The Dinner Party is a Church Supper
Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum
Who remembers Judy Chicago? The
Brooklyn Museum, that's who. Chicago's 39 box lunches
each a ceramic vulva of famous cunts "lost
history" circumnavigated the globe a quarter
century ago. Hailed at every stop as a feminist triumph,
they have slept in merciful storage
for the last twenty years. But thanks to the relentless
efforts of Through
the Flower, Chicago's non-profit foundation established
to promote the work, it has finally found its resting
place. The Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation was moved to
open the crypt and place the mummy on permanent wake in
the Brooklyn Museum.
engineer of the donation, is also a trustee of the museum
on whose behalf she accepts her own gift. The full cost
of this mammoth gift is undisclosed, only that it is "very,
VERY substantial." As part of the donation package,
the museum is receiving funds to create a feminist wing
(a museum world first) to house the bier. The museum's
Feminist Art Gallery, which will exhibit only art by women
or art related to The Dinner Party, must exhibit the labial
display once every five years in perpetuity. It will be
with us forever, like the corpse of Lenin.
review was written when I was a fledgling warrior itching
to spear a first Jabberwock. Two decades later, I wouldn't
change a word. The Dinner Party is as silly and
reductive today as it was then.
And its essential
labor stratagem remains a scandal in view of its stated
feminist purpose. It was built by a pool of transient,
volunteer females who traveled to Chicago's workshop at
their own expense. It was a kind of high-minded piecework
that exploited cheap labor in much the same way that clothing
manufacturers and micro-component plants utilize unskilled
women. There was a core of salaried expertise that oversaw
the creation of the work: three out of four were men.
A project purporting to celebrate the abilities of women
couldn't find a live female potter or industrial designer
or tapestry expert with sufficient know-how to justify
September 20, 2002
WIDELY ACCLAIMED as the nonpareil of feminist art, The Dinner
Party is moving around the country like an itinerant revivalist,
abetted by populist resentments and generating its own Awakening.
Despite the political rhetoric and iconoclastic posture of its
promoters, the exhibition proves that there's still a lot of
life left in that old time religion.
Chicago is a West Coast minimal sculptor and a self-styled standard
bearer in "the class struggle based on the division between
men and women." The Dinner Party purports to be a serious
statement on the history of women in Western civilization (".
. . with the additional meaning of a re-interpretation of The
Last Supper"). In reality, it is a crude rehash of some very
traditional notions served up with the enthusiasm of a religious
crusade. The combination of opportunism, evangelical intent,
and entrepreneurial drive and technique that marks the production
and merchandising of the piece make it as American as Billy
Sunday. The zealous espousal of it by women's groups across
the country derives from the same anti-intellectualism, the
same suspicion of analysis and power of discrimination, that
has long been a component of native politics and grass-roots
The Dinner Party opened in San Francisco in 1979. It
traveled to Houston and Boston in early 1980 and two months
ago left New York's Brooklyn Museum where it had been held over
by popular demand. Negotiations are under way to take the show
on the road again in 1981 to Chicago and Vancouver. The cost
of storage (over one thousand dollars per month) makes it feasible
to keep the show moving until a permanent home can be found
or funded for the purpose.
The format of the exhibition is a triangular table covering
one thousand square feet and laid with thirty-nine place settings
representing thirty-nine women from the mythical past to the
present. The dinner guests range from Ishtar ("Great Goddess
of Mesopotamia, the female as giver and taker of life, whose
power was infinite") and Amazon ("Embodiment of Warrior Women
who fought to preserve gynocratic societies"), through Aspasia
("Scholar, philosopher, and leader of women after the eclipse
of female power") and on to Virginia Woolf and Georgia O'Keeffe.
The attributes of each woman, real or imaginary, are summarized
by a serving-platter-sized porcelain vulva more or less suggestive
of an open flower. Each plate has its own flatware, embroidered
runner, chalice (Chicago's term), and napkin. The plates rest
on custom-designed platforms which tilt them toward the viewer
at. . . well, at a pelvic angle. This is what Chicago refers
to as her "butterfly-vagina" imagery, developed in response
to women's "deep cultural hunger" for affirmative symbols.
After the fundamentalism of the cross and of the flag, we now
have the fundamentalism of the vagina.
The appeal of The Dinner Party, and of the feminist
art movement as a whole, lies in its stated desire to dissolve
the boundaries between "high" and "low" art. In effect, to take
art away from the highbrows and city-slickers and put it back
in the hands of the people where it belongs. The anti-hierarchical
aims of The Dinner Party, its folkish desire to pit intellect
against feeling and its willingness to play on the susceptibilities
of its audience, is a continuation of the fundamentalist impulse
in American Protestantism. Behind the radical-sounding vocabulary
of Chicago's supporters is the conservative refrain voiced by
Gerald Smith, one of the right-wing leaders in the old evolution
debate: "I am not familiar with the artistic masterpieces of
Europe, but I do say this tonight: I understand the hearts of
the American people."
To make sure the didactic nature of the imagery doesn't go
unnoticed, the installation includes a massive amount of print.
Like the creation of the earth, The Dinner Party begins
with the word. There are the 999 names of Significant Women
inscribed in a schoolgirl's hand on the 2,300-tile floor under
the table. There are the walls, covered with more Names and
Dates, that look and read like a fold-out time-line in a grammar
school history text. There are the Dinner Party books
on sale at the entrance to the show. (Anchor Press has a boxed
two-volume set, The Complete Dinner Party, on the plates
and on the needlework, available for $29 in paperback. A third
volume is in the planning.) And also around the walls are Chicago's
own recitals of the aim and origin of the piece: "I first became
interested in china painting when I saw a beautiful hand-painted
plate in an antique store window in Oregon in 1971. . . .I started
painting on 14-inch porcelain plates which were imported from
The lackluster prose, with its earnest attention to irrelevant
detail, is indicative of The Dinner Party's overriding
The preachiness of the exhibition is outdone only by the prettiness
of it. This is a very pretty show in the way that limited
edition plates marketed by the Royal Dutch Horticultural Society
are pretty. Chicago's plates are the Hummel figurines of the
It is the vapid prettiness of the imagery, not its explicit
sexual reference, that aligns the exhibition with Playboy
and Penthouse. It shares with the air-brushed nudes
in center-fold displays a dogged refusal to regard the real
thing. Substituting titillation for discernment, The Dinner
Party distorts the women it pretends to commemorate.
Emily Dickinson ("Embodiment of women's struggle to find their
own voice") is honored with a flirtatious, multi-tiered pink
lace crotch. The very woman whose disappointment over critical
rejection led her deeper into mortal privacy is here turned
bottoms-up for the public to gape at. The ruthlessness and stark
angularity of her observations, the sheer granite of her inventiveness,
the anguish of her isolationall of it reduced to a frothy
Virginia Woolf ("Pioneer in creating a female form language
in literature'"), a woman with a profound and imperious genius
for making distinctions, is just one more floral orifice in
Chicago's line-up. Either Chicago doesn't know or doesn't care
that Woolf insisted repeatedly: "Any emphasis, either of pride
or of shame, laid consciously on the sex of a writer is not
only irritating but superfluous."
Georgia O'Keeffe ("Pioneer in creating a female form language
in art") is equally misrepresented by tendrilar pastels that
bear little relation to the span and vigor of the woman's work.
O'Keeffe ransacks the spectrum, using black the way Matisse
used itas pure color. In addition to flowers, she has
painted buildings and badlands, skulls, rocks, fossils and abstractions.
Refusing to acknowledge narrowly sexual interpretations of her
work. O'Keeffe set aside an entire page of her autobiography
for the single sentence: "I made you take time to look at what
I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you
hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and
you wrote about my flower as if I think and see what you think
and see of the flower and I don't."
The place setting designed for the heroine of the apocryphal
Book of Judith, is an indication of Chicago's relationship to
"the masterpieces of Europe." It is also a clear gauge of Chicago's
estimation of the critical capacities of her audience. Here,
the coy combination of hinderparts and kitsch obliterates both
the stature of Judith and the mythic proportions of her act.
In all extant representations of Judith in medieval tapestries,
on Italian majolica, through seventeenth and eighteenth century
easel paintings the emphasis is on the lethal strength,
not the sexuality of Judith. Her weapon is universally depicted
as an object of regard, suitable to the ferocity of her deed
and to the nature of Old Testament vengeance. But Chicago pays
no attention to the importance of scale in producing the appropriate
sense of wonder and dread. Why bother? Women, silly gooses,
will never notice so long as it's pretty enough. (This seems
to be the reasoning behind the entire production.) So here we
are given a tiny, doll-sized knife richly embroidered on the
runner beneath the plate and embellished with ah, yesmetallic
thread. This lovely little knife couldn't scratch a Ken doll
let alone decapitate a tyrant. Instead of providing her audience
with the emblem of a heroine, Chicago puts out a bit of frippery
that comes foolishly close to the insignia on a Shriner's hat.
The redeemer of a people is just another sorority princess playing
The vulgarity of The Dinner Party is less in the iconography
than in its abuse of sincerity. Nothing human is inappropriate
to art. Genitalia are as amenable to creative interpretation
as a hand or a clavicle. The problem here is its inane solemnity.
Chicago expects to be bound in morocco. The expectation is fatal
to its stated feminist aim.
If only Chicago were clowning, if there were some hint of the
comic in these "butterfly-vagina" plates. But no, the nonsense
is dished straight up. The exhibition might have been
a satiric rejoinder to the old canard that the center of a woman's
creativity is between her legs. But that would have required
the hilarity of a Marcel Duchamp or the wit of Red Grooms. Chicago
has more in common with Carl McIntire than with either of these.
And so the seriousness of the show reaffirms the notion it sets
out to demolish: turn 'em upside down and they all look alike.
The incongruity of the imagery and its sober feminist purpose
is particularly visible in the plate designed for the English
composer Ethel Smyth. Here the vaginal opening is formed by
the curve of can you guess? a baby grand.
Some years back, when Liberace commissioned a swimming pool
in the shape of a grand piano, everybody got the gag. There
were belly laughs all around. The Dinner Party has hardly
been greeted with the same horse sense. By some born-again inversion
of logic, the stuff that would be recognized as a leveling device
if the show were by or about men is instead met
with the devotion reserved for the laying on of hands. The women
who file worshipfully 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 as
if women's achievements had more to do with the organic, instinctual
make-up of women than with the ability of certain women at certain
times, and for highly contingent reasons, to transcend the cultural
limitations of gender.
The exhibition's guest book, filled with what amounts to a
litany of ecstatic manifestations, tells a tale about the gullibility,
the insensitivity to nuance and the need of Chicago's audience:
"What a gift! What a joy! I'll always see things differently
"For the first time I've been in touch with my own sexuality
(I'm a male). Thank you."
"A very moving realization of the diversity of women an inspiration
in my future."
"You've restored my sense of human community and my pride in
myself as a woman even if only momentarily."
The religiosity of the imagination toward which this show is
directed is evident in the ecclesiastical trappings that are
a crucial part of the packaging. The entryway to the exhibition
is hung with six banners that announce the liturgical ambitions
of The Dinner Party. Beginning here and continuing throughout,
high craftsmanship is put to such witless conformity to jargon
and sacramental pretensions that the technical expertise is
Woven in the manner of French Aubusson tapestries, the banners
herald a mythical "She" in biblical rhythms borrowed from the
Book of Revelations: "And She Gathered all before Her / And
She made for them a Sign to See / And lo They saw a Vision /
From this day forth Like in All things
" Chicago reinforces
the revivalist tenor of the piece in her own introduction: "The
Dinner Party expresses the belief and hope that once reverence
for the feminine is re-established on Earth, a balance will
be restored to human existence and everywhere will be Eden once
The nature of Chicago's own reverence for the feminine is revealed
by the fact that the actual cost, estimated into the
millions, of this $250,000-step into Eden was absorbed by volunteer
feminine labor. The five years of so-called collaborative effort
that went into the making of Chicago's breakthrough in the class
struggle between men and women was, in essence, one more round
in the exploitation of co-religionists by a canny gospeler.
Unpaid workers, mostly young, anonymous women from inconspicuous
places around the country, paid their own transportation to
and from the West Coast workshops and their own living expenses
for the duration of their participation in the construction
of The Dinner Party. Only a few core people in the project
received compensation. The key members of that core were the
three men without whose technical skill The Dinner
Party would not exist: Ken Gilliam, an industrial designer
who worked full-time on the substructure of the installation;
Leonard Skura, the potter responsible for the actual production
of the dinner plates; Jean Pierre Larochette, director of the
San Francisco Tapestry Workshop which created the introductory
banners. While salaries might not have been large, the symbolic
import of the difference between the salaried and the non-salaried
is not to be ignored. Particularly in a project that roots its
appeal in the abolition of class distinctions.
Feminine self-sacrifice continues to keep the show afloat.
Across the country, women have formed organizations for the
express purpose of bringing The Dinner Party to their
town. Women, in conjunction with Chicago's various public relations
firms, continue to sponsor fund-raising events to maintain the
non-profit corporation Chicago formed in 1977 to own The
Dinner Party. A sizable portion of, the high cost of transporting,
assembling, and installing the piece (crated, it fills nearly
two trucks) is absorbed at each of its stops by female volunteers.
The Brooklyn' Museum estimated its costs at $75,000 to $100,000.
Some of this was raised by Art, Letters and Politics, Judy Chicago's
public relations firm in New York. A "significant amount," according
to the museum's publicity director Judith Schwartz, was underwritten
by the museum itselfwith the hopes of getting it back
through admissions and sales of Dinner Party slide sets,
posters, postcards, and books. The rest was met, as Ms. Schwartz
tells it, by individual women whose "sense of purpose and dedication
goes beyond a job." Some of these women flew themselves to New
York from California at their own expense in order "to be part
of the installation." These are the women who saw the creation
and exhibition of The Dinner Party as "the major accomplishment'
of their lives."
Propelled by the same mutually reinforcing strains of inspirational
thinking and salesmanship that mark down-home religion, the
supposedly radical feminist Dinner Party turns out to
be yet another accommodation to prevailing male realities in
the hierarchy of its production methods, its funding structure,
and its imagery.
© 1981 Commonweal Foundation, reprinted
with permission. For subscriptions, www.commonwealmagazine.org