The Dinner Party
finally found permanent refuge in a museum, albeit a handout
to the Brooklyn Museum.
It took 25 years for Judy
Chicagos installation to find a resting place. Which
shouldnt surprise anyone. From the start, few in
the art world liked the work: an installation of a triangular-shaped
table (the artists 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.
Im with Knight. Celebrating
womens history with dishes and reference to their
pubic area is not the way to go. When Virginia Woolf said
a room of ones own is necessary for female fulfillment,
she didnt mean a dining
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
isnt with her work, but with those who dont
like it. She cited the book Reviving Ophelia by
Mary Pipher, who wrote that when
girls dont fit in, they scapegoat other girls. As
Chicago said, "I decided thats basically what this
(disdain by female critics) is. You know, Im not
exactly the most tactful person. I mean, Im 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 Temins point
is Chicagos 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 Piphers blaming Reviving Ophelia, Chicago
might look to the contemporary Swedish poet Maria Wine,
who looked to herself
"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
As for Brooklyn Museums
display of The Dinner Party, which begins in September,
one may wonder who will care besides women of Chicagos
generation. (She is 73). After all, feminism isnt
the burning societal issue it once
recently as 1986, it seems. Thats 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
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
By Judy Chicago
with Judy Chicago
By John W. Whitehead