Talking Politics at the Dinner Table

Now that I’ve settled in to my new house in Brooklyn, I think it’s only appropriate that one of my inaugural posts is on Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party.[1] Though it debuted at SF MoMA in 1979 and made its permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum over ten years ago, Chicago’s work is still worth the pilgrimage for any feminist art critic or enthusiast. (Elizabeth A. Sackler certainly thought so, as it is the centerpiece of her Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.) It is also, notably, one of only five female art works that made it into the slide deck I was required to memorize for my survey of Western art history in college.[2] It is an important work, though approaching it with a third wave feminist’s eye is essential to fully mining the piece, as it offers as many lessons in who it chooses to include as who it does not.

 Wondering what words would have been exchanged between Judith and Sappho.... 

Wondering what words would have been exchanged between Judith and Sappho.... 

As part of its “Year of Yes,” which celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Sackler Center, the Museum has contextualized the now famous artwork with various explanatory exhibitions, which describe everything from the delicate process of china painting used to decorate and fire the plates to the research and selection of the 1,038 women honored in the piece. (The exhibition is maybe a little too heavy on glazes, however, and not heavy enough on the selection rubric, alluded to but never defined.)

Much of this added content is interesting from a process perspective, but it is the spotlights on the place settings of Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth that are most interesting, as they redefine the piece as material history by exploring the influence of second wave feminism on Chicago, forcing us to view the work as significant both as an artwork and as a product of its time.

Wollstonecraft, the eighteenth century women’s rights advocate and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) clearly held a strong interest for Chicago as she represented the dawning of the feminist political consciousness in Western history. Wollstonecraft’s plate features a three-dimensionalized ceramic “wing” lifting from its surface, which is intended to symbolize the first rising up of women’s voices and the start of the political fight for equality. The spotlight on first wave Wollstonecraft is well deserved, as she certainly was a touchstone for the feminist movement of the 1970s to which Chicago belonged, now considered the “second wave.”

However, the problems of second wave feminism, and thus the need for a third wave, is crystalized in the spotlight on Sojourner Truth’s setting. The Dinner Party has rightly been critiqued for its predominantly white perspective, where the few black and Native American women are included for their association with white Western history (in the fight for the abolition of slavery (Truth) and the exploration of the American West (Sacajawea)). The museum, however, deftly navigates this politically trepidatious ground by repeatedly calling attention to the problems with the Dinner Party without discounting its enduring significance. By highlighting the artistic process which lead to Sojourner Truth’s place setting, we see that an intended sincerity in depiction can still lead to misrepresentation. A glass case includes several renderings of Truth’s face as Chicago struggled to capture the pain of her experience as a slave. Though the intention is to pay respect to Truth, the Museum untangles the problems of this representation. Sojourner Truth’s plate is the only setting not to depict the flowering labia Chicago uses to represent the other 38 women at the table. Like too many times in history, the black body comes into focus as the site of controversy, depriving the owner of autonomy over it. By trying to humanize her, Chicago raises Truth onto a pedestal above the fray that she places the other guests, denying her the single feature she has deemed the link among all women, that is, our sexual biology. (Modern gender politics will also have something to say about this distinction, though that’s for another article.)

 A collaged inspiration board for Emily Dickinson's place setting

A collaged inspiration board for Emily Dickinson's place setting

The conclusion is subtle, but biting: by representing Truth as a woman with raised arms and bare breast, Chicago strips her of the very thing she asked not to be denied: a place among women, as an equal. “Ain’t I a woman?” Truth asked at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention, raising her arm to show the strength of her body. Truth spoke not from her perspective as black, but as a black woman, touching on the indivisibility of identity that is the cornerstone of third wave feminism. She spoke to defend the rights of black women, as she saw the threat of their being left behind, even as white women made advances toward equality. Chicago is unfortunately complicit in the resulting imbalance.

Completely ignoring the work for this oversight does not, however, help anyone. I can’t imagine that in creating a table setting that spans millennia, Chicago wasn’t interested in her piece generating conversation among women of diverse eras and life experiences. She did a risky thing in making the Dinner Party, which was likely headed to a perpetual place in a storage bin before Ms. Sackler stepped in. The work took five years, a quarter of a million dollars, and four hundred volunteers to complete. It was a monumental exercise meant to draw attention to itself and its message. And it did. From dismissal at its debut, to celebration decades later, to critique in the 21st century, the reception of the Dinner Party is an excellent barometer against which to measure the current state of feminism. The work will only cease to be relevant when the dessert plates have been cleared and we have all had our fill. But right now it may be that we have only just finished the appetizers.

 

Roots of the Dinner Party: History in the Making

Brooklyn Museum

Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Until March 1, 2018

 

[1] For those unfamiliar with the piece, the Dinner Party is a large scale reimagining of the Last Supper from the “point of view of those who were traditionally expected to prepare the food.” Facing each other along three tables set up in a triangle are place settings representing 39 women whose accomplishments have been minimized or written out of Western history. Each setting includes a plate, on which is featured an abstracted image of female genitalia, intended to represent the woman herself, while the embroidered table runner beneath represents her milieu. Ceramic tiles upon which the table rests are scrawled the names of 999 other sidelined women.

 

[2] The four others: 

1) Mary Cassat’s In the Loge

2) Barbara Krugar’s Your gaze hits the side of my face

3) Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995 and

4) Kara Walker’s A Subtlety