“From early on, age five or so, I set my sights on becoming the kind of artist who would make a contribution to art history.” -Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago’s most famous and nationally recognised painting, entitled The Dinner Party, is one of the most powerful feminist statements of her time (Gerhard, 2013 ). During the 1970’s, Chicago facilitated in cultivating Feminist art, a movement that endeavoured to educate and bring prominence to females in a male-dominated society. Created in 1974-1979, the mixed media art installation, The Dinner Party, was a monumental installation which transcended beyond the art world itself (Hayward, 1998 ). The work honours and pays tribute to women from history whom Chicago believed had been overlooked or marginalized. Chicago’s art shocked both the art world of the seventies and the feminist movement of America, as it “brought ideals of feminist self-affirmation, the celebration of female creativity, the rehabilitation of forgotten women in history, and the reconstruction of a female tradition in art” (D.Garrard, 1992 ). The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago, directly reflects the ever-changing movement of feminism and female empowerment in the 1970s.
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Judy Chicago was born on the 20th July 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. During the late 1950’s, Chicago obtained her master’s in painting and sculpture at U.C.L.A. In Chicago’s early twenties, she was one of the small number of women to join the growing art scene around the Ferus Gallery (D.Garrard, 1992 ). Throughout Chicago’s studies in graduate school and in the first decade of professional practice, she was constantly being demoralized by her predominantly male peers and mentors. In attempts to be accepted by the male-dominant art world, Chicago transformed her own physical aesthetic to embody a more masculine persona. This involved wearing big boots, smoking cigars and shaving her hair (Chansky, 2014 ). Her artwork during this time was being blatantly ignored by critics, as she was being relentlessly told that women could not be artists. These strong misogynistic beliefs during this time, radicalized both her and her artwork. Rather than adjust her philosophies to suit the male-dominated art world, Chicago wanted to pave the way in changing social and political standards for many women during that time. She wanted to break away from the rigid structures of the art world by displaying the developing ideas of feminism and the disassociation from stereotypical representations of gender.
The second wave of feminism was occurring during Chicago’s time. This major wave of feminism occurred in the nineteen-sixties lasting through to the eighties. During this wave, concerns surrounding female inferiority and gender inequality in the home and workplace, further inclusion of African American women’s rights, and major policy change regarding reproductive rights were challenged. Chicago was living in a particular era, 1968-1971, where the whole of America was coming alive with the feminist movement which was a follow-on from the civil rights movement. This revolution was not just the kind of female centric vison but a form of empowerment. The seventies assured a historic change and it introduced for the first time the possibility of women divulging their own experiences. Before this time, there was an innate absence of women experiences, perceptions and point of view. Chicago refuted the norms given to women by set social standards and demanded equal rights for both genders, all through the power of art. The innate influence art had on redirecting and breaking away from the binary society constructed for both genders throughout history, was monumental. Chicago’s artwork is an intrinsic reflection of how far society has come from the once bias and discriminatory world. As both art and feminism continue to strengthen simultaneously, the two have persisted in being powerful influences for social, political and economic change now and in the future. Judy Chicago set out to teach women’s history to a broad and diverse audience, to test the art world to see how women working at the same level of ambition that men had worked historically would be supported and received.
In 1970, Chicago founded the Feminist Art Program at California State University, Fresno. This program was the first feminist art program in the United States which acted as a catalyst for feminist art and art education. In 1974, after numerous years of forming several feminist art programs in Southern California, Chicago resigned from teaching, ready to revive her own artwork. This enforced her determination to make tribute to women’s history which opens up a new critical space to challenge the gender inequality of the time. Judy Chicago is considered as one of the first-generation feminist artists, who’s work is the realization of an uncompromisingly grandy vison, inviting both awe and identification. The innovative way Chicago’s art reflected through the eyes of a women made her work so distinctive.
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in March 1979,presents a ceremonial banquet which takes form as a massive triangular table laid with 39 places. Plates, many decorated with symbolic vaginas mark the guest’s places. Chicago sought to create a place at the table for women. She represented female genitalia in her tributes creating what some have dubbed full-frontal feminism, a practice she continues today. The Dinner Party deals with female agency where the plates are symbolic to this vision. They rise up and attempt to get off the plates. Chicago challenged norms and the rarefied art world.
Intended as a reinterpretation of ‘the Last Supper from the point of view of those who had done the cooking throughout history, it uses the traditional crafts of ceramics, china painting and embroidery practised in recent times particularly by women. The installation utilises some of the most familiar objects and experiences of women’s lives to illuminate that history through the domestic ritual of serving food. Each setting honours an individual woman, historical or mythical, whose name is embroidered on the front face of her table runner. Both the imagery and iconography of The Dinner Party present a thoughtfully worked out and consistent vision of women’s history. Chicago thereby asks us to consider seriously the value of women’s culture and women’s historical contribution and to ask ourselves probing questions about the nature and meaning of that past for us today and about the ways in which it has been traditionally perceived. When asked which women of The Dinner Party she most closely identified with, she observed: “I identify with all of them; I think they all represent some aspect of me, and of women’s lives and condition, which I identify with totally… They are aspects of myself… What do I know of the person? I take all this historical material and I weave it together. I weed through it and I take out of it what I can relate to, and what I can identify with and then I make an image. The result is some of the person and a lot of me. But then, of course, it begins to take on an identity outside of me… When the piece is done, all of a sudden it will exist outside of me and it- they will be personages and people will identify with them.” The Dinner Party should be seen as a symbolic assemblage of women worthies representing most periods of Western history.
Response to the work has been mixed. Many have praised the work, including art historian Susan Caldwell, who wrote that “it produces the sort of chill that comes only from beautiful works of strong conviction and conception.” American curator and art critic Lucy Lippard said of the work, “My own initial experience was strongly emotional… The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings.” Some critics, however, hold negative opinions of the work, with American art critic Hilton Kramer calling the work “vulgar” and “crass”, and artist Cornelia Parker stating “we’re all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It’s almost like the biggest piece of victim art you’ve ever seen. And it takes up so much space. I quite like the idea of trying to fit it in some tiny bin – not a very feminist gesture but I don’t think the piece is either.” Judy Chicago encountered a tremendous amount of resistance through her work The Dinner Party. The Dinner Party was very confusing for a lot of yeas because ostensibly, it was a huge successive. However, during its time in the spotlight, Chicago lost everything; her studio, staff, her marriage, she was in debt, she had no opportunities. This just goes to show that normally, after an artist’s big museum show, they are usually swamped with offers and opportunities. However, Chicago had the complete opposite. The work has also been criticized for having a racial bias. Writer Esther Allen notes that the work excludes Latin American women like Frida Kahlo, and author Alice Walker notes that Sojourner Truth’s plate is the only one that has three faces instead of a vagina, possibly, she proposes, because “white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas.” It took 20 years after the premiering of the Dinner Party, for the New York Times to stop referring to The Dinner Party as genitalia on plates and finally start talking about a history of women in Western civilization. Chicago did not feel that the work was in any aspect provocative. She did not believe there to be any reason that female agency or female sexual agency should be any more proactive than the images we see by male artists all the time. Despite the fact that male artists have been creating female nudes for centuries, the work was considered controversial when the dinner party first toured Canada in the early 80s museums and galleries had to extend their hours attendance records were broken everywhere.
Throughout Judy Chicago’s career, she issued a critique of the way women’s history had been neglected and also of the male-dominated art world. Since Chicago began her career, there have been significant changes in the sense that there are many more women and artists of colour showing.
- Chansky, R. A. (2014 ). When Words Are Not Enough. Narrating Power and Femininity Through the Visual Language of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party , 51-77.
- D.Garrard, N. B. (1992 ). The Expanding Discourse Feminism and Art History . New York : HarperCollins .
- Gardner-Huggett, J. (2014 ). Woman's Art Journal Vol. 35 . Philadelphia : Old City Publishing .
- Gerhard, J. F. (2013 ). Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007 . Philadelphia : Old City Publishing .
- Hayward, P. (1998 ). Picture This Media Representations of Visual Art and Artists . Bedfordshire : University of Luton Press.
- Hodge, S. (2017 ). Modern Art in Detail . Thames & Hudson .
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