Last weekend marked the opening of the exhibition Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making. Next to Judy Chicago’s infamous installation, it displays infrequently shown test plates, research documents, ephemera, notebooks, and preparatory drawings from 1971 through 1979. This year, with some exceptions, the Brooklyn Museum hosts a free tour of the installation every Friday.
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party has been getting mixed reviews since its public debut in 1979. Some see the work as an essential icon of 1970s feminism which celebrates the lives, work, and achievements of Western women throughout history. It consists of thirty-nine unique place settings, 38 plates depicts different vaginas, each paying a tribute a significant female. An additional 999 names of remarkable women are inscribed in gold underneath the table. Exemplary for 70s feminism, this work tries to revision history that is determined by male narratives by adding and emphasizing on female accomplishments. It also gave a stamp of approval for mediums conventionally considered as female domestic labor and crafts, such as ceramics, embroidery, and sewing.
On the one hand, many feminists, like Lucy Lippard saw the work as an uplifting and moving celebration of female artistic expression. On the other hand, it was received as second-wave feminism’s typical ignorant attitude which embraced the attribution of a fixed essence to women and generalizes female oppression worldwide and thereby neglects racial and class privilege. Like Amelia Jones has argued, Chicago assumes “there is such a thing as a unified – implicitly heterosexual and white (not to mention middle class) – female experience.”
Affiliated to this is the re-occurring critique was the absence of a vagina in the place setting of Sojourner Truth, the only Black woman. Instead of a plate depicting the shape of a vulva, hers shows three faces. Novelist and activist Alice Walker has stated in Ms. magazine, “It occurred to me that perhaps white women feminists, no less than white women generally, can not imagine black women have vaginas. Or if they can, where imagination leads them is too far to go.[…] white women feminists [have] revealed themselves as incapable as white and black men of comprehending blackness and feminism in the same body.” The lack of showing a black vulva sustains the notion that many white feminists are blind that race is an integral component of difference within the oppressed.
Back to Amelia Jones, as she calls the work as something that “blatantly feminizes historical narrative.” She sees it as a populist work because it tries to reach the broadest audience possible with its utopian purpose of women’s greatness. But, because she created a humongous piece which dubbed these females as hero’s, she actually reinforced typical male-based conceptions of history. She forced these women into the desired characteristics of male greatness, like looking from a male perspective. Plus, she made a hierarchy of this greatness by providing some women a seat at the table, and others shoved underneath the table or left out entirely.
Hopefully, I do not oversimply these approaches to the work but make clear that we should try to challenge it. As bell hooks convincingly argues, feminism is a theory in the making in which it is necessary to criticize, question, and re-examine. So it is excellent that the Dinner Party has been an object to explore precisely these things. It is a tangible example in which serves as a base to illuminate the problem of underrepresentation of black female artists and 70s feminism deficiency. Because sparked this discussion, it can lead others to re-examine this piece and think about the exclusion of the non-white feminist in the movement at large. Hopefully, it makes people aware of this occurrence and eventually changes their attitude. And hopefully, you got the Gretchen Weiner’s reference in the title.
Roots of “The Dinner Party”: History in the Making is at the Brooklyn Museum from October 20 to March 4, 2018.