Forty Years After 'Dinner Party,’ Judy Chicago Takes Stock in Israel

Misogyny hasn’t disappeared from the art world, says the artist, whose iconic work is being honored by Israeli female artists at an exhibit in Haifa.

What’s the magical charm of “The Dinner Party,” the huge installation work that is considered a milestone in feminist art? The monumental work was conceived as a response to the question, “Why are there no important women in history?” Chicago took on the arduous task of proving that the question was incorrect and misleading because indeed, there were important women in history. And there was also a feminine language and feminine creativity, myths and ethics, along with a belief system and courses of action and visual material, all of which had been excluded from the historical stage.

In the book “Women and Art: Contested Territory” that she co-wrote with art historian Edward Lucie-Smith, Chicago says that even as a child she wanted to be an artist who would influence the history of art. Over the years she realized that many of the masterpieces she had studied conveyed a message contrary to this aspiration. “Degas’ sensuous women, for example, seemed content simply to lie and be gazed at,” she writes, as she describes the maturation process of her feminist consciousness, and she saw these women as denying her “experience and feelings as a female person.”

Her confusion as an art student stemmed from her having identified as a young women with the painted female models who were anonymous and objectified in these great works of art. “If we can’t use the historic language of art because so much of it is misogynous, what language are we supposed to use as women artists?” she once noted in an interview. “If we can’t use the female body, for example, because there is such a thin line between representation and colonization, then what are we supposed to do? Build a new language, and that’s a big job.”

Over the years, she would repeatedly cite Picasso as a clear example of a misogynist artist glorified by the world, even though he would distort women’s figures (In “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” for example) and whose representations of rape were canonized. Ask her if she considers her art to be political and she will answer, “No more than Picasso was political.” So the sacred mission that she adopted was to create feminist art that would describe women’s real-life experience and change the world.

Now the Haifa Museum, in cooperation with the Na’amat women’s organization, is marking 40 years since Chicago began work on “The Dinner Party,” which took five years to complete. The tribute exhibition is entitled “The Chicago Triangle.”

‘Israel far behind U.S. and Europe’

Do you still believe in the importance of women-only events?

“As I understand it, Israel is far behind the United States and Europe in terms of gender consciousness,” replied Chicago in an email interview. “In the 1970s, at the beginning of the feminist art movement, we had women-only events as a way of identifying and overcoming some of the ways in which the construction of femininity was holding us back from realizing ourselves as artists – also, to prevent men from dominating the activities in which we were engaged. At this point in time, that no longer seems necessary for us. But obviously, it is an important step in female empowerment, one which — apparently — is still necessary in Israel.”

Does feminist theory still have a role in art and art history today?

“In 2007, Connie Butler curated an exhibition titled “WACK” which demonstrated the incredible impact of feminist art on contemporary art practice. And almost all of the important art schools in the United States and Europe include courses on feminist theory; that’s the good news. The bad news is that feminist art, feminist theory, and the (200-year) history of feminist thought are still not considered sufficiently important to have been thoroughly integrated into the mainstream of art history along with the history of Western Civilization, which is where they belong, to be studied by men and women alike. And that is a cross-cultural phenomenon.”

Are there still canonic misogynistic artists today?

“How about Damien Hirst, who just did a series of monumental sculptures in Qatar related to the development of a fetus with no reference to the maternal body, without which it could neither grow nor survive? To erase the role of women – in life, in art or in history – is deeply misogynistic. Of course, he could not have received that $20 million commission if he had included the host female body, not in the Middle East.”

Looking back, what has changed in the status of women in art, or in general? Has our situation improved or gotten worse?

“I have no idea what – if anything – has changed for Israeli women. For women artists in the United States, young women can be themselves in their work in ways that were unimaginable when I was a young artist in Los Angeles. In order to be taken seriously at that time, I had to excise any hint of gender from my work. After a decade of that, I decided to be myself as a woman artist and made a radical change, one focused on creating an openly female-centered imagery.”

Judith Sylvia Cohen was born in Chicago in 1939 to a family whose ancestors had been rabbis for generations, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Prior to “The Dinner Party” she created environmental smoke art, going out into nature naked and lighting colorful smoke sticks to symbolize the female orgasm and communing with creation. She also specialized in spray painting, which she dubbed “macho art.”

In 1970 she published an ad in Artforum that read as follows: “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and chooses her own name, Judy Chicago.” (Gerowitz was her married name, though her husband Jerry had died in a car crash in 1963.) That same year she coined the term “feminist art” when she launched the first feminist art program while teaching at Fresno State College.

After “The Dinner Party,” she created “The Birth Project” and “The Holocaust Project,” and a new version of the ketuba, the Jewish marriage contract, for her 25th anniversary with her third husband. But none of these managed to repeat the powerful sensationalism of “The Dinner Party.” In many ways, Chicago is a one-hit artist.

‘Party’ theme

She began her major work, a sculpted dinner invitation to a ghost meal, in 1974, gathering together a group of women that included a research subgroup. They came up with 39 strong and influential women in history and mythology – medieval doctors, poets and writers, rulers and musicians, healers and jurists who were role models for their time and in their fields, women who succeeded in changing the course of their own lives while also inspiring other women, overcoming their circumstances and prospects. These merited being immortalized in Chicago’s work, which is composed of practical arts that were considered feminine and inferior – embroidery, sewing, pottery, patchwork, knitting, and painting on porcelain.

“The Dinner Party” is a table shaped like an equilateral triangle. Each side represents a historical era – from prehistory to the Roman Empire; from the rise of Christianity until the 17th century; and from the American Revolution until the mid-20th century. Each side has 13 seats (the number was chosen to parallel the Last Supper of Jesus and his 12 apostles). Each “guest” got individual treatment in terms of the tablecloth, the napkins and especially the ceramic plates, which Chicago designed to resemble vulvae. She designed a type of decorative women’s logo that she dubbed the “vagina-butterfly” and the imagery is repetitive and dominant on all the plates, which are placed alluringly toward the viewer — a focused, anti-phallic image of a waiting womb. The table is placed on the platform called the “Heritage Floor,” made of porcelain tiles listing the names of 999 other notable women.

The work was vehemently criticized by conservatives and religious elements, but also by art purists and feminists. The former complained of vulgarity, paganism and blasphemy, and of the cannibalistic dimension of the work (as if it’s fine to symbolically eat the flesh of Jesus but less fine to eat a female sex organ). The elitists described the work as loud, preachy and narrative, with overly simplistic iconography, metaphorically schematic and childish, and as a multidisciplinary decoration akin to a wedding cake. Feminists were angered by the choice of certain historic women over others, as if they were being issued competitive scores, and also by the fact that women were (again) being represented by their sex organs, as those who essentially nourish the world. All were united in their rage over the symbol chose to represent women – the vagina.

In the 1970s Chicago wrote and lectured extensively about collective and communal creating as an alternative to the myth of lone artist-genius, praised collaboration as a feminist model of a egalitarian society in which there is no competition, domination, individualism or ego clashes. “The Dinner Party” was done with the help of some 200 women who worked in production, research, artisanship and design workshops. But Chicago was later accused of exploiting her assistants, some of whom were experts in their fields. They remained anonymous while she got all the glory.

Is there any point in such collaborative work nowadays? “Given how many young artists are working together, obviously, there is a need for such work,” she says. “I have gone back and forth between solo work and working collaboratively based upon the nature of the series or project on which I was focused.”

Bad taste?

No one has ever defended “The Dinner Party” as “great art,” but it is still a work that’s made history as an undisputed feminist icon, one that also succeeded in undermining the prestige of the era’s minimalist art and restored a version of narrative art with particular content, driving a wedge into the mainstream’s standard of good taste.

As an outstanding representative of politically correct progressive art that defies conservative audiences, “The Dinner Party” is a work of bad taste that isn’t aware of itself. The work was conceived and built as the sum of all the feminist premises of the period, on the basis of justified social motivations and an aesthetic that relies on “what’s needed,” an accumulation of didactic presumptions piled on top of one another. Each component comes with a full verbal explanation that leaves no surplus – of simplicity and handicrafts, historicism and myth, of eating-nourishing, collaborative workshops and as the anti-Last Supper. It is an amazingly vulgar work, but every claim against it slams into the wall of feminist explanation that justifies it. It belongs to the genre of empowerment, consciousness-raising and social advocacy, and has a preachy-to-bothersome quality.

Its relative advantages – it cheerful colors, the many ceramic vulvae smiling again and again at the viewer with their inviting glaze, the heterogeneity of styles that create a sense of abundance – fade when one reads the names of the important women. The names give the work its memorial dimension, a pompous historical seriousness that spoils the party and forces the viewer to relate to it as an educational presentation. “The Dinner Party” is a classic, but a youthful classic, like an infatuation stage one must pass en route to more sophisticated works.

Have you ever cared about issues of taste? Bad taste? Of the artistic bon ton and its attitude towards creation? In retrospect, what kind of aesthetic have we inherited from the mythological “Dinner Party”?

“There is an underlying implication in this question that my work is somehow in ‘bad taste’ and I wonder why. As to the aesthetic inheritance of ‘The Dinner Party,’ that is a question for art history. At the moment, I am content with the fact that I set out to teach a broad and diverse audience about women’s history through art. 

“‘The Dinner Party’ has traveled around the world to a viewing audience of over one million people. Few of them ever even imagine that there was a time when the piece was considered by some to be in ‘bad taste,’ whatever that is.”

Does the division between high art and inferior craft-art still exist? Is this division still gender-based?   

“The art/craft division was long ago challenged, including by my own work. Both male and female younger artists are freely working in techniques like needlework which used to be viewed as a lowly ‘women’s craft.’ I feel gratified that I helped to open the way for this change by challenging the traditional, gendered hierarchy regarding art and craft.

“The more important division today has to do with the fact that if a woman creates art, it is considered less valuable than what male artists produce, reflected in the paltry representation of women in the permanent collections of major museums around the world and the stark discrepancy in auction prices.”

In the current capitalistic realm of art, is a female artist supposed to aspire to success a la Damien Hirst, or should she turn her back on the race for money and establish an alternative value index for her art?

“I would never tell any artist what to do. Each artist - male and female - has to find his or her way through the money-driven international art market that is dominant today. One of the challenges for young artists is to be able to sustain a long, creative career like mine in the face of an art industry that picks up, rewards, then spits out young artists like last night’s dinner.”