SANTA FE, N.M. -- Artist Judy Chicago came to a gathering of women journalists here last weekend to set the record straight about what "The Dinner Party" is, and why women should care about what happens to it. She made a lot more sense than some congressmen who are running for reelection by beating up on feminist art and the University of the District of Columbia.
Or as the Santa Fe-based artist put it: "They are so far away from the truth, I thought to myself, are they always this far away from the truth?"
"The Dinner Party" is an embroidered and ceramic work -- traditional women's crafts -- that shows a triangle-shaped dinner table with 39 place settings that celebrate female history. "The triangle is an early symbol for the female and for the goddess," said Chicago.
Periods of history are represented by a famous woman of that period, rather than a famous man. "Each woman is represented by a plate. Each plate rises up as a metaphor for our increasing success. The whole table sits on a porcelain floor inscribed with the names of 999 women who made a mark on history and who helped us in our struggle.
"The whole 'Dinner Party' is a shriek against injustice that has disallowed us having any pride in our history," said Chicago. "Over a million people have seen it." The work requires a room at least 60 feet long in order to be exhibited. It was constructed between 1974 and 1979 with the help of 400 craftswomen. Its 14th exhibit was part of Australia's bicentennial and it has been stored in California since then while the artist sought a permanent home for it. It is too fragile to travel, she said.
Last March, she said, UDC came up with the proposal to house it in the Carnegie Library, a cornerstone of its planned campus downtown, "as part of a multicultural art exhibition," which would be very much in keeping with a revitalized, multicultural university. She donated the work to the university.
The ensuing controversy has centered on claims that the work is pornographic and that it is costing UDC more than $1.6 million to renovate the Carnegie and hired staff to curate the work. "The Carnegie needs to be renovated or lost whether or not it houses 'The Dinner Party,' " Chicago said. Indeed, the university has been authorized to renovate and repair the building since 1986. In July, the D.C. Council approved a bond issue to finance the repairs.
On July 18, the Washington Times ran the first of three stories that questioned the expenditure at a time of fiscal problems for UDC, described 'The Dinner Party' as "a dramatic piece of sexual sculpture" and said it "depicts women's genitalia on plates and has been characterized by some critics as obscene."
"There is a vaginal reference in the plates," said Chicago. "But there is a reason for it. There is only one reason we don't know these women and it is because they all had vaginas." Furthermore, she said, the plates are only 14 inches wide, which makes them a relatively minor part of the entire work.
By July 26, the controversy hit the House floor with a 1 1/2-hour debate in which such celebrated art critics as Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.) called it "ceramic 3-D pornography," and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) called it "a spectacle of weird art, weird sexual art at that."
Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), whose attitudes about art and race relations are rooted in spirit at least in the Penn Daw shopping center, introduced an amendment to the District budget to delete $1.6 million from UDC's operating funds to punish it for "offensiveness to the sensitivities and moral values of our various related communities." The House voted 297 for the amendment and 123 against. Congress has yet to complete action on the D.C. budget.
"The misinformation campaign has been successful," said Chicago.
"The Dinner Party" makes money, she said, and she predicted, based on its history, that it would generate $1.6 million in revenue for UDC in its first year.
But beyond those questions, there is a more profoundly political reason that women should care about protecting this work. "The Dinner Party" has been the target of male disinformation campaigns in the past, said Chicago, in attempts "to denigrate women's art and women's achievements. Many women do not understand that art is the icon of the values of a culture. The fierceness of the assault on 'The Dinner Party' is a reflection of the fierceness of white male reaction when their values are challenged." The real struggle here is about power and about sexual power. "Who decides what is good art?" Chicago asked. "When do we get to participate in this dialogue?
"Each generation of women achieves and then it gets erased," she said. "I wanted to put it into art so these achievements could never be erased again."