The Dinner Party and Pop Culture
By Joan Altabe

The Dinner Party finally found permanent refuge in a museum, albeit a handout to the Brooklyn Museum.

It took 25 years for Judy Chicago’s installation to find a resting place. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone. From the start, few in the art world liked the work: an installation of a triangular-shaped table (the artist’s ode to female genitalia) set for 39 women ignored through history. Said to be too literal-minded and heavy-handed, The Dinner Party has been routinely panned as the visual equivalent of soap box speeches. Which accounts for why Christopher Knight, art critic for the L.A. Times, wrote that he wanted to "run screaming from the room" when he saw it.

I’m with Knight. Celebrating women’s history with dishes and reference to their pubic area is not the way to go. When Virginia Woolf said a room of one’s own is necessary for female fulfillment, she didn’t mean a dining room.

I met Chicago on the West Coast of Florida in 1996 when a work she created for the Tampa Bay Holocaust Museum and Education Center went on display. She came across like her work: self-important, like someone who likes to create incidents in public places.

To such a reaction, Chicago would probably say what she said back then: that the problem isn’t with her work, but with those who don’t like it. She cited the book Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, who wrote that when girls don’t fit in, they scapegoat other girls. As Chicago said, "I decided that’s basically what this (disdain by female critics) is. You know, I’m not exactly the most tactful person. I mean, I’m pretty straightforward. Blunt. For women, these are not virtues."

One wonders how Chicago reconciled the decided bluntness of Christine Temin of the Boston Globe when she wrote that Chicago tends to "trivialize Great Issues."

Making Temin’s point is Chicago’s thinking behind her 16-item, mixed-media presentation at the Tampa Bay Holocaust Museum, which also took a hit from critics. She views the extermination of millions of men, women and children as a feminist issue. "Most Holocaust scholars have paid virtually no attention to the fact that the architects of the Third Reich were all men."

But the attention that Chicago herself paid to sexism in The Dinner Party is far too bloodless to move anyone. She could take lessons from sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, who challenged art history in Backs, a sea of figures made with fiber rather than traditional materials. Slumped forward in a devouring gulf of gloom, as though wrecked by negated dreams, the figures could be men or women. Unlike the things that Chicago makes, the work of Abakanowicz consistently transcends time and gender.

Rather than read the likes of Pipher’s blaming Reviving Ophelia, Chicago might look to the contemporary Swedish poet Maria Wine, who looked to herself for answers:

"Woman, you are afraid of the forest
I see it in your eyes
when you stare into the darkness:
the terrified look of a defenseless creature.
Woman, you are a forest
strange and deep; I see
you are afraid of yourself."

As for Brooklyn Museum’s display of The Dinner Party, which begins in September, one may wonder who will care besides women of Chicago’s generation. (She is 73). After all, feminism isn’t the burning societal issue it once waseven as recently as 1986, it seems. That’s when The Dinner Party attracted 11,000 visitors in its first three weeks at the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum and Cultural Center in L.A.a record for the institution.

Chicago told me such attendance figures speak to a gap between the art world authorities and the general public: "If the art world is going to be able to build broader support, that issue needs to be addressed."

Her thinking fits right in with that of Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman. Speaking of his recent Hip-Hop showing, he told me, "I believe very strongly that popular culture has an important role to play in museums."

So do I. But the question remains, is The Dinner Party a popular culture item?

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