By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007
You'd think the shock would have worn off by now. Judy Chicago's iconic feminist art installation "The Dinner Party" made a lot of people squirm back in 1979, with its vulva-motif plates. Surely a progressive young feminist like myself would be able to handle it with some modicum of maturity.
I first saw "The Dinner Party" last fall in an old art book. It pictured the Susan B. Anthony place setting, which looks like a flower with four pink petals circling a crimson abyss. The plate is perched atop a fringed triangle.
The vaginal imagery was blatant, like a Georgia O'Keeffe flower that stopped pretending to be a flower. I blushed. I giggled. I slammed the book shut and called over an authority -- my Aunt Ellen, who chuckled at the picture in a those-were-the-days sort of way.
Fast-forward four months to a worst-case scenario of sorts: I was assigned to spend an hour alone with Judy Chicago and "The Dinner Party" at its new, permanent home, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
The installation is an enormous triangular table, 48 feet on each side, set for 39 important women, from goddesses to historical figures. Chicago calls them her "girls." Each place setting includes a ceramic plate and a table runner that symbolize the woman's achievements. The table sits on a porcelain "Heritage Floor," which features the names of 999 other important women in gold paint.
It is considered one of the world's most important works of feminist art. Hundreds of women contributed their skills to complete the piece.
"So, what do you think?" she asked, smiling. The 67-year-old artist had bright red curls and was wearing violet-tinted glasses and a matching sequined shirt.
I came clean and told her about my reaction . . . mostly. I told her that the obvious vaginal imagery made me squirm. But I chickened out and didn't tell her that "The Dinner Party" looked like a relic of stereotypical, bras-a-blazin' feminism. It looked so '70s, like a burnt-orange carpet that someone had been too lazy to replace. It didn't seem relevant to the feminist topics I care about, like balancing work and family, and young women thinking it's okay to starve like their favorite celebrities.
"I think we're all educated to be frightened of female power," she said. "So am I surprised you reacted that way? No. I'm not surprised. And I don't think you should be upset with yourself about it. I think you should be upset about the culture that made it that way."
My family's culture couldn't have helped. I remember asking my dad what a feminist was when I was 8.
"A man-hater," he joked.
This set off a big fight with my mom. Afterward, she took me aside and tried to explain "women's lib" in terms I could understand.
Despite -- or maybe because of -- the rocky start, I have always considered myself a feminist. I even use the "f-word," which makes me something of an anomaly among my mid-20s peers, who are more likely to say, "I'm not a feminist, but . . ."
In college, I spoke out against the objectification of women when an editor of Stuff magazine came to campus. My favorite band was the feminist punk trio Le Tigre. Sample lyrics: "We got all the power getting stabbed in the shower / And we got equal rights on ladies' night."
I worked at a nonprofit called Women in Film & Video for my first job out of college. My dad's response: "All right! Break through that glass ceiling!"
I think he was trying to be supportive.
Chicago's favorite story about her feminist background goes back to the early 1960s, when she was an undergraduate art student at UCLA. She took a class on the intellectual history of Europe, she says in her new book, "The Dinner Party."
"The professor, a respected historian, promised that at the last class he would discuss women's contributions to Western thought," she wrote. "I waited eagerly all semester and, at the final meeting, the instructor strode in and announced: 'Women's contributions to European intellectual history? They made none.' "
After graduate school, Chicago tried to create masculine art and dressed like a man to fit into the art scene in 1960s Los Angeles. She never felt comfortable. She started researching women's contributions to history, and the idea of "The Dinner Party" was born.
Chicago tried to find a permanent installation for the piece in 1979, but it became an art-world nomad. She even considered the University of the District of Columbia in 1990 until it set off a nasty fight between the students and the trustees. The issue went all the way to the House of Representatives, where Robert Dornan called it "ceramic 3-D pornography," and fellow California Republican Dana Rohrabacher called it "a spectacle of weird art, weird sexual art at that."
Now, nearly 30 years after its creation, "The Dinner Party" has found a home at the Brooklyn Museum, where it opened to the public March 23.
The installation premiered in San Francisco in 1979. Many critics hated it: In a 1980 review, Hilton Kramer, the famously conservative art critic for the New York Times, called it "very bad art," as well as crass.
Chicago said the critics slammed her for creating "nothing but vaginas on plates."
"That got picked up and transmitted, even in women's studies courses, that that's what 'The Dinner Party' is," she said. "So a whole generation of young people learned to see it in a way that's different from what it really is."
I never learned to see it, period. "The Dinner Party" never came up in any of my women's studies or art classes in college.
These days "The Dinner Party" shares space with "Global Feminisms," the Sackler Center's inaugural exhibition. If "The Dinner Party" is my mother's feminism, then "Global Feminisms" is theoretically mine.
The contemporary art exhibition contains no works by men, though a museum spokeswoman says the Sackler Center will feature art by male feminists in the future. Not all art by women is feminist and not all feminist art is by women.
Chicago had this to say about the difference between women's art and feminist art:
"Well, what's the difference between men's art and abstract expressionism?" she said. "Abstract expressionism is a movement, and men's art is art made by people with penises."
Similar to my this-is-icky-get-it-away-from-me reaction to "The Dinner Party," I had a this-is-scary-get-it-away-from-me reaction to "Global Feminisms." The exhibition includes:
· A photograph of Japanese artist Ryoko Suzuki's face bound with strings of bloody pigskin.
· A video of Israeli artist Sigalit Landau hula-hooping naked with barbed wire, the barbs tearing her skin with each rotation.
· A video by Washington's own Mary Coble of her binding and unbinding her breasts with duct tape until they are raw.
I'll stop there.
Apparently, self-inflicted pain -- especially while naked -- is the main way that contemporary feminist artists communicate their internal landscape. Seems like an easy out to me.
"What we're exhibiting is what women are creating," co-curator Maura Reilly said. "It was not our intention to shock." Ah, the curator-as-conduit model.
Back in the room with "The Dinner Party," Chicago was on a mission to educate the young feminist before her.
"Okay, so let's pick a place setting and deconstruct."
I chose Judith, the biblical heroine who seduced and then beheaded the enemy commander Holofernes.
Chicago launched into a history (or "herstory," as she calls it) lesson, starting with the runner, which is inspired by a Yemenite headdress. The Hebrew on the border means "heroine of her people," and the pomegranate seeds engraved on dangling coins represent fertility. There is a sword through the "J" in Judith.
The day before, a reporter from a New York radio show seemed squeamish about "The Dinner Party," Chicago said.
"Well, what about this imagery? These . . . portals?" she quoted him as saying, doing her best frat-boy impression. "I said, 'Yes, that's right. The dinner party is a portal into women's history.' "
"The Dinner Party" takes women's history through the end of World War II, but the most important era it taught me about is the late 1970s. The pride that Chicago has in her "girls," the vastness of the installation and the psychedelic swirls of color gave me an idea of what it must have been like to be a feminist back then. It's a spread-eagle declaration of arrival. And by the time I departed the Brooklyn Museum, it didn't gross me out anymore.