resistance began early on, when I was a child,"
writes Judy Chicago in Women and Art: Contested
Territory, published this fall by Watson-Guptill
Publications, New York City, and co-authored with
art historian Edward Lucie-Smith. "I set my
sights upon becoming the kind of artist who would
make a contribution to art history." However,
the paintings that young Judy Cohen, as she was
known then, saw in the Art Institute of Chicago
were "sending a contradictory message."
Degas' sensuous women, for example, seemed content
simply to lie and be gazed at. In fact, Chicago
came to see that much of the work proclaimed as
great art denied her "experience and feelings
as a female person." She writes that from her
childhood on, "I set myself against these images
because they did not have anything to do with me."
Thus began the crusade and eventual legacy of Judy
Chicago to create feminist art that would not only
encompass and express the entire being of women,
but also change the world.
her 1970 pioneering work The Dinner Party,
Chicago thrust the female experience into the mainstream
of art. A massive installation in the form of a
triple Eucharist, The Dinner Party
singles out thirty-nine women who altered the course
of history. The work made use of skills that have
traditionally been thought of as feminine, such
as stitchery and china painting.
Dinner Party was immediately controversial.
Many viewers took offense at the imagery. (The plates
at The Dinner Party were inspired
by the shape of the vulva.) But Chicago has said
that her primary goal was to celebrate women's achievement
in the face of great odds.
the controversy that has surrounded the work, including
attacks from the floor of the United States Congress,
The Dinner Party is now recognized
as a key event in the history of the women's movement.
It is also a defining moment in the history of art.
It signaled the return to content which had been
lost in the abyss of Minimal Art of the late 1960s.
the creation of The Dinner Party,
it may have seemed to many, even to Chicago, that
she had arrived as an artist and that women could
finally take a great leap forward towards achieving
parity with men. But much personal and professional
pain followed. Chicago even contemplated suicide
several times, as she discusses in her autobiography
Beyond the Flower (Viking Penguin,
1996). However, she pressed on, producing the Birth
Project, the Holocaust Project
and other controversial work. The Dinner Party
has yet to find a permanent home.
spoke with Judy Chicago shortly before the opening
of a major retrospective of her work, which is at
Indiana University in Bloomington until October
31, 1999, travels to the Gulf Coast Museum of Art
in Largo, Florida, for the winter, then moves to
Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina,
in the spring of 2000. (For a full schedule of the
tour, visit www.judychicago.com.)
passion is feminist art, right?
I am a feminist artist but, after all, there was
no term "feminist art" when I started
your book you essentially say that you coined the
did coin the term when I was in Fresno in 1970,
where I started the first feminist art program.
a man be a feminist?
absolutely. Donald, my husband, considers himself
a feminist. That's cool. Feminism is a philosophy
that has two hundred years of thinking behind it.
The media has done a real number on the term. People
have accepted the media's idea of what feminism
is, but that doesn't mean that it's right or true
or real. Feminism is not monolithic. Within feminism,
there is an array of opinions.
obvious from history that women have been marginalized,
or greatly more than marginalized...
you think the situation has improved? Do you see
no question that many more women artists are showing
worldwide now than they were when I was a young
woman, and that's really great. Remember back thirty
years and the taboos that surrounded that and the
kind of self-censorship that women practiced. You
couldn't help it. You were told you couldn't be
a woman and an artist. With my early work I got
eviscerated by my male professors, and so you learned
to disguise your impulses, as many women have done.
And that's definitely changed.
on an institutional level, the change has been minuscule.
The collecting policies at most major institutions
continue to be less than five percent women and
the major exhibitions tend to be very minimal in
terms of women.
write that women tend to discount their accomplishments.
Do you think this is because of how they have been
treated in the past?
you go to any of our major museums and walk through
the gallery of historical art, you see the repeated
representations of women by men. These have become
the iconic images through which both men and women
frame their ideas about what it means to be a woman,
and some of those images are totally misogynous
images, as Edward [Lucie-Smith] and I discuss in
Women and Art.
a young girl, for example, stands before Picasso's
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, what goes
through her mind? You write in your autobiography,
Beyond the Flower, about your
experiences as a girl looking at such paintings.
talk about how confusing it was to me as a young
girl when I was studying at the Art Institute [of
Chicago]. There would be all these images of women
as objects, and so of course the first confusion
is, Well, am I the model or am I the artist? [The
question] is exemplified pretty incredibly by that
Laura Knight painting which is the frontispiece
in Women and Art. She is standing
there looking at the models as if she is thinking
to herself, am I the artist or am I the model? It's
a fascinating painting. So that's the first thing
in terms of female aspiration. The Picasso is basically
a brothel image and it is also an image of disfigured
dehumanized and disfigured. It's not just looking
at the painting, it's the idea that the painting
has been canonized as great art.
was a misogynist, wasn't he?
my God, Edward refers to Francoise Gilot's autobiography
in which she talks about Picasso burning her with
a cigarette. I think that one of the things that
is really interesting about Edward's process in
Women and Art is that he talks about
how feminist art theory has raised more questions
in terms of art that have been simmering but left
unaddressed. For example, what does it mean that
we canonize images of rape, that we canonize artists
who are misogynists?
status of Picasso indicates the degree to which
even though there has been a change in consciousness,
that change has not been translated institutionally.
And that is where a lot of my efforts as an artist
have been going, in terms of trying to make an institutional
change. I think that until that happens, progress
his paintings of women, Willem de Kooning's brushstrokes
are like stabs. What do you do with his paintings?
Should they be excluded from museums? If you go
to any art book, de Kooning is listed as one of
the great artists of the twentieth century.
don't personally believe in censorship, but censorship
has been practiced. And the way it has been practiced
becomes evident when you look at Women and Art—the
numbers of women artists whose work is not hanging
in the museums across from the Picassos and the
de Koonings so that there can be an equitable playing
field. That's what I would like to see—where
you get to see his side, his
view, and then you get to see her
view, and then you get to make up your own mind.
That level of openness and dialogue has been shut
down by an art community that has controlled representation
and insisted that only male representation has been
aren't there more women's paintings in museums?
one of the big questions, and I have to tell you
that this is not always an issue of gender. A lot
of women in positions of power have been as misogynous
and as anti-female as men, maybe more so. For those
of us who are interested in seeing a more equitable
society, the issue isn't whether the person is a
man or a woman, the issue is what kind of program
they are putting forward.
art be neither male or female? What I'm asking is,
do men and women have to view art on the basis of
well, do I wish that we lived in a world where gender
didn't figure so prominently? Of course. Do I even
think about myself as a woman when I go to make
art? Of course not. I go to make art as who I am
as a person. The fact that I am a woman comes into
play maybe in the kinds of things I'm interested
in or in the way I structure a canvas.
don't think that men and women view things differently?
Is a man going to paint a different kind of painting
than a woman? Are paintings by men going to be more
violent, for example?
is the age-old question: Is it nature or culture?
We can't actually see what the real differences
are between men and women because we live in such
a culture-bound world. Do I think there are fundamental
differences between men and women? Yes probably.
In the 1980s, there was this argument by some feminist
theorists that gender is a shifting construct. I
agree with that to some degree. However, for most
people, being a man or a woman shapes their lives
and experience dramatically. In some ways, you and
I are different and in some ways we are not different.
And some of that is based on gender and some of
it is not. So do I think there is a definitive answer
to that question? No. Do I think it matters? No.
I think what's important is to give space to the
range of human experience.
said that the larger purpose of art is to communicate.
What should art communicate?
an artist is interested in communicating. When we
look at the history of male art, we are not looking
at a bunch of men who said, let's go make violent
images of women. We are looking at images that were
made because of who that person is and how he sees
the world. And the way he sees the world has been
shaped by a misogynous culture. Therefore we can
appreciate the incredible achievement of a Picasso
painting formally while at the same time being conscious
of the content.
Women and Art, you point out
that challenging the masculine nature of God has
been one of the goals of feminist art. You include
Yolanda Lopez and one of her paintings, Portrait
of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Do you think this painting sufficiently challenges
one painting. In fact, that's one
of the points of Women and Art. In
the sea of white men's art, one painting by a woman
can't even be perceived. One painting can't possibly
have that power. But if in the museum there were
a lot of paintings by women who have made images
of the female as the divine, then maybe it could
begin to have an effect. But no one image can do
that by itself.
there a thin line between challenging an old, reinforced
conception of art and reinforcing it?
There is a very thin line. I think that one of the
questions I raised in Women and Art
is that if we can't use the historic language of
art because so much of it is misogynous, what language
are we supposed to use as women artists? If we can't
use the female body, for example, because there
is such a thin line between representation and colonization,
then what are we supposed to do?
build a new language, that's a big job. And you
have to remember that feminist, oppositional art
is only thirty years old. Certainly there were antecedents
to it—one could mention a lot of earlier women.
But still they worked more in the tradition of art.
There wasn't yet an openly female tradition for
younger women to work in. So women are at the beginning
of building a language, and not all women are conscious
you see your art as political?
more than Picasso was political.
when people like Congressman Robert Dornan saw your
art as political...
we have to talk about him?
that was the big flap. They opposed a multicultural
museum that would house The Dinner Party.
thing that was so great about that was all these
guys were debating a work of art they had never
the point is they made it into a huge political
issue, and obviously that doesn't set well with
it blocks the permanent housing of The Dinner
Party. But the scariest part was sitting
there listening to those guys debating The
Dinner Party, which I know something
about. I kept thinking to myself, if they know so
little about what they are talking about now, what
does that mean about the rest of the time they are
talking? It scared the hell out of me.
have a chapter in the book on maternity. Is motherhood
an impediment to being an artist?
think it has been difficult for women—very
very difficult. A lot of this came from my experience
working with women in my Birth Project. A number
of them were creative women who were also mothers,
and they all talked about the conflicts that they
experienced, conflicts that I myself didn't want
to have to deal with, which is one of the reasons
I never had children.
make a good point that in museums you very seldom
see art that depicts the birth cycle. Do you think
that is because men fear it?
know that painting by Jonathan Waller in our book?
Waller did a whole series of images of his wife
giving birth. And do you know what happened? He
lost his gallery. None of the work sold. Obviously,
what we are talking about are very deeply entrenched
attitudes towards the body. They are shared attitudes
in the culture, and they are destructive to all
of us, men and women. Why shouldn't people grow
up knowing what the birth process is like?
a chapter from Women and Art titled
"Casting Couch and Brothel," you recount
visiting a strip club in San Francisco.
You wrote that you felt revulsion and pity when
you saw the dancers gyrating for pay.
But many of these dancers—and many academics—claim
that exotic dancing is a liberating form of expression.
Can a dancer get up there and do what you saw her
do and say it's legitimate art?
remember I told you that feminism has many faces
and many opinions? But in Women and Art
there is a quote from a woman who happens to be
an artist and she used to be a sex worker. And she
is really aggravated with the academics who [argue
that pornography is okay]. I think that her point
of view just about says it all. She obviously has
no patience for that idea.
people say that their life is their art. For me,
making art is a very specific act that involves
creating a symbolic reality. The idea that other
things are art, I just don't accept any of that.
Beyond the Flower, you write,
"I also learned that the purpose of life was
to make a difference, a goal that has shaped my
existence." Have you made a difference?
not really a question for me to answer. That's going
to be an historical question.
do you think?
I did my book tour for Beyond the Flower
in 1996, I spoke at the Smithsonian, and the woman
who introduced me said, "Do you have any idea
how much impact you have had?" And I said no.
Because I really didn't. And because I have been
subject to such horrendous public and written criticism—personal
vituperative criticism—it was hard to judge
or evaluate. I just had to isolate myself in order
to keep going, so as not to be battered to death
by the art world resistance and this level of criticism.
last year I had an exhibition in Taipei, and there
were many many people at every lecture and public
event, and this young woman from the gallery said
to me, "Judy, don't you realize that all over
the world people are studying your work?" And
I said no, I had no idea. And she said to me, "You
ought to get out more often."
I have begun to realize that my work has reached
the other side of the world. I feel like I have
at least begun to make a contribution, but my most
significant concern has to do with whether my actual
art will be preserved for future generations or
be erased. For me that would mean that I hadn't
succeeded, because the visual objects I have spent
my life making are the things I want people to have
access to, not just my words or my ideas, but my