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 to 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.

Ms. Sackler, 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.

The following 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 a salary.

Obsequies begin 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.

Judy 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 religion.

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 Japan."

The lackluster prose, with its earnest attention to irrelevant detail, is indicative of The Dinner Party's overriding sensibility.

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 feminist movement.

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 isolation–all of it reduced to a frothy Victorian teacake.

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 it–as 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, yes–metallic 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 house.

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 now.

"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 rendered absurd.

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 again."

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 itself–with 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,

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