Table for 39
The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago's iconic work of feminist art, stands the test of time.
Much of this pleasure comes from deciphering the symbols, historical references, and period styles and techniques. The cloth runner for the "primordial goddess" is decked out in calf skins and cowry shells (an ancient symbol of female fertility). The plates also vary in style—Byzantine Empress Theodora's plate evokes the glittering tiles of a mosaic; Emily Dickinson is done up in Victorian-era pink lace—though here the forms are limited by Chicago's strict adherence to her signature flower-butterfly-vulva motif.
The repeated use of vaginal forms—Chicago prefers to call it "central core" imagery—is, of course, the most contentious and easily ridiculed aspect of The Dinner Party. Chicago was one of the first artists of her generation to embrace "central core" imagery as a metaphor for the essence of womanhood, but she was not alone, nor was she the most provocative. In a famous performance in 1975, Carolee Schneemann pulled a 40-inch-long scroll from her vagina and read it aloud to a rapt audience; the same year, Tee Corinne printed and distributed the graphic C__t Coloring Book. (You can see these works and many more like them in the Los Angeles show WACK!) Making your way around The Dinner Party table, you can almost forget you're looking at stylized pudenda. Almost. As you approach the age of women's suffrage, the labia-petal-butterfly-wings begin to rise up off the plates ("a symbol of women's desire to be free," says Chicago), and there you are, staring down at Susan B. Anthony's vagina in all its 3-D glory.
So, is The Dinner Party great art? Well, not by the standards of today's art world. It's too middlebrow, too literal, and its earnestness is out of step with today's endlessly self-ironizing sensibility. And its pudendal imagery, once radical, looks silly and heavy-handed today. But as an emphatically populist work with a clear set of political and educational imperatives, The Dinner Party has held its ground. It's nervy, ambitious, uncompromising, and—unlike most recent art, feminist or otherwise—truly original.
In her autobiography, Through the Flower, Chicago wrote that she created The Dinner Party "to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record." Now, with her magnum opus enshrined in Brooklyn, ready to receive a new generation of budding feminists, Chicago can finally claim her own place at the table.
Mia Fineman is a writer and curator in New York.
Photographs courtesy Brooklyn Museum.