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Leftovers

In response to:

Strictly from Hunger from the April 30, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

John Richardson’s review of Judy Chicago’s books on The Dinner Party [NYR, April 30] is exactly the sort of art establishment male chauvinist piggery that plays into Chicago’s hands. Since Richardson does not evidence, by his essay, the wit to have intended that result, presumably the only excuse for printing his bit of bird-cage liner was to provoke comment. I am surprised that NYR needs to fish with such stale bait, but, in order to expose the harm of the hook, I’ll bite.

Even while acknowledging it, Richardson obviously missed the point of the work and the need to exhibit it. Art is necessarily representative and symbolic. And, like a footprint in the sand, it leaves an impression only if it is seen.

For Richardson’s information, the awe accorded The Dinner Party has very little to do with art, except as a vehicle, or history, except as a subject. It has a great deal to do with the sudden recognition of what and how much we have been missing by ignoring or trivializing women’s accomplishments throughout the course of Western “civilization.” It is less a monument to what has been than to what might have been—and, one can hope, to what might be. Long after the thousands who have already seen The Dinner Party have forgotten the details of the exhibit, they will remember that there were 999 names of women of achievement painted on the Heritage Floor, only a handful of which they recognized—and the terrible implications of that reaction. Is Chicago’s aim in doing this so different from Christo’s wrapping projects? Recall that he did them not so much because of the artistic value of the endeavors, but because it would mean that every property owner and city council in his path would have to ponder such questions as “What is art?”

To the extent that Chicago sought to draw attention to women’s achievements, she has done so. As an artist, Chicago had other goals as well. Her success on this level will be decided by each person viewing her work. The historical verities and philosophical values represented are relevant only to the extent that it is ever important to know what the artist thought she or he was depicting—useful, in other words, to those who agree with the artist as supplemental information for the record, and useful to those who do not agree only as material for trivia quizzes (such as are popular in conventional art history courses). Chicago’s books on The Dinner Party are in no sense the final words on the meaning of her work, nor were they intended to be. The books are a helpful starting place for the thousands of people who did understand The Dinner Party and want to know where to begin to make amends. Richardson himself might start there, if he is interested in improving his severe case of tunnel vision. When he understands his subject, perhaps he will be able to make a coherent case against it.

Charlotte McNaughton

Washington, D.C.

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