Artists and writers often depict society in ways that raise eyebrows and curl lips with disdain. The artist Judy Chicago and her massive installation – “The Dinner Party” – turned the tables on the art world back in 1979.
She chose the powerful motif of a dinner party to make her statement. With all the allusions to women’s work that a dinner party conjures up – flowers, cooking, cleaning, hospitality – “The Dinner Party” reminds the viewer of the rigidity of the dinner party then, a holdover from Victorian sensibilities.
Set up in the shape of an equilateral triangle, the table’s dimensions were meant to represent equality. And each side featured thirteen women from one of three historical periods of Western history: Prehistory to Classical Rome, Christianity to the Reformation, and the American Revolution and Women’s Revolution.
The 39 vagina-inspired dinner plates caused lovers of classic nudes to turn away in disgust.
Congressman Robert K. Dornan claimed that “The Dinner Party” was nothing more than “ceramic 3-D pornography.” Women critics, Maureen Mullarkey for one, took up their pens and threw scathing words at Chicago, accusing her of everything from disrespect of the women she honored in her work to the crassness of featuring female genitalia. And other critics, such as Alice Walker, pointed out the fallacy of a white woman daring to portray a black woman, in this case Chicago’s rendition of Sojourner Truth. Walker also bemoaned the lack of black women artists in Chicago’s list of 999 “women of achievement.”
Although I look at Judy Chicago’s iconic “The Dinner Party” with quite different eyes today, seeing photos of it for the first time shocked me, despite Our Bodies, Ourselves and the ensuing feminist emphasis on embracing every part of the female body, even the “down-there” parts. Yet I found it thrilling to learn of all those women – 1038 of them highlighted in “The Dinner Party” – because women’s achievements tended to be ignored or ridiculed or condemned all the time in those days.
Chicago’s celebration of women broke ground, raising awareness of women’s yearning for achievement. Oppressed by systemic misogynism in much the same way that systemic racism still works against women of color, women have indeed “come a long way, baby.”
While much has changed since “The Dinner Party” first appeared in 1979, much has not … as today’s headlines attest.
See “The Dinner Party” at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn, New York. Since it’s a part of the permanent collection on display and I hope to see it in person one day.