Emboldened Actors on the World Stage

The Dinner Party:

Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2000

By Jane Gerhard

Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013, 331 pp., $24.95, paperback

Reviewed by Elissa Auther

Jane Gerhard’s new book, The Dinner Party, is an important, overdue contribution to the history of feminism. Flipping on its head the conventional historical approach, wherein feminism is seen as an exclusively social or political movement, and feminist cultural forms are regarded as, at best, curious sideshows, Gerhard finds value and meaning in feminist cultural expressions. Using art and popular culture as her primary documents, she examines the history of 1970s feminism and the ways ordinary women have encountered and embraced feminist thought outside of activism.

As its title makes clear, Gerhard’s study takes as its focus the artist Judy Chicago’s monumental work The Dinner Party, examining it in detail from its inception in 1974 to its exhibition in 1979, its subsequent national tour from 1979 – 1989, and finally its permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. For those readers unfamiliar with the work, The Dinner Party is a large rectangular table set with 39 embroidered runners and oversized place settings—including individualized sculpted and painted porcelain plates—each one dedicated to a woman from prehistory to the twentieth century. Although there exists a sizable body of scholarly, art-historical writing about The Dinner Party—so much so that it’s hard to believe anything new can be added to the cultural record—this is the first comprehensive study to be written by a historian of 1970s feminism. By disciplinary training, Gerhard embraces a concept of value different from that operating in the art world. Gerhard values The Dinner Party for what it can tell us about US second-wave feminist theory—in particular, about the translation of theories into popular, cultural commodities. In contrast to art-historical or art-critical approaches mired (as they have been) in making aesthetic judgments about The Dinner Party, Gerhard offers insightful new perspectives on, among other topics, how Chicago practiced feminism as an educator and an artist within The Dinner Party studio, the Dinner Party’s place in popular culture, and its overwhelmingly positive reception by mainstream female audiences.

In her introduction, Gerhard walks the reader through the unfortunate split of 1970s feminism into radical and cultural camps. The radicals equated feminism with political activism and defined creative expression as apolitical, feel-good therapeutics. To me this split has always looked like a sad carbon copy of the dismissal by the New Left, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, of the diverse forms of creative expression produced by the counterculture—which conveniently allowed its leaders to narrow what counted as politics or social activism to street-level protest or actions meant to structurally transform the state. The consequences of this political vs. cultural split were similar for US feminism: it dismissed personal transformation as apolitical or irrelevant to social change and was generally thoughtless (or perhaps uncomfortable?) about the role of creative expression in social movements.

Reconsidering this split and its consequences deflates the power of the term “cultural” to marginalize producers and consumers of feminist art works such as The Dinner Party and enables Gerhard to uncover the theory behind their conception. In the first part of the book, Gerhard documents in great detail Chicago’s invention of a feminist pedagogy, which she implemented in 1971 at California State Fresno, in women-only studio courses eventually called the Feminist Art Program (FAP). The FAP was subsequently transplanted to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where Chicago co-directed it with the artist Miriam Schapiro. The FAP revolved around the reformation of female students’ negative self-images, crippling gender socialization, and poor work habits, all of which Chicago identified as obstacles to professional success. Through making art as a group, consciousness-raising, and confrontation, students learned to “feel comfortable about being aggressive, ambitious, and directed.” The experience for both Chicago and her students was physically exhausting and emotionally draining—but they never viewed it as outside of politics or merely therapeutic, as such activities would later be regarded.

As in the FAP, the volunteers working on The Dinner Party attended consciousness-raising sessions and weekly, studio-wide rap sessions about working on the project, among other topics ranging from the everyday to the extraordinary. Gerhard examines the challenges, pitfalls, and successes of all this group processing in The Dinner Party studio, which became a site both for the production of a one-of-a-kind work of art and for personal growth and transformation. Juxtaposing the experience of the volunteers (hundreds of whom worked on the piece) against the demands of Chicago and her administrative team that the volunteers take ownership of their work in the studio—from sweeping the floor to embroidering runners—Gerhard tells a great behind-the-scenes story about The Dinner Party’screation. It’s easy to see how the rumors of Chicago’s exploitation of volunteers emerged from this context, given the pressures all parties exerted on themselves and each other to complete The Dinner Party. But through analysis of volunteer testimonials, Gerhard documents a high level of satisfaction, gratitude, and pride.

In addition to comprehensively documenting the details of The Dinner Party’s conception and production, Gerhard charts its relationship to 1970s feminist theory through detailed analyses of the design decisions behind the piece’s tiled Heritage Floor, embroidered runners, ceramic sculptures, and overall staging. Whereas the organization of the studio represented a radical vision of feminist sisterhood, the Heritage Floor and the place settings, each of which commemorates a famous woman, invoke a liberal historical tradition that revolves around personal achievement. This vision—although it unintentionally replicated hierarchies of social power and was blind to a burgeoning feminist multiculturalism—was consistent with Chicago’s earnest desire to replace what she saw as women’s sense of themselves as insignificant with a sense of themselves as “accomplished, creative, and emboldened actors on the world stage.” The embroidered runners, Gerhard writes, embraced and elevated “women’s culture,” with the embroidery acting as both a “symbol and practice” of the work and effort required to achieve.

The vulva-like iconography of the ceramic plates, which is the piece’s most controversial element, originates in Chicago’s ongoing interest in th representation of the female body—a subject that remains a fraught area of discussion among feminists both within and outside of the art world. She embraces women’s difference from men as positive, a basis for equality in a male-centered world. Gerhard contextualizes the biological essentialism of this iconography within cultural feminism’s rehabilitation of the dignity and power of the female body.

Finally, Gerhard connects the otherworldly staging of The Dinner Party, with its dramatic lighting and floating table, to Chicago’s engagement with alternative spirituality and the quest for female images of the divine.

The second half of the book focuses on the debut of The Dinner Party in 1979 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, its subsequent national tour, the extreme gap in its reception between professional and popular audiences, and its bumpy ride to a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. Gerhard unpacks the complex of issues that shaped the reception and meaning of The Dinner Party, including the changing direction of feminist theory away from an embrace of sexual difference and toward an understanding of gender, race, and sexuality as constructed through ideology; the art world’s anxiety over the encroachment of popular culture into the realm of high art; and the growing market for feminist cultural commodities.

As anyone who has read the voluminous reviews of The Dinner Party that appeared in national art magazines, local newspapers, and feminist publications knows, the piece was highly polarizing once it was unveiled to the public. The exhibit was a blockbuster: it attracted sell-out crowds and turned a profit from its debut in 1979 to its final installation in 1989—but in the art world, popular success could damage an artist’s reputation. Instead of bringing Chicago the prestige and recognition she sought, she found herself accused of producing “kitsch," a term made famous by the formidable modernist critic Clement Greenberg and applied to any work of art perceived as commercial, didactic, appealing to popular taste, garish, amateur in technique, or propagandistic. On top of that, Chicago had used embroidery and ceramics, media associated with “low culture,” not “high art.”

Academic feminists were repelled by the work’s biological essentialism, in the form of Chicago’s core iconography, her appeal to a universal sisterhood and shared female experience, and her embrace of the goddess—in short, the aspects of the piece that expressed seventies-style feminist theories. Coincident with the integration of feminist theory into the academy in the 1980s, these had been supplanted by new, psychoanalytic- and poststructuralist-inspired notions of gender and an emphasis on intersectional identities.

Thus, despite the piece’s popularity with the public, after its opening in San Francisco, the tour Chicago had organized for it fell apart, as museum cancellations trickled in one after the other. Not to be deterred, she and her team devised an alternative tour with the help of women’s groups around the country, and Gerhard’s documentation of this fascinating chapter in The Dinner Party’s story shows how its circulation outside the art world was a key factor in its evolution as a feminist icon.  

Uncovered by Gerhard, a treasure trove of unpublished commentary written by female viewers, in the forms of letters to Chicago and entries in the public comment books available throughout the tour, demonstrates that not everyone viewed Chicago as a sellout or The Dinner Party as a failed work. These writers were overwhelmingly appreciative of it. Gerhard argues that this split between The Dinner Party’s professional and popular audiences demonstrates “the fact that no single group could either guarantee nor deny its success”—much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Chicago’s art-world and feminist detractors. Chicago’s fans took pleasure in the very aspects of the piece viewed with suspicion by the art critics and academics, including Chicago’s projection of a sisterhood or community of women, the idea that women’s history mattered, the desire to rehabilitate representations of the female body, and Chicago’s own struggle to create and exhibit the piece. Female viewers expressed in very emotional terms their pride in Chicago and The Dinner Party, and their delight in feeling themselves included in the work’s imagined community.

Feminists in the art world such as Lucy Lippard and Amelia Jones, among others, have noted that the negative responses of art critics and scholars to The Dinner Party are informed, in part, by a discomfort with the very pleasures the work’s fans describe. Feeling moved, identifying with Chicago, or seeing oneself reflected in art were, and continue to be, considered naïve, sentimental, and outside the purview of the high-art experience. Gerhard adds that far from being a throwaway response, the emotional identification of female viewers with the work is a “way for a woman without a feminist context to imagine a way into a feminist identity.” Because of the power of The Dinner Party to create this experience, Gerhard claims a dual status for it as both a work of art and of feminist popular culture.

The Dinner Party's last opening in the US was in 1981, although it toured internationally through 1989. Three developments during the 1990s converged to revive its visibility, eventually leading to its permanent installation at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The first was an attack by right-wing members of Congress on The Dinner Party as what they called 3-D ceramic pornography, during a debacle set off by Chicago’s donation of The Dinner Party to the University of the District of Columbia. She rescinded her gift.

The second was its installation as part of the exceptionally innovative 1996 exhibition Sexual Politics, curated by Amelia Jones for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Jones initiated a sophisticated renarrativization of the place of The Dinner Party that contextualized its iconography of the female body and its affirmative political intentions within 1970s feminist artistic practice. Sadly, she was ridiculed for this by critics and scholars wedded to the view that feminist art and theory from that period were “failures.” Since then, however, a lot has changed in the art world, and I was pleased to see Jones recognized as a catalyst in Gerhard’s history.

The third element Gerhard discusses is the growth, during the 1980s and 1990s, of feminist-themed popular culture, such as Jane Wagner’s stage show for Lily Tomlin, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1986); the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple (1982); and the HBO production of The Vagina Monologues (1998). Like The Dinner Party, these kinds of cultural works “offered audiences a way into the insights of feminism apart from activism or gender theory.” They share a focus on sexual difference as positive, rather than as “something to be dismantled,” writes Gerhard; it is as much a “source of pleasure and fun as much as vulnerability and pain.” The expanded framing of The Dinner Party as both a work of art and a pop-culture commodity should invite professional feminists to more thoughtfully consider the value of various forms of creative expression.

Elissa Auther is associate professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and codirector of the public program Feminism & Co.: Art, Sex, Politics at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

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