and the thirty-nine honorees at the dinner table itself are symbolically represented through elaborate needlepoint runners, in large part worked in techniques drawn from the period in which each woman lived, and ceramic plates with central­ ized motifs and vulvar imagery. Chicago’s integra­ tion of media associated with women’s labor in the domestic sphere (needlework, ceramics, and china painting) into this monumental artwork produces an explosive collision between aesthetics (the public do­ main of the high art museum) and domestic kitsch (the private domain of women’s space, the home).8

The judgments of modernist art criticism in its



hegemonic form, as epitomized by the later writings of Clement Greenberg, are predicated on the notion that visual art must, in Greenberg’s words, “confine itself to what is given in visual experience and make no reference to any other orders of experience.”9

From the perspective of Chicago and other feminist artists and artists of color working in the 1960s and 1970s, Greenberg’s insistence on the autonomy of art (especially as his more complex arguments were re- ductively deployed by writers such as Kramer) was perceived as motivated by a reactionary apoliticism that supported the status quo, excluding from the priv­ ileged domain of “high art” elements of popular cul­ ture and work by women and other groups of people marginalized by elitist institutions of high art. Green­ berg’s formalism came to be seen as synonymous with modernism’s conservative privileging of masculine values and white male artists.

In Greenberg’s late, formulaic view of high art, the “essence” of modernism lies in the artwork’s “purity” and “self-definition,” its truthfulness to its medium; from the mid nineteenth century onward, “all ambi­ tious tendencies in painting were converging… in an anti-sculptural direction.” The modernist work of art must “exclude the representational or the ‘liter­ ary,’ ” must be abstract, must be “a question of purely optical experience.” 0 In a 1939 essay he demanded

that a strict boundary be maintained between “avant- garde” (high modernist) art and low culture, or “kitsch.” Kitsch is all that formalist, modernist art his­ tory is not: it is popular, loved by the masses; it is lit­ erary; it is associated with women’s tastes and with domestic crafts.”

Clearly Greenberg’s seemingly “disinterested” criteria for judging works of art—inherited by Kramer—have a distinct gender bias. Kramer’s re­ sponse to The DinnerParty is paradigmatic of a mod­ ernist and still-masculinist mode of critical evalua­ tion that could view the piece only as a threat to post- Enlightenment definitions of artistic “quality.” No­ tions of “quality” and “greatness,” as 1970s feminist artists and art theorists had already begun to argue when The Dinner Party appeared on the scene, always harbor ideological investments.12 Thus, Kramer’s his­

trionic rejection of The Dinner Party can be seen as the response of a critic whose system of values is be­ ing threatened. The Dinner Party is a blast in the face of modernist criticism: it is literary; it is aggressively handmade, using “feminine” crafts techniques; it is painting and embroidery made blatantly sculptural. Through its flamboyant activation of kitsch—the prohibited desire of modernism—The Dinner Party explodes the boundaries of aesthetic value so care­ fully policed by modernist criticism.

It is difficult, however, to align The Dinner Party with the radical feminist goal of merging high and low so as to collapse the masculinist hierarchy of value that dichotomizes “avant-garde” and “kitsch,” espe­ cially if one reads the piece through Chicago’s own public statements about her introduction of craft into the high-art realm.13 She has made it clear that she

wants The Dinner Party to be viewed as high-art, that she still subscribes to this structure of value: “I’m not willing to say a painting and a pot are the same thing,” she has stated. “It has to do with intent. I want to make art.”14 Chicago was ambivalent about whether china painting could be considered an aesthetic pursuit. She wrote that the women in her china-painting class were “primarily housewives interested in filling their spare time,” whereas she herself had been a “ ‘serious’ art student” from the time she was young.1’ Rather

than attempting to break down the distinction be­ tween high and low, Chicago has openly acknowl­ edged her continued investment in upholding such an opposition.

Here again, The Dinner Party teaches us some­ thing about conflicts endemic to feminist art theory: Chicago is by no means the only feminist to have maintained a desire to have her work exhibited and discussed within high-art institutions and discourses while attempting to critique them at the same time. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, this contradiction is common to almost all feminist practice from 1970 to the present.16 At the same time it is clear from Kramer’s response that, in spite of Chicago’s invest­ ment in a hierarchical and ultimately masculinist modernist conception of “high” art, The Dinner Party clearly disrupted modernist value systems.



It is clear that Chicago’s decision to use many different techniques and styles of needlework as well as china painting to “call… attention to women’s un­ recognized heritage” challenged the prevailing mod­ ernist structures of critical judgment.17 For it is pre­ cisely its use of women’s crafts, combined with its style and content, that aligned The Dinner Party with kitsch in the eyes of conservative critics. A photograph ac­ companying a magazine article headlined “Sassy Judy Chicago Throws a Dinner Party but the Art World Mostly Sends Regrets” (December 8, 1980) de­ picts the artist sitting in front of the piece and sticking out her tongue (presumably at Kramer, who is cited in the article); this is a particularly apt visualization of her self-defined, contradictory position—both at odds with and on top of the modernist critical system.



As we have seen, The Dinner Part) has provoked ve­ hement responses, both pro and con. The very quali­ ties for which the piece is lauded by the general public and by some populist feminists are largely those for which it is criticized by the majority of poststructural­ ist feminist art theorists and vilified by conservative modernist critics. Indeed, The Dinner Party’s massive popularity has made it problematic for many within the art world, Artforum critic Hal Fischer, for example, con­ demned the piece for “playing down to the public.”18 His comment says a great deal about his own elitism: Ins desire to speak for the “public” and to control the parameters of value within art exhibition structures— and that of the critical establishment in general.

The unprecedented attendance figures for each of its fourteen showings from 1979 to 1988 testify to The Dinner Party’s popularity. In San Francisco, for ex­ ample, one hundred thousand people saw the exhi­ bition, and twenty thousand hardcover copies of The Dinner Party: A Symhol of Our Heritage were sold in the first two weeks of its release.19 In addition to the hundreds of positive comments written in the guest books at each venue, hundreds of fan letters poured in to Judy Chicago from all over the world over the

decade in which the piece was on view. The guest books and letters include rapturous statements de­ scribing the awe visitors (primarily women) felt on viewing the piece.

Many critics have seen some significance in The Dinner Party’s appeal for the nonspecialist audience. For Kramer the piece’s popularity was evidence of its degradation and lack of “quality,” whereas Lucy Lip- pard saw it as an aspect of its indisputable success as a feminist monument.20 Kramer regarded the piece’s ideological content as the source of its popular appeal and, by extension, its lack of artistic merit: “For the many followers of the Feminist art movement noth­ ing more need be said [than that The Dinner Party is opening in Brooklyn]. This is news—and indeed, review enough…. For the rest of us—or for any­ one more interested in art than in ideology… the es­ thetic pleasure to be derived from ‘The Dinner Party’ may prove to be more elusive.”21 Maureen Mullarkey, whose description of the appreciative crowds drips with condescension, clearly found the popular ac­ claim of the piece an obstacle to her need to justify her own revulsion: “The women who file worship- fully past this cunnilingus-as-communion table see nothing askew in Chicago’s decision to represent the stature and variety of women’s accomplishments by genitals only.” She snidely commented on the “ litany of ecstatic manifestations” written by visitors in the comment book, which, she argued, simply “tells a tale about the gullibility, the insensitivity to nuance and the need of Chicago’s audience.”22 Perhaps even more disturbingly, feminist theorist Clara Weyergraf sneered at the “brash vulgarity of The Dinner Party,” whose degradation is confirmed by its appeal “to the taste of the middle-class housewife.”23

Mullarkey’s description of Chicago’s audience as “gullible,” “insensitive,” and “needy” and Weyer­ graf’s dismissal of the (presumably helplessly se­ duced) “middle-class housewife” dovetail in a dis­ concerting way with both the elitism of Kramer, who clearly has contempt for the “followers of the Femi­ nist art movement,” and the antipleasure rhetoric of the sophisticated avant-gardist theories of represen­ tation that characterize poststructuralist feminist the­



ory. Griselda Pollock, one of the key formulators of this body of theory, thus stated in 1988 that “feminist critical practice [in the visual arts] must resist… specularity especially when the visible object par ex­ cellence is the image of woman. It has to create an en­ tirely new kind of spectator as part and parcel of its representational strategies. ”2’1 The radical feminist artist must strive to resist visual pleasure, according to Pollock, by implementing Bertolt Brecht’s theories of “distanciation” to break the seductive bond be­ tween the spectator and the image, to “ liberate the viewer from the state of being captured by illusions of art which encourages passive identification with fictional worlds.” In Marxian terms, distanciation, or “dis-identificatory practices,” erodes “the dominant structures of cultural consumption” that make the viewer a passive victim of capitalist ideologies.25

While Pollock’s model obviously comes from a vastly different (one might even say diametrically op­ posed) political basis from that of Kramer, in her priv­ ileging of the artwork that refuses spectatorial en­ gagement while challenging the viewer to greater heights of self-awareness, she unwittingly parallels his antikitsch, avant-gardist value system. She effectively sets up a new value system that privileges artwork that operates through “dis-identificatory” strategies over populist works such as The Dinner Party, denying that such populism can have any potential benefit. Yet Chicago’s recent recapitulation of her goals persua­ sively outlines the progressive aspect of work that reaches a broad audience: “The whole notion of fem­ inist art, as I was try ing to articulate it, is that the form- code of contemporary art has to be broken in order to broaden the audience base…. What I have been af­ ter from the beginning is a redefinition of the role of the artist, a reexamination of the relation of art and community, and a broadening of the definitions of who controls art and, in fact, an enlarged dialogue about art, with new and more diverse participants.”26

The point here, however, is not to privilege Chicago over Pollock, forcing the latter to play the role of scapegoat for contradictions within poststructural­ ist feminism; it is certainly thanks to the advances made both by Chicago and her colleagues and by Pollock

and other “antiessentialist” feminists that I can raise such questions. What is at issue, rather, are the ways in which The Dinner Party forces the question of ad­ dress into the feminist debate. Since feminism has an interest in challenging exclusionary and elitist systems of value (which have conventionally worked to ex­ clude the work of women artists), it behooves femi­ nists to take seriously the impact this piece has had on a broad-based public. Today it is useful to ask what it means for feminism to promote a Brechtian theory of representation that–while clearly enabling for a spe­ cialized audience of feminist critics, historians, and theorists in the particular political context of the 1980s—ultimately forecloses the potential political effects of feminist artworks that are more accessible and enjoyable to a wider spectrum of viewers.

Lippard has insightfully noted that the art world’s negative responses to the populism of The Dinner Party had everything to do with its specificity of con­ tent, its explicit presentation of the kind of allusive (“ literary” and “wholly interpretable”) imagery that is anathema to the ideology of the avant-garde (evi­ dent in both Kramer’s rejection of the piece for its “vulgar” accessibility and Pollock’s dismissal of fem­ inist art that is “realist in an uncritical way”),27 What has made the debate even more highly charged is that the “wholly interpretable imagery” of The Dinner Party—that is, that aspect of the piece most fre­ quently mentioned in discussions of its success or fail­ ure as an artwork—is clearly identifiable as a sym­ bolic representation of a part of the body that is conventionally veiled: the female sex.




Criticism of The Dinner Party has often focused on the plates, the majority of which are constructed out of labial folds of clay and decorated with painted vul­ var patterns (see fig. 21.2).28 This is certainly due at

least in part to their transgression of the prohibition against such direct representation. The iconography



Figure 2i.i. Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, with the Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe place settings, 1979. Mixed media, Judy Chicago 1979. Collection of The Brooklyn Museum of Art, Gift of The Eliz­ abeth A. Sackler Foundation. (Photo: Donald Woodman.)

of the plates developed out of Chicago’s extended ex­ perimentation with centralized imagery in her work from the late 1960s onward and her interest in using “butterfly,” “flower,” or “cunt” forms as metaphors for women’s experience.29 Kramer and Hughes thus reviled The Dinner Party not only because of its threat to the modernist system of determining aes­ thetic value hut also because of, in Hughes’s words, its “relentless concentration on the pudenda,” which clearly threatens the (male) modernist critic’s belief in the propriety of the phallus as the proper symbol of creative impulse.

The use of what Kramer called “vulviform im- age(s)” on the plates also threatened the Western aes­ thetic conventions that privilege images of the female body as fetishistic objects for male spectatorial plea­ sure but prohibit direct representation of the female genitalia. As I have noted elsewhere, by overtly rep­ resenting the female sex, the artist endangers the system of aesthetic judgment, since the clearly “ob­

scene” female body is that which must remain outside the realm of high art (since the obscene is that against which high art confirms its purity).30 Chicago’s “re­ lentless” symbolization of the female sex threatens the masculinist modernist critic’s claims of “disin­ terestedness.” The fact that right-wing members of the United States Congress, debating the proposed gift of The Dinner Party to the federally supported University of the District of Columbia in 1991, hys­ terically denounced the piece for its obscenity only confirms this. Notably Robert K. Dornan derided the piece as “ceramic 3-D pornography,” and Dana Rohrbacher called it “weird sexual art” (both are Re­ publicans from California)?1 The convergence of

these politicians’ reactions with that of Kramer sug­ gests that, in fact, the piece has some very empower­ ing feminist effects in challenging the modernist, masculinist boundaries between art and pornography.

Ironically, however, feminist criticism of The Din­ ner Party has also tended to focus on the plates, with



their vulvar, or “cunt,” imagery. It was through its de­ ployment of this imagery that The Dinner Party came to be seen by many feminists as paradigmatic of all that was problematic about certain strands of 1970s feminism. Although East Coast artists such as Han­ nah Wilke explored cunt imagery in the 1960s, his­ torically it has been associated with Los Angeles- based feminism and especially with the writings of Chicago, Arlene Raven, Miriam Schapiro, and Lucy Lippard (then from New York but sympathetic to the Los Angeles feminist art scene). The use of central­ ized “female” imagery was, from the beginning, chal­ lenged by other feminists. Thus, New York critic Cindy Nemser, in an essay published in the Feminist Art Journal in 1973-74, described Chicago as the originator of a notion of “cunt art,” which “made a case for an intrinsic female imagery created out of round, pulsating, ‘womb-like’ forms. This ‘inner space’ ideology,” she concludes, “reduces the work of women artists to a simplistic biological formula.”32

It is important to distinguish between Chicago’s use of centralized imagery in her own work and her notion that a “hidden content” could be found in the work of other women artists, many of whom pre­ dated feminism or were antagonistic to it.33 It was this

“bidden content” theory that caused the most con­ sternation among feminist critics, since it seemed to imply that women were biologically driven to pro­ duce imagery that mimicked the structure of their own sexual anatomy.

Around 1970 Chicago, motivated by her own de­ veloping identity as a woman artist, not only began producing overtly centralized imagery, often overlaid with explicitly feminist texts, but also began to rec­ ognize her own earlier works as subconsciously “fe­ male-oriented”: “I began to realize,” she wrote in her autobiography, “that my real sexual identity had been denied by my culture, and this somehow represented the entire sense of denial I had been experiencing as a woman artist. I felt that if I could symbolize my true sexual nature, I could open up the issue of the nature of my identity as a woman through that symbolic statement.” Looking back at her 1968 Dome pieces, small acrylic mounds spray-painted with glowing

layers of colored lacquer, Chicago described them as evidence of the return of “female body references … reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf and other early goddesses.”34

Chicago’s Atmospheres, environmental pieces be­ gun in 1969 and continued into the early 1970s, os­ cillated between abstracted conceptual explorations of the interrelationship of “flesh and landscape” and specifically feminist interventions into the environ­ ment through the inclusion of goddess figures.3’ She introduced women performers into the Atmospheres as signs of female power, to actualize her desire for the pieces “to transform and soften (i.e. feminize) the environment.”36 Her interest in the goddess, which

she shared with feminist artists such as Faith Wild­ ing, Mary Beth Edelson, and Carolee Schneetnann, extensively informed The Dinner Party—not only in its inclusion of a number of goddess place settings but also in its overall revisionist impulse toward history. Chicago’s belief in a prepatriarchal, utopian matriar­ chal culture, explicitly outlined in the first Dinner Party book and concretized in the idealizing, abstract representations of the goddess plates and runners, has been criticized as naive.37 But the idea of the mythi­ cal goddess was clearly powerfully enabling for these artists, serving as a site of projection that allowed them to actualize their own attempts to attain the kind of transcendence conventionally reserved for men (the “central core” image played the same empower­ ing role).38

By 1973 Chicago had fully established in two and three dimensions this centralized imagery—radiating, pulsating rings and folds of brilliantly colored, air- brushed paint—which she would develop into the sculptural vulvar forms of the Dinner Party plates. Whereas her Domes “subconsciously” suggested the rounded, centralized forms of the breasts or womb, Chicago’s pictorial forays into the “central core” are much more literal. In Female Rejection Drawing #3 (fig. 21.3), also known as Peeling Back, a particularly dramatic and evocative image from the Rejection Quintet of 1974, she combined the formal structure of the central core, here a delicately colored series of labial folds emerging from a painfully torn contain-



Figure 21.3. Judy Chicago, Female Rejection Drawing #3 (Peeling Back), from the Rejection Quintet, 1974- Prismacolor on rag paper, Judy Chicago 1974. Collection of the San Fran­ cisco Museum of Modern Art. (Photo: Donald Woodman.)

ing surface, with an extensive handwritten text de­ scribing her feelings of exposure, fear, and anguish at being judged and rejected by the male-dominated art world.39

Female Rejection Drawing, one of Chicago’s most explicitly autobiographical images, seems to sum up in vibrant, material terms both her commitment to the notion of a centralized form as a means of reclaim­ ing the female body from patriarchy in an empower­

ing way and her insistence, common in the women’s movement in general at this time, on the importance of expressing personal issues in political terms. A cen­ tral component of Chicago’s coming to consciousness as a feminist artist in the 1970s was her desire to “peel back” the repressed content of her work, to “put to­ gether the sophisticated formal language of contem­ porary art with the rather raw and unexpressed sub­ ject matter I wanted to begin to deal with…. I peeled



back my coded imagery and finally broke through to the beginning of new imagery and the reappearance of the butterfly…, This became pivotal in the im­ agery of The Dinner Party. ”40 Female Rejection Draw­ ing exemplifies Chicago’s desire to transform the fe­ male sex from a locus of objectification to a powerful sign of subjectivity through imagery that visualized the “orgiastic throbbing [and]. .. highly focussed feeling of clitoral sensation” that signaled women as desiring subjects rather than mere objects of desire.41

Chicago’s theory of the central-core image as the reflection of a “female sensibility” became more problematic when she extended this formal symbol­ ogy to the work of other artists. In “Female Imagery” Chicago and Schapiro solidified this theory, asking: “What does it feel like to be a woman? To be formed around a central core and have a secret place which can be entered and which is also a passageway from which life emerges?” They concluded by suggesting that “women artists have used the central cavity which defines them as women as the framework for an im­ agery which allows for the complete reversal of the way in which women are seen by the culture. That is, to be a woman is to be an object of contempt and the vagina, stamp of femaleness, is devalued. The woman artists [sic], seeing herself as loathed, takes that very mark of her otherness and by asserting it as the hall­ mark of her iconography, establishes a vehicle by which to state the truth and beauty of her identity.”42

In the early essays on this subject, a hesitancy in defining the sources of this “female sensibility” is ap­ parent. While they saw the crucial political impor­ tance of defining a particular female approach to artistic form, feminists such as Chicago and Schapiro were loath to fix this form, its sources or meanings, in any determinate way. Thus, they explicitly state that “the visual symbology we have been describing must not be seen in a simplistic sense as ‘vaginal or womb art’” and stress that it is the “way in which women are seen by the culture” that is at issue. Like­ wise, Raven insisted in 1975 that the “female experi­ ence … is socially defined and cultural rather than bi­ ological, innate, or personal.”45 In an earlier essay she

also underlined the importance of the feminist insis­

tence on content (that is, the representation or evoca­ tion of “female experience”) as an attack on mod­ ernist formalism and the capitalist structure it serves.44 She questioned the “very word feminine, ” which, she argued, “refers to the characteristics of a biological female … [and] is a fluid term which is effected [sic] by the historical moment to which it is applied. ‘Fem­ inine’ characteristics change according to the politi­ cal, economic and social needs of a world which de­ mands a woman to display them.” Raven expanded this argument, which is clearly not biologically es- sentialist: “When we notice a tendency for women to construct forms in a circular manner, which is dif­ ferent from a man’s constructive sense, we cannot conclude that the female image is the circle, because women’s tendency toward circular construction can take any number of visual forms…. Female forms are not stationary in art unless the forms we know to be ‘female’ at this time are fixed into symbolic con­ ventions, or signs. This is biological determinism— an idea to which feminism is opposed.”45

Generally speaking, then, the goal of feminists ex­ ploring the notion of a “female imagery” in women’s art was to identify a positive mode of representing the female body in order to reclaim it from its patriarchal construction as passive object, fetishized through structures of male desire.46 While the question of whether this gesture was successful will always be open to debate, it has undeniably been productive in generating discussion about strategies of feminist production and modes of female subjectivity in gen­ eral. The actual form this representation took was often complex and multidimensional, establishing such symbolism as ambiguous rather than secure or fixed. Even the forms of The Dinner Party plates are not the simple holes (or “vaginas”) they are usually reductively described as being. Developing from the flat, centralized patterns symbolizing ancient god­ desses to the sculptural folds, crevices, and thrusting lips emblematic of twentieth-century figures such as Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe (see fig. 21.2), the plates also represent the relative restraint and containment of creative female subjects throughout history.47 Through the muscular three-dimensionality



of the plates representing modern women, Chicago aimed to subvert the patriarchal obsession with phal­ lic forms by developing “an active vaginal form.”48

Revolting against the masculinist formalist doc­ trine of modernist criticism, which excluded content from discussions of art and thus placed issues of gen­ der, sexual, class, or racial politics outside the purview of the aesthetic, feminists such as Chicago insisted on returning explicit sexual content to artistic practice. Female sexuality became an obvious focus of explo­ ration since sexuality has historically been the site of women’s oppression.49 As Wilding, who was a col­ league of Chicago’s in the Feminist Art Program, has argued, the notion “cunt is beautiful,” like the civil rights mantra “black is beautiful,” was about “claim­ ing what has been most derogated as your strength.”’0

The subtleties and complexities of the feminist de­ bates of the 1970s are generally lost in accounts that regard feminist art of the period as simply and re- ductively essentialist. At the risk of oversimplifying “1980s” feminism, I would like to define loosely a set of concerns that became dominant in feminist art crit­ icism from this period. From the late 1970s on, a broad shift occurred in feminist art theory and practice. The emphasis on activism, collaboration, and the notion of feminist art as an articulation of female experience gave way to an examination of femininity as con­ structed through representation and a critique of the “male gaze” (the means through which images of women are structured—as objects of male desire to palliate male fear of symbolic castration—in patri­ archal culture).’1 While 1970s feminists had, as noted above, asserted that femininity was not biological but culturally constructed, this position was often viewed narrowly through Chicago’s work and criticized as es­ sentialist; earlier feminists’ generally celebratory view of the female body and female experience and their highly persona] approach to art-making were also fre­ quently singled out for criticism in the 1980s. The differences of opinion among them were lost in this general move toward the promotion of feminist art that “deconstructed” the pleasure that men in patri­ archal culture take in representations of the female body.

As noted above, Griselda Pollock has articulated a theory of feminist critical practice that demands re­ sistance of visual pleasure, “especially when the vis­ ible object par excellence is the image of woman.” Fol­ lowing Brechtian strategies of distanciation, feminist art then must specifically avoid the representation of the female body and must resist the “realist myth,” that is, the notion that simply representing something transparently relates its essential meaning, that mak­ ing something visible produces empowerment or en­ sures access to knowledge.’2

Typical of the poststructuralist feminist empha­ sis on critiquing patriarchal formations of viewing pleasure rather than presenting positive images of femininity is Pollock’s insistence that feminist art practice must resist the dominating scopophilic and fetishizing effects of the “male gaze.”52 For, as Lisa

Tickner— also a British feminist art historian— wrote in a 1984 essay, women “have an investment in the deconstruction of ‘femininity’ and compensa­ tory pleasures.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Tickner ends this essay with an explicit reference to The Din­ ner Party, suggesting that the piece had come to epit­ omize for antiessentialist feminist theorists all that they rejected in 1970s feminist art from the United States. Hence, she argues that its “deployment of the fixed signs of femininity produces a reverse dis­ course, a political/aesthetic strategy founded on the same terms in which ‘difference’ has already been laid down.” She opposes this diametrically to post­ modern work, which “is rather an interrogation of an unfixed femininity produced in specific systems of signification.”54

Tickner’s argument makes clear that the develop­ ment of a poststructuralist feminist art theory in the 1980s in some senses took place at the expense of the kind of feminist art from the 1970s that attempted to represent the female body in order to reclaim it from patriarchy, and that, furthermore, this vast range of body-oriented, utopian, transformative work was often collapsed into The Dinner Party, which was then cited as exemplary of its problems. The shift in para­ digm, which entailed the reduction of 1970s feminism to a relatively narrow set of issues that could easily be



dismissed, seems to reflect a kind of generational (and even uncomfortably “Oedipal’’-seeming) anxiety. As Mira Schor argued in her critique of this dismissal of 1970s feminism* “Essentialism in this context was a category created by its opposition”; it is an unfair la­ bel to the extent that women artists dealing with gen­ der representation have always operated in a complex zone between “the polarities of ‘essence’ and ‘cul­ ture.’’”5 Generational differences and the particular­ ities of local cultural politics (most of the feminists who articulated the poststructuralist arguments dom­ inant in the 1980s were from Britain) motivated the oppositional stance taken toward so-called 1970s es- sentialist feminism in the United States (with The Dinner Party viewed as paradigmatic). By identifying, defining, and rejecting earlier assumptions, a new gen­ eration of feminists moved the discussion in a new di­ rection. At the same time such a strategy inevitably oversimplified and misrepresented certain aspects of feminist theory and practice from the 1970s.

In looking again at The Dinner Party, it may be use­ ful to reexamine the context in which it developed, in particular, to look more closely at the political reasons for the formulation of a theory of a “female imagery” linked to female experience. While I do not wish to use Chicago’s own statements simplistically to “prove” that this theory wasn’t as naive and self-defeating as it was later accused of being, there seems to be a real need to open up the question of “female experience” again and to try to understand the role that it played for Chicago and her contemporaries. At the very least, this should provide a richer historical and theoretical context in which to view The DinnerParty.


Poststructurallst feminist theorists have been respon­ sible for radically rethinking the ideological effects of representations of female bodies and for making feminism respectable within mainstream (that is, male-dominated) academic discourse. They have also, however, tended to oversimplify the theories and practices of the supposedly “essentialist” artists and

writers of the 1970s and to narrow considerably the possible strategies for a feminist art practice by call­ ing polemically for feminist art to resist the male gaze and to avoid at all costs an “essentializing” notion of femininity. In hindsight one sees clearly how pre­ scriptive this antiessentialist feminist theory has often been. (Note, for example, Pollock’s insistence that feminism “must” resist specularity and “has to” create a new spectator.) One might ask in this regard: isn’t feminism, on the contrary, more productive when it embraces multiple politics, multiple points of view, multiple modes of artistic production and styles and forms of art? Chicago’s notion of “female imagery” was criticized precisely for its narrowing of the defini­ tion of women’s art, in Nemser’s terms, “to a sim­ plistic biological formula”; antiessentialist approaches to feminist art and theories of representation are per­ haps just as “essentializing” and confining in their own way.

In her book Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Na­ ture, and Difference, Diana Fuss points out that es­ sentialism is in fact central to the “antiessentialist” theories of social construction that claim that com­ ponents of identity are socially determined rather than biologically so. In its eagerness to transcend bi­ ological essentialism, antiessentialism ends up simply displacing the concept of origins from the body onto society: “Essentialism is embedded in the idea of the social and lodged in the problem of social determi­ nation.”56 Thus, for example, Pollock’s claim in her important essay “Modernity and the Spaces of Fem­ ininity” that the work of late-nineteenth-century women painters in France differed from that of their male colleagues because of their particular experience of modernity as women seems on one level as “es­ sentialist” as Chicago and Schapiro’s claim, in “Fe­ male Imagery,” that the works of modernist women artists such as Lee Bontecou, Louise Nevelson, and Georgia O’Keeffe were informed by their particular “perception of reality” as women, or as Norma Broude and Mary Garrard’s assertion that “the defin­ itive assignment of sex roles in history has created fun­ damental differences between the sexes in their percep­ tion, experience, and expectations of the world….



[These differences] cannot help but have been carried over into the creative process.”57

As Fuss points out, a certain “essentialism”— that is, the claiming of identifiably similar experiences among particular groups of people—is a crucial com­ ponent of any “coalition politics” and must be ac­ commodated within any politics of representation (certainly Pollock herself is assuming a particular coalition among women in general in her polemical critiques of essentialism). At the same time Fuss is careful to point out —in a comment that would apply to Pollock’s theory as well as to Chicago’s—that “the problem with positing the category of experience as the basis of a feminist pedagogy is that the very ob­ ject of our inquiry, ‘female experience,’ is never as unified, as knowable, as universal, and as stable as we presume it to be…. The appeal to experience, as the ultimate test of all knowledge, merely subtends the subject in its fantasy of autonomy and control. Belief in the truth of Experience is as much an ideological production as belief in the experience of Truth,” Fuss’s critique of essentialism is valuable for its in­ sightful recognition of the inevitability of essential­ izing logic in any sexual or, for that matter, racial pol­ itics. Essentialism, she notes, is a key element of identity politics, allowing experience “to be politi­ cized.” The “determining factor in deciding essen- tialism’s political or strategic value is,” she argues, “dependent on who practices it”—and, I would add, when, where, and how they practice it and on what terms the foundational identity is defined?8

Chicago’s “essentialism,” like that of her col­ leagues Ruth Iskin, Lucy Lippard, Arlene Raven, Miriam Schapiro, and others, was a crucial component of 1970s identity politics: it enabled the development of a feminist politics of art and art history. As Broude and Garrard have argued, the “body based female aes­ thetic” of the early 1970s (or what Lippard described at the time as the use of “gyno-sensuous imagery”) was equally “an enabling myth.” The use of central­ ized imagery and craft techniques in 1970s feminist art “was a political act, a defiance of the conventions that had made it death for earlier women artists to as­ sociate themselves with forms and iconography that

had been stereotypically and pejoratively deemed ‘feminine.’ ”’9 Using these forms and materials was a way, again, of reclaiming them and valuing the fem­ ininity with which they were associated. Thus, just as poststructuralist feminists have taken an extreme po­ sition in rejecting any artwork that does not resist specularity or forcefully deconstruct patriarchal no­ tions of “femininity” in order to produce what Pollock terms a “feminist critical practice,” so Chi­ cago and other advocates of “centralized” or “gyno- sensuous” imagery had a specifically political goal in arguing—at that particular moment—for a “female imagery” (just as I have a particular agenda in re­ thinking these evaluations).

The definition of a female sensibility, further­ more, was necessary in order to counter, in Chicago’s words, the art world’s view that gender has nothing to do with art and to assert “that a woman might have a different point of view than a man.”60 It was a cru­ cial step for feminism to mark gender as informative of cultural practice, to refuse the masculinist notion of “universality” that guaranteed the privileging of male-invented forms and themes as neutrally aes­ thetic (as beyond race, gender, sexuality, and class). “Women’s art” became a unifying factor, a means of binding together an infinitely variable group of prac­ tices. Michele Barrett, who was respectfully critical of The Dinner Party s “vaginal imagery,” which she saw as indicative of Chicago’s “somewhat biologistic ap­ proach to feminism,” also recognized that “women’s shared experience of oppression” is crucial to the con­ struction of a feminist cultural politics. Ultimately it is in part the difficulty of, in Barrett’s words, “arriving at a consensus among feminists as to what constitutes ‘feminist’ art”61 and the impossibility of ensuring an empowering rather than objectifying reading of cen­ tralized imagery that explain the mixed reception of The Dinner Party.


Perhaps the most compelling critiques of the notion of a “female imagery” so central to the work of



Chicago and others in the 1970s have been articulated by feminists of color and lesbian feminists who have taken issue with the tendency of those defining this imagery to assume that there is such a thing as a unified—implicitly heterosexual and white (not to mention middle-class)—female experience. For ex­ ample, poet Audre Lorde, who described herself as a “Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two,” wrote succinctly that “white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone.”62 Once the coalition of “oppressed women” had been formulated in a general way in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a crucial step for writers such as Lorde to inter­ vene in this discourse and call into question the no­ tion of a universal “female experience.”

Two passionate and convincing critiques were made of The Dinner Party’s perceived claim of narrat­ ing a comprehensive women’s history. In 1978 a group of Hispanic women from the National Women’s Po­ litical Caucus visited the Dinner Party studio; follow­ ing their visit, a member of the group, Estelle Chacon, sent Chicago a rough draft of an article she had writ­ ten that was to appear in a Hispanic magazine.65 In this

article, which is an impassioned complaint about dis­ crimination against Hispanics in Los Angeles, Chacon praised The Dinner Party as a “magnificent work of art and history of women,” and an “original” forum for women’s achievements. At the same time, however, she expressed her disappointment at finding that, while the 999 names of prominent women on the porcelain floor tiles included several Hispanas, no “pre-conquest New World heroines were honored guests” at the table it­ self. Chacon writes,

The Hispanas do not have a role model in this art project that through the genius of a Feminist Artist, combines art, history, and politics…. I am truly sad that like men historians that have constantly overlooked the achievements of our Chicanos … Chicago, who claims to hurt about the omission of women in history, turns and hurts millions of Hispanas by not considering, not even one of us, to be an honored guest at her Dinner

Party. Like most Anglos she thinks the New World ends at the Rio Grande . .. [and she believes that] Hispanics are not important enough to be con­ sidered in History or in art.

Chacon concluded by calling for a boycott of the piece and a letter-writing campaign to protest its ex­ clusion of “Hispanas.”

In an essay originally published in Mr. magazine, Alice Walker also pointed to Chicago’s ignorance of women of color in history (specifically black women painters), focusing in particular on The DinnerParty s representation of black female subjectivity in the one plate devoted to a black woman, the Sojourner Truth plate (fig. 21.4). Although she “loved Chicago’s art and audacity,” Walker was clear about her disapproval of Chicago’s design for the Sojourner Truth plate: “All of the other plates are creatively imagined vaginas…. The Sojourner Truth plate is the only one in the col­ lection that shows—instead of a vagina—a face. In fact, three faces. … It occurred to me that perhaps white women feminists, no less than white women generally, can not imagine black women have vagi­ nas. Or if they can, where imagination leads them is too far to go.” (Artist Lorraine O’Grady has elabo­ rated upon Walker’s critique, noting that “Sojourner Truth, the only black guest, must make it without a pussy.”)64

Ironically Walker criticizes The Dinner Party for not producing an image of black female subjectivity through vulvar symbology. While certainly the ob­ vious criticism—as per the general opprobrium heaped upon Chicago’s so-called vaginal imagery— would have been of the sexualization and objectifica­ tion of (white) femininity and the collapsing of differ­ ence into a unified symbol of femaleness, Walker brilliantly exposes the hesitancy white feminists tend to exhibit in relation to black female sexuality. Rather than acknowledging the threat of the sexuality and maternity of black women, the white woman prefers to “deny that the black woman has a vagina. Is capa­ ble of motherhood. Is a woman.” Finally, Walker con­ cludes, The Dinner Party exemplifies the fact that “white women feminists [have] revealed themselves



Figure 21.4. Judy Chicago, Sojourner Truth Plate, from The Dinner Party,

1979. China paint on porcelain. © Judy Chicago 1979. Collection of The

Brooklyn Museum of Art, Gift of The Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation. (Photo:

© Donald Woodman.)

as incapable as white and black men of comprehend­ ing blackness and feminism in the same body.”6’

I count myself, a white feminist, among those Walker accuses of a certain blindness (and, in general, I think she is on the mark for white feminists, who have trouble comprehending the inevitability of race just as black men often seem to have trouble com­ prehending the inevitability of gender—as a consti­ tutive element in the oppression of nonmale, non- white people). Those of us who have benefited from being white like Chicago, like myself don’t tend to see race as an aspect of our femininity. As Richard Dyer has written: “Black is always marked as a colour. . . and is always particularizing; whereas white is not anything really, not an identity, not a par­ ticularizing quality…. White people’s inability to see whiteness appears intractable.”66 Just as gallery owners and museum curators have for years defended the lack of exhibitions of women’s work through re­ course to the naturalizing idea that they are “gender blind” and interested only in “quality” art (thus im­ plying that women’s art simply isn’t as “good” as

men’s), so art world feminism (that is, the feminism that is dominated by white women artists, critics, and historians) has tended to naturalize race, failing to see its constitutive role in (sexual) identity.

The overall points that Walker and Chacon make about feminism’s race blindness are crucial to the re­ thinking of the notion of female imagery, with its sup­ posed grounding in “female experience.”67 Chicago’s emphasis in The Dinner Party on (white) women’s his­ tory at the expense of a broader, more complex vision of who makes up the coalition “women” epitomizes the general tendency of white feminists to focus on gender to the exclusion of other components of sub­ jectivity. At the same time it should be stressed that the now commonly held assumption that 1970s feminism simply ignored issues of race is not accurate. While most historical narratives of the period suggest that feminists were oblivious to race (and, until recently, most feminist art historians have focused almost ex­ clusively on white women artists), in fact, the 1970s feminist art community often debated issues of race, as Sheila de Bretteville’s 1977 design for the cover of



the Los Angeles based feminist journal Chrysalis sug­ gests. Black feminists have been central to the move­ ment from the beginning; women such as Faith Ring- gold and Betye Saar were and continue to be extremely active and important figures in the art world/’8

Just as it is incorrect to suggest that 1970s femi­ nism ignored race entirely, so it is inaccurate to dis­ miss feminism from this period as having been blindly heterosexist. While issues of sexuality and sexual practice were certainly not understood in the way that we comprehend them today, they were central to consciousness-raising within the feminist art move­ ment and, thus, to the bases of feminist art practice. Sexual orientation was often discussed during con­ sciousness-raising sessions. Panels, lectures, exhibi­ tions, and articles considered the question of “ lesbian sensibilities in art.”69 All the same, although periodic expressions of frustration on the part of lesbians in consciousness-raising groups at the Feminist Art Pro­ gram and in the Dinner Party project were discussed within these groups, sexual orientation was generally not regarded as a fundamental component of identity politics the way it came to be with the rise of queer theory in the 1980s. 0 While creating a community of women was a goal of feminism in this period, the sex­ ual implications of this were often veiled. 1 The “fe­ male experience” that was so central to Chicago and her colleagues’ development of a feminist art prac­ tice was clearly about the “common oppression [of women] based on . . . gender,” and not about race or the sexual identification of the feminists involved.72

The DinnerParty, however, was open to being un­ derstood as a monument to lesbianism. In a homo- phobic 1979 review Kay Larson, oddly enough, identified the entire project as having a “gay woman theme,” describing it acerbically as “a ritual of oral consumption, a communion of the spirit in the flesh, a cultural cannibalism in which we’re invited to eat from the labia of mythical women and ingest their power.” Jan Adams responded more appreciatively in The Lesbian Tide, noting that, while “a charge that lesbians are treated as tokens [in the piece] seems justified, I feel a lesbian sensibility in the imagery.” Unifying lesbian politics with those of women in gen­

eral, she concluded that the work “advances every woman’s struggle against erasure in a woman-hating world” and noted the presence of lesbians in Chi­ cago’s “her-story”: “We are there, highlighted by Sappho’s green and lavender floral plate and an ex­ quisite lily motif portraying Natalie Barney.”73

Names on the floor tiles and documentary panels grouped around Barney include a number of lesbian artists and writers: Romaine Brooks, Radclyffe Hall, and Gertrude Stein. At the same time neither Sappho nor Woolf, who are also represented at the table, are explicitly identified—either through the iconography of the place settings or in the biographical descrip­ tions in the Dinner Party book—as lesbians. It is Bar­ ney who is explicitly identified there as a lesbian: “Lesbianism is—in the context of those grouped around Barney—presented not only as a sexual pref­ erence, but also as a political choice, one which refutes the heterosexual bias of the culture.” The book ex­ plains the logic by which the project workers chose the names included around Barney: “In addition to avowed lesbians, other women in this section include those who chose women as companions, with or with­ out a sexual relationship; women who refused to al­ low their identities to be submerged by the men with whom they were involved; and other women of the French salons.”74

The pitfalls of identity politics, which have be­ come increasingly evident to feminists since the mid 1980s, are exposed both in Adams’s ambivalent and partially thwarted desire to identify with the labial forms of the plates and in Chicago’s inevitably clumsy attempt to address lesbianism by seeking to name it by labeling Barney, but not Woolf or Sappho, as a les­ bian. Again, The Dinner Party enables us to open up important questions about identity: What, after all, is a lesbian? Any woman who has sex with another woman? Or only a woman who identifies herself with the politics of lesbianism as they are constituted at a particular moment? Or a woman identified as such by Chicago and others? And how does one represent or symbolize in visual form a particular identity with­ out implicitly fixing its signification, implying that lived identity is codifiable in formal terms?



In this light Chicago’s painful attempt to name the lesbian can be seen as a valiant but perhaps doomed effort to expand the notion of “female ex­ perience” to include the experiences of lesbians (“or other women of the French salons”). This failure is endemic to a particular phase of feminist thought; through its very failure this attempt to name enabled feminists subsequently to rethink identity politics. Chicago’s own later insight —“We cast the dialogue incorrectly in the seventies. We cast it around gen­ der, and we were also simplistic about the nature of identity. Identity is multiple” resonates with revi­ sionist theories of identity informed by poststruc­ turalism.7’ Thus, in her important essay from the mid 1980s, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway points out that “it has become difficult to name one’s feminism by a single adjective…. Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic.. .. There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women.”76 In spite of Chicago’s interest in includ­ ing many kinds of women within the renovated his­ torical narrative of The Dinner Party (expressed in interviews, in the Dinner Party book, and through her inclusion of figures such as Barney and Sojourner Truth), the project has been interpreted by many as reinforcing traditional exclusions through its attempt at naming. It has in fact been seen as epitomizing the problematic logic of a particular stereotype of 1970s feminism, with its utopian and ultimately univer­ salizing tendencies. One has to take seriously these interpretations of the piece, which inform its mean­ ings within art history, while acknowledging that it is a product of a particular moment in feminist pol­ itics and of a particular person’s negotiation of these politics.77



At least in part because of Chicago’s success in mar­ keting her ideas and projects, especially The Dinner Party, they have come to be seen as paradigmatic of

either the triumph or the failure of 1970s feminism, according to the evaluator’s point of view. The al­ ternative mode of production Chicago practiced in the Dinnerparty studio, for example, has been judged a success or failure according to certain ideas regard­ ing what feminist collaboration was about during the first decade of feminist art practice.

In the June 1979 issue of Ms. magazine, April Kingsley wrote a short essay on the piece that care­ fully but clearly distanced the magazine from Chicago’s mode of production. The Dinner Party, Kingsley stated, was “completely one woman’s con­ ception, and therefore not typical of feminist collec­ tive projects.”78 Her implicit disapproval indicates a discomfort with Chicago’s methods that has been ex­ pressed more directly by feminist scholars and art crit­ ics. For example, Barrett noted that Chicago’s work process entailed “principles of collective work … not so much … ones I might recognize as a feminist but an attempt to recreate the ‘school’ or studio of an ‘Artistic Genius’ like Michelangelo. Although hun­ dreds of people gave much time and work to the project it is Judy Chicago personally who has, ap­ parently not unwillingly, made an international rep­ utation from it.”79 Indeed, seemingly confirming this harsh judgment, in the Dinner Parry book Chicago ex­ plicitly identified herself with the Italian Renaissance master, remarking, “I can imagine how Michelangelo must have felt twelve years at that ceiling.”80

Clearly The Dinner Party did not fulfill the utopian ideals of nonhierarchical collaboration that are un­ derstood as having been central to the mainstream women’s movement in the 1970s. As all of the par­ ticipants in the project have stressed (including Chi­ cago herself), she controlled the studio, determined the design of the runners and banners, and designed and painted the plates. Although she scrupulously documented the contributions of participants in each portion of the project (and honored them through photographs on panels mounted during the exhibition of the piece as well as in the Dinner Party book), Chi­ cago clearly took full credit for the conception and creation of the piece. This is hardly hypocritical, however, since she has never subscribed to the notion,



often held to be common to all feminists, that femi­ nism entails a complete abdication of authorial iden­ tity and authority in general.

It must, however, be stressed that Chicago has never made exorbitant claims for the “collaborative” or nonhierarchical nature of the project. She has in­ sisted that it was never conceived or presented as a “collaborative” project as this notion is generally un­ derstood (although she has expressed hopes that the piece would “demonstrate another [alternative] mode of art-making for a woman artist”).81 Instead, she proposed the notion of a “flexible” or “benevolent” hierarchy, “where people get recognized for their work but one person is in charge.”82 The Dinner Party project, she insisted throughout, was coopera­ tive, not collaborative, in the sense that it involved a clear hierarchy but cooperative effort to ensure its successful completion.83

Chicago was clear from the beginning about what was expected of participants in the project, and gen­ erally speaking, those who remained on a long-term basis have been positive or at worst ambivalently ap­ preciative in their accounts of their experiences.84 As weaver Elaine Ireland recalled, the project was “ex­ citing and horrendous all the time. We could have grown more easily, not been devastated so often, been coddled as well as challenged, been given more explicit credit. But I have to admit that I would probably do it again.”8’ While working on Chicago’s project was clearly a challenge on both a personal and professional level, everyone involved was there presumably be­ cause she or he wanted to be. But the situation in­ evitably created feelings of resentment and ambiva­ lence toward Chicago, who was empowered—within a context that at least some of the participants inter­ preted as unsuccessfully “collaborative”—to make all the rules and who ultimately received the authorial credit for the piece. The problem of Chicago’s “au­ thority” (and, arguably, authoritarianism) remains a sticking point in the reception of The Dinner Party and consequently must continue to be negotiated in any at­ tempt to understand its position in feminist art history.

Finally it is difficult to ignore the seeming con­ tradictions apparent in the contrast between Chi­

cago’s identification with Michelangelo (her desire to be, in Maureen Mullarkey’s words, “bound in mo­ rocco”)86 and the critique, developed by poststruc­ turalist feminist art historians and seemingly implicit in The Dinner Party’s subversive insistence on a fem­ inization of historical narrative and art production, of masculinist conceptions of greatness or genius.87 Beyond the question of its putative essentialism, then, it is the contradiction between Chicago’s critique of masculinist historical narrative and modernist for­ malism and her adherence to conventional notions of genius—her desire to be a great artist within terms that are structurally masculinist—that makes The Dinner Party as controversial as it is within debates about feminist art. The Dinner Party aims to elevate women—including, many have argued, Chicago herself—to a state of transcendence or genius usu­ ally reserved for male subjects but does not question the exclusions that a belief in transcendence neces­ sarily implies.



The Dinner Party subverts mainstream modernism’s proscription against symbolic allusion with a sexually charged theme; it also blatantly feminizes historical narrative. The piece is, in Chicago’s words, a rein­ terpretation of the Last Supper from the point of view of “the people who have done the cooking through­ out history.”88 Like Mary Beth Edelson’s 1972 version of the Last Supper, titled Some Living American Women Artists, in which the faces of the male pro­ tagonists of Leonardo’s famous painting are replaced by those of women artists, it is a feminized restag­ ing and expansion of the all-male club of Christ and his twelve disciples—in Chicago’s case, with three groups of thirteen women.89 Presenting this “her- story” in a populist form—one that is didactically and decoratively accessible (“kitsch,” in the terms of modernist art criticism) the piece attempts to reach the largest possible audience with its utopian message of women’s greatness. By creating a monumental structure heroizing “great ladies,” however, Chicago



both challenged and reinforced conventional patriar­ chal conceptions of history. The piece undermines male historical narrative by insisting on reinserting important women and yet reinforces the problematic, masculinist notion of “greatness.” Moreover, as Mi­ chele Barrett has argued, it creates a hierarchical structure of women that inevitably privileges some (the 39 at the table) over others (the 999 on the floor, as well as those left out entirely).90

Chicago’s investment in greatness informs The Dinner Party —in its ambivalent attempt to raise craft to high-art status; its modified, “cooperative” model of authorship (which maintains Chicago as primary author); and its presentation as an isolated “master­ piece” within the museum setting. In the DinnerParty book, Chicago published a journal entry from 1975 stating her desire to “make a piece so far beyond judg­ ment that it will enter the cultural pool and never be erased from history, as women’s work has been erased before.”91 The poignancy of this desire lies in its in­ evitable failure. The conflict between wanting to re­ vise history to include women and aspiring to tran­ scend it altogether has followed The Dinner Party through its public existence so far, just as has the ten­ sion, identified by Judith Butler, between the desire to represent female subjectivity in a positive way and the need to avoid fixing it through limiting and uni­ versalizing bodily signifiers.

The burgeoning (or reburgeoning) of feminist interest in the body, women’s sexualities, and female desire in 1990s art practice and theory alerts us to the fact that these conflicts still unresolved and problematic—still ofler much to compel feminist thought. While artists such as Mary Beth Edelson, Harmony Hammond, Mira Schor, and Faith Wild­ ing have sustained their commitment to exploring fe­ male sexual forms in their work since the 1970s, a new generation of feminists—including Judle Bamber, Lauren Lesko, and Millie Wilson have turned with a vengeance to the type of vulvar, labial, and oriflcial forms that were so central to the explorations of Chicago and other feminists in the 1970s. And yet, as Susan Kandel points out,*’2 conditioned by the critical awareness of poststructuralist feminist theory

(if unfortunately sometimes ignorant of 1970s fem­ inist art and theory), they approach these forms from a different perspective.

Acknowledging the inevitable oversimplification that such comparisons entail, it is nonetheless provoc­ ative to suggest that the difference between work produced by feminists in the 1970s and that produced today is one of both attitude and emphasis. No longer utopian, feminist artists today tend to conceptualize the female body—which they often render in frag­ mented form or through substitutes such as cloth­ ing—as radically polymorphous rather than repre­ senting it through the unified symbol of a definable “female imagery.” This body is not only and perhaps not even primarily female: its “femaleness” (and what that may be is open to question) is interrelated with its ethnicity, its economic status, its sexuality.

Although Chicago and her colleagues recognized these other aspects of identity, they emphasized fe- maleness in an idealizing way; it was the constituent factor of their coalition politics. As I have attempted to make clear here, they were never committed to a simplistic notion of “biological essentialism,” al­ though they were clearly hopeful about the possibil­ ities of combating discrimination through the recu­ peration of women’s bodies through representation. Today such hopefulness, for better or for worse, holds no authority and, in fact—as the fate of The Dinner Party within art world discourse makes clear— engenders a certain amount of condescension and even hostility.

With all of its shortcomings and contradictions, however, the diverse, complex feminist art of the 1970s, its theory and practice, has been fundamental to subsequent developments in feminist art and art history (which themselves suffer from internal con­ tradictions). While feminism has moved to a new place and has come to acknowledge and emphasize the complexities of sexual politics and the conflicted vi­ cissitudes of identification, it has been able to do so only because of the foundations laid by feminists such as Chicago, Hammond, Schapiro, Wilding, and their colleagues and through works as controversial as The Dinner Party. Whether subsequent feminist theorists



and artists wish to continue within the utopian vein mined by Chicago and her colleagues or to react crit­ ically against it, in my view we would benefit from respecting these important “mother figures” for the chances they took at a time when no one took women artists or women’s issues seriously and, perhaps es­ pecially, for the mistakes they weren’t afraid of making.


Epigraph from Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”(New York: Routledge, 1994), 188.

1. John Perreault, “No Reservations,” Soho News, 22 October 1980, 19.

2. Kay Larson, “Under the Table: Duplicity, Alien­ ation,” Pillage Poice, 11 June 1979,51; Hilton Kramer, “Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ Comes to Brooklyn Museum,” New York Times, 17 October 1980.

3. Following a five-month exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that began in September 2002, The Dinner Party is now permanently housed at that museum in its own gallery, thanks to the generous support of Elizabeth A. Sackler.

4. See Hilton Kramer, “Does Feminism Conflict with Artistic Standards?” New York Times, 27 January 1980, sec. 2, in which he implies, of course, that it does.

5. As Lucy Lippard has pointed out, in much of the new feminist work from the 1990s, “it feels as though the wheel is being reinvented by those who don’t know the feminist art history of ‘transgression’ ” (“Moving Targets/Concentric Circles: Notes from the Radical Whirlwind,” introduction to Lippard’s The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art [New York: New Press, 1995], 3-28). I am indebted to Lippard, who has been the single most consistent champion of 1970s feminist art for decades, for sharing her thoughts on an early version of this text with me.

6. For Paglia’s offensive “postfeminist” views (e.g., her dismissal of “endlessly complaining feminists” [9]), see her Sex, Art, and American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1992). Roiphe most clearly demon­ strates the dangers of losing this history in her exco­ riation of “fashionable feminists” and “rape crisis feminists”; see her disturbing The Morning After: Sex,

Fear, and Feminism on Campus (Boston: Little, Brown 1993)- Given the striking parallels between their positions and those of traditional patriarchy, it is no surprise that both women have been given enormous media attention.

7. A perfect example of this erasure is the revisionist history of the California Institute of the Arts, Valen­ cia (known as CalArts), as a site for the development of radical postmodern practice in the early 1970s__ accounts that completely ignore the motivating pres­ ence of the Feminist Art Program run by Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in the early 1970s. For example, in the 1987 exhibition CalArts: Skeptical Belief(s), only one passing reference is made to the Feminist Art Pro­ gram in the seven essays in the catalogue, and none of the artists from the program was included in the exhibition (see CalArts: Skeptical Beliefs [Chicago: Re­ naissance Society, University of Chicago; Newport, Calif.: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1987]).

8. The needlework loft was run by Susan Hill, who cowrote (with Chicago) the second Dinner Party book, Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980).

9. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” (1965), in The New Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: Dutton, 1966), 74.

10. Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” 68-69, 7°, 71- 11. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”

(1939), in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 10. Greenberg specifically notes that the appreciator of kitsch culture is “more usually” a woman, in “Present Prospects in American Paint­ ing” (1947), in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945 1949, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chi­ cago Press, 1986), 161.

12. See Carol Duncan, “When Greatness Is a Box of Wheaties” (1975), in The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in Critical Art History (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni­ versity Press, 1993), 121-32.

13. On the use of craft to “feminize” art practice and subvert modernism, see Norma Broude, “Miriam Schapiro and ‘Femmage’: Reflections on the Conflict between Decoration and Abstraction in Twentieth- Century Art” (1980), in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed. Norma Broude and



Mary D. Garrard (New York: Harperand Row, 1981), 315- 29; and idem, “The Pattern and Decoration Movement,” in The Power of Feminist Art; The Amer­ ican Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Marry N. Abrams, 1994), 208-25.

14. Cited in Lucy Lippard, “Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party,”’ An in America 68 (April 1980): 124.

15. Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 8 9.

16. For example, see my critique of the contradictory privileging and hcroizing of artists such as Barbara Kruger for their supposed deconstruction of concep- tionsof artistic genius, in my book review, “Modernist Logic in Feminist Histories of Art,” Camera Obscura 17(1991-92): 149-65

17. Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 15. 18. Hal Fischer, “Judy Chicago, San Francisco Museum

of Art,” Artforum 17 (Summer 1979): 77- 19. According to Diana Ketchum, roughly one thousand

people a day saw The Dinner Party at the San Fran­ cisco Museum of Modern Art, in contrast to the four to five hundred a day who saw the museum’s Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg shows (“On the Table: Joyous Celebration,” Pillage Poicc, 11 June 1979,47), On the demographics of Dinner Party vis­ itors, see Estelle Inman, “The Dinner Party: Visitor Demography and Reactions,” an unpublished study of attendance at tile showing at the Glenhow Museum in Calgary (Judy Chicago archives).

20. See Lucy Lippard, “ Dinner Party a Four-Star Treat,” Seven Days, 27 April 1979, 27 29.

21. Kramer, “Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party”’ See also Thomas Albright’s snide comments about Chicago’s “less beautiful followers” in his condescending and scathing attack on the piece in “The Era of Concep­ tualized Schlock,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 July 1979. Lisa I I. Jensen examines this and other criticisms of The Dinner Party in an interesting analytical essay, “Responses to a Feminist Perspective in Art: Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ and the Language of Its Critics” (1980, Judy Chicago archives).

22. Maureen Mullarkey, “Dishing It Out: Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party,’” Commonweal 108 (April 1981): 210- 11. The guest book included ecstatic remarks such as: “What a gift! What a joy! I’ll always see things differ­ ently now,” and “For tile first time I’ve been in touch

with my own sexuality (I’m a male). Thank you.” These are cited with derision by Mullarkey,

23. Clara Weyergraf, “The Holy Alliance: Populism and Feminism,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 31. For some­ one who assumes a Marxist approach, Weyergraf seems extraordinarily condescending to working housewives.

24. Griselda Pollock, “Screening the Seventies: Sexuality and Representation in Feminist Practice—a Brecht­ ian Perspective,” in Pision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art (New York: Rout- ledge, 1988), 181; see Pollock’s specific criticism of The Dinner Party (coauthored with Rozsika Parker) in Old Mistresses: IPontcn, Art, and Ideology (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), esp. 137-40.

25. Pollock, “Screening the Seventies,” 163,165. 26. In Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, “Conversa­

tion with J udy Chicago,” in The Power of Feminist Art,

70-71. 27. Lippard, “Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party,’” 118;

Kramer, “Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ ”; Pollock, “Screening the Seventies,” 165.

28. My heading for this section, “What Is Female Im­ agery?” comes from the title of a debate among fem­ inist artists and critics, including Lippard, Susan Hall, Linda Nochlin, Joan Snyder, and Susans Torre, orig­ inally published in Ms. magazine (May 1975) and reprinted in Lucy Lippard, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (New York: Dutton, [976), 80 89; “cunt art” is Cindy Nemser’s term in “The Women Artists’ Movement,” Feminist Art Journal 2 (Winter 1973-74): 9. Many other terms have been used to describe visual expression characteristic of women subjects; I tend to use either “female im­ agery” or “female sensibility” since Chicago herself has used these; see esp. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, “Female Imagery,” IPomanspacc Journal 1 (Summer 1973): 11-17.

29. Through the Flower, the title of a painting by Chicago and of her autobiography, is a metaphor for this experience of coming to consciousness: “Moving ‘through the flower,’’’she writes, “is a process that is available to all of us, a process that can lead us to a place where we can express our humanity and values as women through our work and in our lives” (Through the Flower: My Struggle as a IPoman Artist [New York: Penguin, 1975], 206),



jo. See my “Interpreting Feminist Bodies: The Un- frameability of Desire,” in The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays toward a Critical Theory of the Frame in Art, ed. Paul Duro (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996),

31. For an extended discussion of these debates and the campaign to punish the University of the District of Columbia for encouraging Chicago’s donation of the piece, see Lucy R. Lippard, “Uninvited Guests: How Washington Lost ‘The Dinner Party,”’ An in Amer­ ica 79 (December 1991): 39 -49.

32. Nemser, “The Women Artists’ Movement,” 9. See also Patricia Mainardi’s “Feminine Sensibility: An Analysis,” Feminist Art Journal 3 (April 1972): 9, 22; and “A Feminine Sensibility: Two Views” (written with Janet Sawyer), Feminist An Journal^ (Fall 1972): 4-25.

33. On “hidden content,” see Chicago, Througk the Flower, 143. The most obvious figure in this regard is Georgia O’KeefTe. Chicago greatly admired her and gave her the final seat at The Dinner Party, but through­ out her life O’Keeffe strenuously denied that there was anything particularly “female” about her paint­ ings. [Ed. note: see Barbara Buhler Lynes, “Georgia O’Keeffe and Feminism: A Problem of Position,” in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and An History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 437-50.]

34. Chicago, Through the Flower, 80, 51, following 72. 35. Chicago described the environments to me in these

terms in conversation, 31 August 1994. 36. Chicago, Through the Flower, following 72. 37. See, e.g., Mark Stevens, “Guess Who’s Coming to

Dinner,” Newsweek, 2 April 1979, 93. Chicago dis­ cusses matriarchies and the role of the goddess in The Dinner Party: A Symbol, 57-61. For an excellent and intelligent explanation of the role of the goddess for 1970s feminist artists, see Mary Beth Edelson, “An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley,” New An Exam­ iner 16 (April 1989): 34 -38. See also Heresies, no. 5 (1978), titled “The Great Goddess”; and Gloria Feman Orenstein, “Recovering Her Story: Feminist Artists Reclaim the Great Goddess,” in The Power of Feminist An, ed. Broude and Garrard, 174-89.

38.I use transcendence here in the sense in which Simone de Beauvoir employed it in The Second Sex, where she points out how patriarchy refuses women the “tran­

scendence” granted to men, containing them within a biological structure of “immanence” {The Second Sex, trans, and ed. H. M. Parshley [New York: Al­ fred A. Knopf, 1953]). See also Josephine Withers’s discussion of transcendence in relation to The Dinner Party in “Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party: A Personal Vision of Women’s History” (1981), in The Expand­ ing Discourse, ed. Broude and Garrard, 454 ■ 55.

39. Chicago has observed that her method of painting the canvas from the inside outward was anathema to the art world at the time, which subscribed to the Green- bergian dictum that the forms of a painting be con­ structed in relation to the edges of the canvas rather than the center (interview with the author, 21 June 1994).

40. Broude and Garrard, “Conversation with Judy Chicago,” 70. According to Chicago, the notion of “peeling back” came out of a discussion with Lippard, who suggested that Chicago open up her imagery, that she “peel it back and see what happens” (Natalie Veiner Freeman, “A Dream of a Dinner Party: Judy Chicago,” City (Toman, Spring 1981, 62).

41. Chicago and Schapiro, “Female Imagery,” 11, The au­ thors are describing the feelings they believe are con­ veyed by an O’Keeffe painting. It is precisely their suggestion that the centralized image “establishes a vehicle by which to state the truth and beauty of [a woman’s]… identity” (ibid,, 14)—and the corol­ lary implication that this nature can be extrapolated to all women – that Pollock criticizes i n her a rgu ment that feminism “must” resist such idealistic recourse to a realist ideology (“Screening the Seventies,” 165). See also Pollock’s specific rejection of “vaginal im­ agery” as recuperable to patriarchal readings, in “What’s Wrong with I mages of Women?” Screen Ed­ ucation, no. 24 (Autumn 1977): 30-31.

42. Chicago and Schapiro, “Female Imagery” 11,14. 43. Ibid., 14,13 (emphasis added); Arlene Raven, “Fem­

inist Content in Current Female Art,” Sister 6 (October-November 1975): 10. Elsewhere Chicago stated, regarding how masculinity and femininity are defined, “My suspicion is that it’s a result of culture not biology” (interview with Judith Dancoff, “A Fem­ inist Art Program,” Art Journal 31 [Fall 1971]: 48).

44. Arlene Raven, “Women’s Art: The Development o( a Theoretical Perspective,” (Tomanspace Journal 1 (February-March 1973): 14- See also Ruth Iskin, “Sex-



ual and Self-Imagery in Art—Male and Female,” IFomanspace Journal I (Summer 1973): 4-10.

45. Raven, “Women’s Art,” 14,10. 46. On this point, see Joanna Frueh, “The Body through

Women’s Eyes,” in The Power of Feminist Art, 190- 207.

47. As Chicago puts it:” No matter how strong we are and how beautiful we are, we are contained. And that is the basis of The Dinner Party” (quoted by Jan But­ terfield, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Mother Jones, January 1979, 23).

48. Broude and Garrard, “Conversation with Judy Chi­ cago,” 71; see also note 41 above. The “Cunt Cheer­ leaders,” a group of Chicago’s Fresno students who dressed as cheerleaders with letter sweaters spelling “C-U-N-T” and performed cheers in public, exem­ plify the empowering aspect of the “cunt” for these women as well as the humor that accompanied its re­ cuperation (a humor that is largely ignored by theo­ rists who dismiss “cunt imagery” as essentialist).

49. Lucy Lippard adds to this: “Sex is bound to be a fac­ tor in women’s work precisely because women have been sex objects and are much more aware of their bodies than men. Men are aware of their pricks. Women are aware that every movement they make in public is supposed to have sexual content for the opposite sex. Some of that has to come out in the work” (“Six” [1974], reprinted in Front the Center, 93). See also Joan Semmel and April Kingsley, “Sexual Im­ agery in Women’s Art,” Woman’s Art Journal 1 (Spring Summer 1980): 1.

50. Faith Wilding, interview with the author, 13 July 1994. Wilding described the importance of con­ sciousness-raising in the development of the “central core” concept: it was in consciousness-raising sessions that women opened up to discuss negative labels for the female sex such as “gash” and “hole”—and the effects that these labels had on their senses of self.

51. For a more extended discussion of this politics of 1980s feminist theory, see my “Postfeminism, Fem­ inist Pleasures, and Embodied Theories of Art,” in New Feminist Criticism: An, Identity, Action, ed. Joanna Frueh, Cassandra Langer, and Arlene Raven (New York: HarperCollins, 1994),esp. 25-29. See also Thalia Gouma-Peterson and Patricia Mathews, “The Feminist Critique of Art History,” Art Bulletin 69 (September 1987): 326-57. The dangers of an over-

simplistic division of feminist art theory into “gener­ ations” are made clear by Griselda Pollock in her pointed critique of Gouma-Peterson and Mathews’s privileging of her work as “second generation” even though she (along with Mary Kelly and other “1980s” feminists) had been active throughout the 1970s; see Griselda Pollack, “The Politics of Theory: Genera­ tions and Geographies: Feminist Theory and the 11 is- toriesof Art Histories,” Genders, no. 17 (Fall 1993): esp. 108-15. While Pollock is certainly right to point out that the literal age of the feminist in question is not necessarily a factor in defining her position in relation to feminist ideologies of representation, I would argue that generational politics are at work in the discursive rejection of “ 1970s” U.S. feminism by Pollock and others. That is, the strategic critique by British feminists of the central-core phenomenon clearly operates to position them as “beyond” the im­ plicitly old-fashioned assumptions that they identify us underlying it. Furthermore, in a historical sense it is quite clear that a shift In hegemony occurred from the 1970s, when figures such as Chicago dominated the scene, to the 1980s, when the work of Pollock and other poststructuralist feminists began to be seen as authoritative.

52. Pollock, “Screening the Seventies,” 181,163,165. See also Mary Kelly’s pointed attack on essentialism in her conversation with Paul Smith, “No Essential Femi­ ninity,” Parachute 37 (Spring 1982): 31-35. Kelly’s vi­ sual art has been constructed by Pollock and others as paradigmatic of radical (“Brechtian”) postmodern feminist practice.

53. Laura Mulvey’s important polemic in “Visual Plea­ sure and Narrative Cinema” (1975; reprinted in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones [New York: Routledge, 2003], 44 52) was central to the deconstructive theory of the “male gaze.” Pollock and other British feminists were working through this notion around the same time in relation to the vi­ sual arts.

54. Lisa Tickner, “Sexuality and/in Representation: Five British Artists,” in Difference: On Representation and Sexuality, exh. cat. (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 28, 29.

55. Mira Schor, “Backlash and Appropriation,” 254, 259. In this essay Schor also savages The Dinner Party, sin­ gling it out as epitomizing the weaknesses in 1970s



feminism that “justified” some aspects of the backlash. 56. Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature,

and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989), 6. For an excellent collection of essays on the question of es­ sentialism, see The Essential Difference, a special issue of differences (Summer 1989).

57. Pollock, “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity,” in Pision and Difference, 55; Chicago and Schapiro, “Female Imagery,” 14; Broude and Garrard, eds., Feminism and Art History, 161. There are many fur­ ther examples of essentialism in poststructuralist fem­ inism. The notion of closeness as particular to the ma­ ternal relationship and of a specifically “female voice” (ccnture feminine}, drawn from French feminist theo­ rists such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva and taken up by many antiessentialist feminist theorists (especially in literary theory), is arguably as “essen- tializing” as Chicago’s notion of a “body identifi­ cation” in women’s painting. Gouma-Peterson and Mathews point this out in “The Feminist Critique,”

335- 58. Fuss, Essentially Speaking, 114, 68, 32 (with “to be

politicized” Fuss cites Luce Irigaray, in This Sex Which Is Not One).

59. Broude and Garrard, “Introduction: Feminism and Art in the Twentieth Century,” in The Power of Fem­ inist Art, 18, 24 (emphasis added). Lippard uses the term gyno-sensuous imagery in “Excerpt from the Cat­ alogues of Three Women’s Exhibitions” (197;), in From the Center, 51,

60. Chicago, Through the Flower, 63. 61. Michele Barrett, “Feminism and the Definition of

Cultural Politics,” in Feminism, Culture and Politics, ed. Rosalind Brunt and Caroline Rowan (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982), 46, 47.

62. Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1984), 1 [4, 117.

63.1 obtained a copy of this letter, dated 29 September 1978, and the article draft from Judy Chicago’s archives; there is no specific reference to the magazine in which the article was to appear. The author refers to herself and her group as “Hispanas” or “Hispan­ ics”; hence my use of this term here. Subsequent quotes are from this article draft.

64. Alice Walker, “One Child of One’s Own: A Mean­

ingful Digression within the Work(s)” (1979), in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 383; Lor­ raine O’Grady, “The Cave,” Artforum 30 (January 1992): 22.

65. Walker, “One Child of One’s Own,” 384. 66. Richard Dyer, “White,” Screen 29 (Autumn 1988):

45,46. 67. Chicago herself has recognized the limitations of her

approach in the Dinner Party project, stating that she hoped to “involve an even wider range of people [in the later Birth Project], particularly Blacks and His­ panics, than was the case in The Dinner Party.” “Un­ fortunately,” she continues, “the people in this coun­ try who have the time—that is, the privilege of time—to make art are mostly white and middle- class. … I can’t make that go away” (cited in Blair, “The Womanly Art of Judy Chicago,” Madmoiselle, January 1982, 153).

68. Saar was active in Los Angeles, participating in fem­ inist workshops and exliibi tions, and in shows of black women artists, such as Black Mirror at Womanspace in 1973 (reviewed by Claudia Chapline, IPomanspacc Journal 1 [Summer 1973]: 20-11). Ringgold, a New York-based artist, was a founder^along with her daughter Michelle Wallace, a feminist theorist- of Women, Students, and Artists for Black Art Libera­ tion and was a central force in the establishment of the black women artists’ activist group Where We At, both in the early 1970s. Panel discussions on issues of race were held at the Woman’s Building in Los An­ geles, and in the 1980s an issue of Heresies, entitled Racism Is the Issue, was devoted to the interconnected politics of race, sexuality, and art (of course, the fact that separate panels and publ ications had to be devoted to women of color and their art in relation to issues of racism indicates the marked nature of “nonwhite” as “race”).

69. Notably, in 1973 Womanspace sponsored “Lesbian Week,” devoted to “an examination of Lesbian Sen­ sibilities in Art” and including performances, films, and gay-straight dialogues; see IPomanspacc Journal 1 (February-March 1973). See also the astute writings of Harmony Hammond on lesbian feminist issues in art, most of which are reprinted in Wrappings: Essays on Feminism, Art, and the Martial Arts (New York: Mussmann Bruce, 1984), and the third issue of Here-



sics on “Lesbian Art and Artists” (1977). Laura Cot- tingham and Tee Corinne, a lesbian photographer who has made a wide range of “cunt art” since the early 1970s, have alerted me to the wide range of art­ making and publishing activities by lesbian artists during the 1970s.

70. For insight on this issue, I am indebted to conversa­ tions with Juliet Myers and Arlene Raven.

71. As Flora Davis and other historians have pointed out, in debates within the women’s movement in the 1970s, tile question of sexual orientation was central but often veiled. The infamous “Lavender Menace,” a group of lesbian-identified women frustrated with the tendency in mainstream feminist groups such as NOW to down­ play or suppress lesbianism in an attempt to make fem­ inism palatable to a broader public, interrupted the 1970 Congress to Unite Women in New York City with a call for an “outing” of the centrality of lesbianism to feminist politics and personal practice (Flora Davis, Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in Amer­ ica since 1960 [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991], 264 65). For a specific example of this veiling, note Chicago’s adoption of a “butch” persona in several of her exhibition advertisements from the early 1970s. I discuss these in my article “Dis/Playing the Phallus: Male Artists Perform Their Masculinities,” Art History i7(December 1994): 551 52. On the problematic ten­ dency of heterosexual feminists to appropriate the tropes of lesbianism in order to radicalize feminism, see Teresa De Lauretis, “The Seductions of Lesbian­ ism: Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory and tile Mater­ nal Imaginary,” in The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sex­ uality and Perverse Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 149-102.

72. Wilding, “The Feminist Art Programs at Fresno and CalArts, 1970 75,” in The Power of Feminist Art, ed. Broude and Garrard, 35.

73. Kay Larson, “More (or Less) Awful Rowing toward God,” Tillage Voice, 17 December 1979, 113; idem, “Under the Table,” 49; Jan Adams, “Perspectives: Chicago’s Dinner Party/A Feminist Feast,” Lesbian Tide, May June 1979,4,5.

74. Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol, 204. 75. Broude and Garrard, “Conversation with Judy

Chicago,” 72. 76. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science,

Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late

Twentieth Century” (1985), in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Roui- ledge, 1991), 155.

77. As Chicago once stated in exasperation in answer to a question about why she included only women from Western civilization: “That’s like asking, when you’re invited to someone’s house for supper, ‘If you made dinner why didn’t you make breakfast and lunch too?’ I set out to recast Western civilization from a female perspective…. I did not set out to recast all of hu­ man civilization” (in Susan Rennie and Arlene Raven, “The Dinner Party Project: An Interview with Judy Chicago,” Chrysalis, no, 4 [1977]: 98),

78. April Kingsley, “The I-Hate-to-Cook ‘Dinner Party,’ ” Ms., June 1979, 30- 31.

79. Barrett, “Feminism and the Definition of Cultural Politics,” 44. See also Karen Woodley’s harsh assess­ ment of Chicago’s “use of thousands of unpaid vol­ unteers,” in “The Inner Sanctum: The Dinner Party,” in Visibly Female: Feminism and Art Today, ed. Hilary Robinson (New York: Universe, 1988), 97.

80. Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol, 29. Hi, Rennie and Raven, “The Dinner Party Project,” 100. 82. Chicago, in Blair, “The Womanly Art,” 133. On

“benevolent” hierarchy, see Lippard, “Dinner Party a Four-Star Treat,” 28,

83. Chicago is clear on her position in Rennie and Raven, “The Dinner Party Project,” 99.

84. See, e.g., Jan Castro’s interview with participants Kate Amend and Ann Isolde, “The Dinner Party Talks,” River Styx, no, 9 (1981): 58-69.

85. Cited in Blair, “The Womanly Art,” 153. 86. This expectation, Mullarkey argues, “is fatal to [The

Dinner Party sj . . . stated feminist aim” (“Dishing It Out,” 21).

87. See Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker, “God’s Lit­ tle Artist,” in Old Mistresses, 82-113; and Duncan, “When Greatness Is a Box of Wheaties.” Notably, Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971) also as­ sumes a notion of greatness rather than critiquing it (in Art and Sexual Politics, ed. Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker [New York: Macmillan, 1973], ‘-43>

88. Cited in Lee Wohlfert, “Sassy Judy Chicago Throws a Dinner Party, but the Art World Mostly Sends Re­ grets,” People, 8 December 1980,156.



89. Edelson’s piece is reproduced in Broude and Garrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art, 17. In an interview published in 1979, Chicago expressed her discomfort with the hierarchical structure of the Last Supper theme, with Christ obviously privileged over his dis­ ciples, as a motivating factor in her desire to expand the “party.” She also notes that the thirteen guests along each side of the table, obviously a reference to the thirteen men at the Last Supper, is also a subver­ sive allusion to the number of participants at a witch’s coven (Butterfield, “Guess Who’s Coming to Din­ ner?” 12-23).

90. Barrett, “Feminism and the Definition of Cultural

Politics,” 45. As Carrie Rickey argues of The Dinner Party’s retelling of history: “This is history using the Great Women theory; what happened to the anony­ mous women?” (review of The Dinner Party, Art- forum 19 [January 1981]: 73).

91. Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol, 29. 92. Susan Kandel, “Beneath the Green Veil: The Body

in/of New Feminist Art,” in Sexual Polities: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History, ed. Amelia Jones (Los Angeles: UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center; Berke­ ley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 184 -207.


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