The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage
by Judy Chicago
Anchor Press/Doubleday, 255 pp., $12.95 (paper)
Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework
by Judy Chicago, by Susan Hill
Anchor Press/Doubleday, 288 pp., $15.95 (paper)
The Complete Dinner Party: The Dinner Party and Embroidering Our Heritage
Anchor Press/Doubleday, boxed set, $28.90 (paper)
By sponsoring, in 1977, the first serious historical exhibit of women artists (1550-1950), the Brooklyn and Los Angeles museums did art history and the women’s movement an immense service. The organizers, Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, presented their material in the light of modern scholarship, and if their indispensable catalogue shows slight signs of feminist bias—why not? At least they were careful not to jeopardize their cause by making rash claims. As well as assembling a corpus of largely unfamiliar works, the exhibition was a milestone because it opened up new territory and encouraged women to take pride in an artistic heritage that virtually none of them had known existed. For better or worse, however, this admirable show did not make more than a small dent in the swinish male conviction that, with a very few exceptions, women are only marginally better painters than they are composers or bull-fighters.
Two years after the Brooklyn show, Germaine Greer published her history of women’s art, aptly entitled The Obstacle Race. Anyone who had hoped that Greer would build up a full-scale historical reappraisal on the foundations so ably excavated by Harris and Nochlin was in for a disappointment. Not for the first time, Greer’s prejudices ran away with her. As a result The Obstacle Race is of more interest for the light it casts on feminist manipulation of facts than as art history. Major claims are forever being made for irredeemably minor figures, and the author harps far too much on the familiar feminist contention that the lack of good, let alone great, women artists is all the fault of dastardly husbands, overbearing fathers, biased teachers, envious colleagues, chauvinistic critics, misogynous dealers, vicious rapists, and the like. These brutes are accused of doing such damage over the centuries to the wills and wombs, the egos and psyches of women that the creative urge was repeatedly nipped in the bud. Hence no Fran Angelicos, no Golda Rembrandts (to borrow a conceit of Robert Rosenblum’s). The main trouble with this contention is that it utterly fails to explain why, if the lack of artistic genius in females is the consequence of male chauvinism, there should have been so many women who were (to quote Brigid Brophy) “great literary artists.”
Then again Greer leaves out of account the fact that some of the lesser painters she cites have only acquired a reputation because they are women. The newly fashionable figure, Artemisia Gentileschi, for instance: if this minor follower of Caravaggio is now more celebrated than more accomplished male Caravaggisti, it is as much thanks to the phenomenon of her sex as to her gifts.
In Greer’s wake the Brooklyn Museum climbed back on board the feminist bandwagon. Spurred by the success of the women artists’ exhibition, the director and the Education Department (as opposed to the Painting Department, which sponsored things in 1977) took the controversial step last October of displaying Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party …