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 1 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.2 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. As most people are now aware, this much publicized monument to women’s achievements consists of a large triangular table laid with thirty-nine place settings (consisting of a commemorative plate, embroidered runner, goblet, knife, and fork), each of which is dedicated to a different goddess, saint, witch, queen, lesbian, pioneer, writer, or artist, from Kali to O’Keeffe.
In attendance, the exhibition certainly justified itself. Brooklyn’s venerable but impecunious museum had to install a Ticketron to control crowds, estimated at full capacity—some 75,000 people. Since inordinate claims have been made for The Dinner Party and since other museums contemplate showing it, we should surely try to determine whether or not Chicago has realized her dream of “making a piece so far beyond judgment that it will enter the cultural pool and never be erased from history, as woman’s work has been erased before”; also whether or not the campaign fostered by Harris, Nochlin, et al. to rehabilitate women’s art in the eyes of the world is being furthered by The Dinner Party and the publications that are proliferating around it.
Lucy R. Lippard, who has a more incisive mind, articulate style, and, when she chooses, perceptive eye than any other radical feminist critic, has made the most eloquent case for The Dinner Party (Art in America, April, 1980). Her authoritative voice was the more welcome in view of all the hype that the piece had generated, both for and against. “My own initial experience was strongly emotional”; she was, she said, “dazzled.” These feelings do more credit to the feminist than the critic. In view of the conviction with which Lippard heralded the genius of the late Eva Hesse, she is at a certain disadvantage when it comes to promoting something as fustian as The Dinner Party. For Chicago’s dialectics are the antithesis of Hesse’s unfettered imaginings. And so Lippard, who usually persuades me to respect, if not always share, her viewpoint, failed, for once, to make a convincing case. By no stretch of one’s critical standards is The Dinner Party either “awesome” (except in a pejorative sense), or “one of the most ambitious works of art made in the postwar period, [which] succeeds as few others have….”
“The piece is like one giant shriek,” Judy Chicago wishfully thought aloud before The Dinner Party’s San Francisco debut in 1979. Actually, insofar as it emits any din at all, it is one giant whine. Much the same goes for Chicago’s autobiography, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist,3 and these two subsequent volumes of explanatory material (historical, autobiographical, technical, all of it highly whimsical) which, according to Lippard, will be followed by yet a third compendium (“an illuminated manuscript of women’s mythology and history which, among other things, rewrites the Book of Genesis”). If Chicago were endowed with a great deal less ego, and a great deal more sensibility and artistry, the whining would not be so bothersome. Nor would the whole Dinner Party project, books, films, and all, teeter so precariously on the brink of artistic and intellectual ridicule that one might think a serious museum would fight shy of sponsoring it.
First a word about the artist. Judy Chicago (formerly Mrs. Gerowitz), who claims descent from twenty-three generations of rabbis, was born in Chicago, hence her nom de plume et pinceau—or did she, as some have suggested, covet the initials “J.C.”? Early in life, she was married, widowed, married again—to a painter with whom she “used to joke about [their] being Braque and Picasso”—and finally divorced. Meanwhile she had moved to California, where she worked as a Minimal painter and sculptor who “prided herself on the ‘fetish finish’ of her work and the way she ‘dance[d] on the edge’ of technical disaster—to orgasm” (Lippard). She also became known as a teacher and promoter of women’s causes.
In the course of Through the Flower Chicago confesses to certain seminal influences: Anaïs Nin (predictably “one of my heroines”), who proposed that her disciple proselytize in words as well as acrylics. The suggestion was well taken; Nin’s wistful self-dramatizing had mesmerized so many mindless kids that other burgeoning egos with stardom or canonization in mind could take heart. Chicago’s other literary exemplar was more macabre: Valerie Solanas, the author of the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto and the woman who shot Andy Warhol almost to death. “Even though I thought Solanas extreme,” Chicago writes, “I identified with all the material in those early tracts as I had never identified with anything in my whole life.” As for painters, the one who has most influenced Chicago—through her life as well as art—has of course been Georgia O’Keeffe, but the Sibyl of Taos kept her distance. “You mean Chicago’s still alive?” was all the old lady would comment when I rashly asked whether she enjoyed being the one live guest at this phantom feast.
Chicago’s reputation as a “saint” in feminist circles dates from the early Seventies, when she set up a women’s program at Fresno State and also established two related projects: Woman-space, a gallery where women could congregate and exhibit, and Woman-house, a community center which emphasized consciousness-raising. This took the form of group sessions in a kitchen curtained in plastic by Wanda Westcoast; assemblages of an inspirational or provocative nature like Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom; and performances of “plays,” among them a brief two-character charade, called Cock and Cunt, which involved styrofoam pudenda and all the ladies clapping hands in a brisk one-two, one-two rhythm: “very effective,” if, as Chicago suggests, Cock and Cunt is performed by several teams, each team doing the play twice so that every participant gets a crack at being the villain as well as the heroine.
But Chicago’s ultimate goal in life was to come up with a monument to “the history of women in civilization,” a monument that would carry on from her Great Lady series (paintings of Queens Christina, Marie-Antoinette, Catherine the Great, and Victoria) and her Reincarnation Triptych (which honored Mesdames de Staël, Sand, and Woolf). Originally her theme was to be “Twenty-Five Women Who Were Eaten Alive,” but she foolhardily abandoned the ridiculous for the sublime—for the Last Supper, no less. Not that Chicago is the first feminist with a Eucharistic hang-up: in 1972 Mary Beth Edelson had already devised a feminist parody of the Last Supper, with Georgia O’Keeffe standing in for Christ. There had also been the Sister Chapel, a collaborative venture which, according to Lisa Tickner, threw together “Artemisia Gentileschi, [Ms.?] God, Frieda Kahlo, Superwoman, and Betty Friedan.”4
Chicago proved to be an even more ambitious hostess than Edelson; not even hell was exempt from her guest list—only the third world. Furthermore she proposed reinterpreting “the Last Supper from the point of view of women who, throughout history, had prepared the meals and set the table. In my ‘Last Supper,’ however, the women would be the honored guests…. There were thirteen men present at the Last Supper. There were also thirteen members in a witches’ coven, and witches were always associated with feminine evil…. [Thus] the same number had both a positive and a negative connotation….” This all-girl Cena had of course to be stylishly served. Since placement involved insoluble problems, Chicago, like any self-respecting hostess, concentrated on the place-settings and dinner service. “Thirteen plates,” she soon realized, “were not enough to represent the various stages of Western civilization and therefore the number tripled.” Further corroboration for Chicago’s “historical viewpoint” materialized on December 27, 1975, when the credulous artist came upon “a wonderful quote about how God changed sex in the thirteenth century.”
By the time it was finished The Dinner Party cost over $250,000 ($36,500 from the National Endowment) and necessitated five years’ incessant work on the part of Chicago (“I can imagine how Michelangelo must have felt…”) and over four hundred mostly dedicated but sometimes mutinous women, plus a few indispensable men, notably the chief ceramicist and industrial designer. “Parturient montes, nascetur…” not Horace’s “ridiculus mus” but something more akin to another Californian folly, Howard Hughes’s Snow Goose. Doomed, like the Snow Goose, to abortive flight, The Dinner Party is no less poignant in that it combines vain endeavor on an enormous scale with a would-be magnificent obsession. And it is likewise of historical interest, though in a very different setting, in that it represents an extreme form of a contemporary trend: the way iconography is said to be taking over. Derridians, take note—The Dinner Party is all content, no art.
No art? However skillful as a painter or sculptor, however protean she may think she is in other ways, Chicago is an indifferent ceramicist. Aesthetically, her plates are comparable in style and organic form to those ornate psychedelic candles that used to be the rage of Village “head” shops. Only the subject matter is more peculiar. According to Chicago, she originally conceived her plates as butterfly-like—“metaphysical references to the whole issue of what it means to be feminine”—but changed her mind, because what she really wanted was a form that would not merely fly but “bend, and twist, and push, and thrust”—a form that would also avenge womanhood for all “those centuries of phallic imagery.” For Chicago seems to have the same view as Linda Nochlin, who believes that “phallic imagery is almost by definition political…[it] remains the basis of present-day religious and political attitudes.”
Chicago did not have far to search for her image. The only symbol with enough “push and thrust,” as well as charisma, to set up against the old phallic establishment lay right there between feminine, rather than masculine, thighs. And so with a backward look at O’Keeffe’s vaguely vaginal flowers, Chicago embarked forthwith on a set of ceramic vaginas. Given her total lack of experience as a potter, this turned out to be a tremendously taxing and tedious undertaking. Sometimes the kiln seemed hexed. All the more regrettable, then, that far from expressing any of the sexual audacity of their conception, Chicago’s vulval artifacts bring to mind Kingsley Amis’s hard lines on women’s parts: “like the inside of a giraffe’s ear or a tropical fruit not much prized even by the locals.”
Far from instilling us with love or lust, fear or awe, Chicago’s plates somehow contrive to defuse this hottest of subjects almost as effectively, but nowhere near as deftly or coolly, as Andy Warhol’s canvases of the Seventies defused the male crotch, not to speak of Mao Zedong and the hammer and sickle. Consequently these vaginas have as much power to turn us on or off as models of human organs in doctors’ offices. Metamorphosis into art simply hasn’t taken place. Mundane questions of diagnosis inevitably suggest themselves. Why, for instance, are deities like Ishtar, Kali, and the Snake Goddess suffering from vagina verrucosa? Why is Sacajawea saddled with that old bogey, vagina dentata, or Margaret Sanger with such an angry red condition? And, granted there was something odd about Elizabeth I’s sexual nature, but why the flux of purple jellybeans?
From the above it should be obvious that there is not the slightest hint of pornographic intent about The Dinner Party. However, Chicago is guilty of one unfortunate, and I am sure unintentional, lapse into sex-shop vulgarity. I speak of the plate with the ruched pink pussy nestling in a ruff of clay-dipped lace. Not Mae West, Emily Dickinson. This pink thing is doubtless what triggered the spot of trouble that occurred during the Brooklyn showing: two susceptible ladies had to be evicted for having a go at each other right there on the “Heritage Floor.” So much for Chicago’s powers of consciousness-raising.
My own reaction was less Dionysiac. I felt in dire need of some sort of antidote and for once knew where to get it—Kynaston McShine’s memorable retrospective of Joseph Cornell’s work at the Museum of Modern Art. Here by contrast with Chicago was an artist who despite his gender had developed “an idealised empathy for women”5 and who exploited this empathy in such a way that he literally enshrined the spirit of his heroines—among them Emily Dickinson—in a succession of magical boxes. What a relief, then, to come upon at MOMA one of Cornell’s most evocative constructions with a Dickinsonian theme, Toward the “Blue Peninsula.” The subtlety and delicacy of the psyche as well as the verse—so degraded by Chicago’s dish—find a perfect echo in this taut, sparse shadow-box. As is the way with Cornell, his passion for the genius of a specific woman has taken a form that is all the more effective for being obliquely and allusively expressed.
And then back, refreshed, to Brooklyn to check out Chicago’s craftsmanship. Even in this respect the allegorical dinner service fails to justify all the ballyhoo that she herself has instigated. So far as I can see, its most remarkable aspect is the way the matière counterfeits the industrial sheen and color of plastic. Shades of Tupperware. The dainty crudeness of the ceramics is only outdone by the clumsiness of the accompanying chalices and flatware—jugglers’ props—which, like the rest of the stuff on the dinner table, are too big in relation to the overall concept, which is too small.
The table-runners are another matter. Thanks to hundreds of skilled embroideresses, quilters, weavers, stump-workers, and the like, the runners are far the most attractive and rewarding aspect of The Dinner Party. By displaying virtually the entire gamut of needlework techniques, they constitute a microcosm of the craft—a microcosm which is the main subject of one of the volumes under review. However, here again, banal designs and an unimaginative choice of emblems (dinky waves in the case of Woolf) invalidate any claim that this stitchery has to being “high art.” Like so much else about The Dinner Party, the runners are intended to have an ecclesiastical look, but it is ironical that they also invite comparison with such badges of male chauvinism as Freemasons’ aprons or the butch heraldry of motorcyclists’ insignia.
Defective as art, The Dinner Party is equally defective as history, notwithstanding the historical pretensions of these two volumes (the equivalent in hard coverage to what has been devoted to Picasso’s Guernica, Duchamp’s The Large Glass, and, on a different level, Chagall’s Windows). Apart from the style, which is dismally coy when it is not being strident, the main trouble is Chicago’s confusion of history with the feminist technique known as “herstory.”
As practiced by Chicago and the twenty research workers who collaborated on the historical side of this project, “herstory” necessitates ” ‘reading through’ the biased way women are usually presented in history books.” Alas, female chauvinism proves quite as crass as the male variety, if not more so. “Reading through” results in texts that are about as objective as entries in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Besides being shamelessly selective in their perceptions, Chicago’s “herstorians” constantly indulge in special pleading and silly speculation. They are also exceedingly inaccurate.
“Herstory” manifests itself at its dottiest in the selection of 999 “women of achievement”—out of some three thousand—whose names in gold “emanate like streams from beneath the place settings” all over the bathroom tiles of the “Heritage Floor.” After ransacking “close to a thousand history books,” The Dinner Party’s “herstorians” have come up with a roll of honor6—more of a sottisier at times—that again and again bogs down in myth or the Dark Ages: “Antoinette, Marie; Anu (a fairy); Aphrodite; Arachne; Arendt, Hannah…. Maacah, Mabel, Macha, Macha (a Fury); Macha of the Red Tresses, Madderakka…,” and so on. Granted, many household names are included, but one after another of these paragons disqualifies herself from serious consideration by virtue of being either legendary (Python, Buto, etc.), fictitious (Lysistrata), spurious (Pope Joan), arcane (Properzia de Rossi who carved peach-stones), bogus (Madame Blavatsky), bigoted (Carrie Nation), traitorous (Mata Hari), or in all too many cases just plain ungifted, like that bore, Radclyffe Hall.
As revealing as the inclusions are the exclusions, especially twentieth-century ones. For example, Karen Horney makes the list, not Anna Freud or Melanie Klein; Vita Sackville-West, not I. Compton-Burnett or Sylvia Plath; Louise Nevelson, not Eva Hesse or Agnes Martin. And then why no Garbo or Dietrich, no Callas or Piaf, no Claire McCardell or Chanel, and why, since the Amazon plate is a pretext for paragraphs of mythic claptrap, are there no references to the real McCoy—the Amazones Dahoméennes, who for at least two hundred years have formed a crack division of the Dahomean army? According to one of their recent victims, Bruce Chatwin, these Amazons are still going strong, still filing their teeth to points, the better to devour their male enemies—authentic SCUM.
The biographical notes on Chicago’s motley Pantheon are a measure of the desperation that “herstory” imposes. For instance, Megalostrata, who “achieved prominence as a composer, singer and leader of girl’s choirs in Sparta…. Unfortunately none of her compositions have (sic) been preserved”; or again Honorata (sic) Rodiana, “who was the only woman fresco painter in fifteenth century Italy. Unfortunately none of her works are (sic) extant, probably due to improper attribution….”
Even when a life is a matter of more or less public record, errors of fact and emphasis abound. Virginia Woolf is a notable victim. As a girl (according to Quentin Bell) she was excessively fondled by her half brother, George Duckworth, but not raped by him. And Chicago surely travesties this writer’s views when she claims that “according to Woolf’s philosophy, the subjugation of women was the key to most of the social and psychological disorders of Western civilization. She believed that the rise of Nazism was an infantile reaction to women’s demands for equal rights”; or again when she surmises that “Woolf committed suicide because she could just no longer muster the energy to fight the structure of male-dominated society.” Finally, to add insult to inveracity, Chicago memorializes this most fastidious of women with a sallow flesh-colored vent—“luminous petals spread open to reveal Woolf’s fecund genius”—that only Preparation H. could redeem.
So much for history. How successfully does The Dinner Party function in its political role? Here, as one might imagine, the piece, no less than its creator, comes into its own. Despite aesthetic defects, The Dinner Party deserves to be taken seriously as agitprop of remarkable potential. It has apparently proved of value to a great many women in search of sexual solidarity. It has also served as a sorely needed rallying point in women’s ongoing war of independence—what Chicago has described as the “class struggle based on the division between men and women.” And, not least, it has given the people who worked on it a gratifying sense of communal fulfillment that has, we are told, been an inspiration to women’s groups all over the country.
Then again, such intense feelings of hope and identification have rubbed off on The Dinner Party that after only eighteen months of existence it has developed an almost palpable mystique. No one who saw the Brooklyn exhibit could fail to be struck by this phenomenon, also the cathedral hush. So far as I could judge on my visit, the women (there were very few men) were an average cross-section of citizens. That is to say they represented the hard core of the movement, not just its lunatic fringe. All the more striking, then, that these women, who would certainly have evinced distaste rather than interest in a display of sex-shop paraphernalia, were shuffling past rows of Three D. beaver, as awed as if they were on a pilgrimage. Come to think of it, they were on a pilgrimage. Brooklyn was briefly their Cnidos. And so—for me at least—The Dinner Party functioned at one remove. I was touched, not in the least by the piece itself but by the way it appeared to kindle and soothe the spirits of others. At the same time I could not help but be concerned over the ideological influence of a movement whose sympathizers, especially ones as intelligent as Lippard, could derive so much uplift from so much bunkum.
As has often happened before, work that appears to function as a totem or political symbol, like The Dinner Party, narrows the potentialities of the cause it proclaims. Lippard’s point7 that for a woman painter “finding [an] audience, making contact, is a political as much as an artistic act, but it is as creative as anything an artist can do,” is to some extent a valid one. However, as she goes on to say, “It takes immense amounts of energy, courage, originality.” Energy and courage Chicago has in abundance. It is because the last quality is in short supply that The Dinner Party misfires, that it ends up as a cul-de-sac instead of the vaunted feminist breakthrough. Nor should we overlook the extent to which the piece embodies in one way or another so many of the joke failings that men are traditionally supposed to ascribe to women. No question about it, from where I stand The Dinner Party looks more like a celebration of misogyny than a denunciation of it. Wouldn’t Chicago’s four hundred cohorts have created a more appropriate monument to their sex if they had helped Christo wrap the Grand Canyon?
April 30, 1981
Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists, 1550-1950 (Knopf, 1977). ↩
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. ↩
Doubleday, 1975; Anchor, 1977 (paper). ↩
See Lisa Tickner, “Cultural Politics and Sexual Hegemony ,” an introduction to the catalogue of the Women’s Images of Men exhibit, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1980. This was one of the three enterprising exhibits which the ICA recently devoted to feminist themes. ↩
Joseph Cornell, edited by Kynaston McShine. Essays by Dawn Ades, Carter Ratcliff, P. Adams Sitney, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan (The Museum of Modern Art, 1980). ↩
Chicago’s list often reads like the parody devised by “Maria Manhattan,” a rival artist who had asked the Brooklyn Museum to exhibit her spoof, The Box Lunch, at the same time as The Dinner Party. When the museum refused, Manhattan set up her piece in a gallery on Wooster Street, complete with a catalogue honoring, among others: Lot’s Wife, Amy Carter, Mary Hartman, Pat Nixon, Evita Perón, and of course Chicago. By reducing the Chicago piece to total absurdity, the Manhattan project scored a few easy points, but in the last resort The Box Lunch was redundant, because the original is self-parodic. ↩
In her challenging preface, “Changing Since Changing,” to From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (E.P. Dutton, 1976). A credo for the feminist art critic. ↩