Entertainment » Fine Arts

Feminist Judy Chicago’s over for ’Dinner’

by Amy Wooten
Wednesday Apr 16, 2008
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The Dinner Party, created by feminist art icon Judy Chicago and worked on by countless other individuals between 1974-1979 as a symbol of women’s history, was born during a time of optimism and fed by an underlying rage.

Although over one million people saw the inspiring work over the years as it traveled the world (when it wasn’t in storage), the artist did not feel that her goal of interrupting the cycle of erasing women’s history was completed until The Dinner Party found its permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

In Chicago’s new and final book on the topic, The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation, she revisits the 30-year-plus adventure, literally from creation to finding its permanent home.

Chicago, who will soon be making an appearance in the old stomping grounds from which she takes her name, spoke to Windy City Times about what it took to reach her goal, her continued dismay and creating hope for oneself.

Windy City Times: This has been a long, 30-plus year adventure for you, for sure. You say it’s finally at its end because The Dinner Party has a permanent home, but is it really? I’m sure you’ll continue to be asked about it.
Judy Chicago: As I say, it may be over for me, but it’s not over for the world. It’ll probably, in that sense, never be over. My Santa Fe gallery sent me something in ... some design or style magazine that came out this Sunday, and there was a whole reference to The Dinner Party. It was kind of a reference to it without even explaining it. The gallery said that it’s become so iconic that people don’t have to explain it. Like I said, I’m done with The Dinner Party, but The Dinner Party will never be done with me. [Laughs]

WCT: It’s been a very difficult journey, as well. Writing this book, which is now your third book on the topic, what was the hardest moment or topic to revisit for you?
JC: Well, it was difficult to have to revisit some of the more painful vicissitudes, but as I said, re-researching all 1,038 women was both illuminating and upsetting because there was so much more information, particularly about women artists. So, as I mentioned in the introduction, I learned quite a lot from it. I set out to overcome the erasure of women’s history and women’s achievements. In a way, because there was less information about it [in the ’70s], how really daunting a job that it was wasn’t so evident to me until I revisited all that material. Then, I realized this was far more significant and deeper than I had really realized at the beginning.

WCT: When you were re-researching, did you notice how much of the new research had been done by women?
JC: That’s not always evident, because all of the information is not always attributed. ... Certainly, there are men working in the area of women’s history. There are definitely men. There are men working on feminist art history. You know, to some degree, the development of queer theory has had an influence on that. There is an overlap between queer theory and feminist theory. A lot of the queer theorists go back and forth, and a lot of them are men.

WCT: That’s very true.
JC: There are a lot of men in women’s studies now, too, and gender studies. That has definitely changed.

WCT: One of the things I was wondering about is something that happens to a lot of people, where one thing overshadows everything else. That has to be so disheartening. Do you think that having The Dinner Party permanently housed will help change that? Or, do you feel like it will always overshadow everything else you’ve done?
JC: I think until there is a really major retrospective of my whole body of work. ... The Dinner Party will continue to overshadow the rest of my career. I’m hopeful that before I die that will happen, or afterwards. I think, eventually, The Dinner Party will be seen in the broader context of my body of art.

WCT: Although until only recently have art critics recognized the impact The Dinner Party has had, many women have told you the impact it has had on their lives. For you, do you feel that is a measure of your success, or is the true measure of your success, as an artist, seeing it through to the end that The Dinner Party had a permanent home?
JC: Well, for me, that was the measure of success, but it’s been gratifying along the way to have so many people tell me that The Dinner Party or other work of mine changed their life. And, of course, it was out of that network of affect that I built some of my other projects. The Birth Project came out of this outpouring from people who wanted to work with me after seeing The Dinner Party. But, you know, I’ve had a very singular goal since the time I was a child, which was to make a contribution to art history and to introduce women’s experiences into the cultural mainstream. So, until The Dinner Party was permanently housed, this first step in that goal was not achieved. No matter how many times, even though The Dinner Party was seen by over one million people and traveled all over the world and has been in the art history books and all that, still until permanent housing was achieved, for me, I did not feel successful.

WCT: Even now, it’s too soon to tell what ultimately will happen.
JC: Two thousand people a week are seeing it.

WCT: That’s crazy!
JC: Think about that over years and years and, yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s too soon to know. If The Dinner Party has so much impact in memory, how long people remembered it, you know, it is hard to imaging what its long-term impact will be.

The Dinner Party had to overcome all sorts of alternative spaces and roofs that leaked, and all that stuff. It’s wonderful for people who never got to see it to see it. It’s permanent home is in an environment that honors that.

WCT: During this long journey, was there any point where you came close to saying, "Forget it"? And, in the face of so much ridicule and rejection, what kept you going?
JC: In my family, my cousin Howard, who lives on Melrose, he often says in our family, there [are] only two choices in life: you give up or you get up. In my family, we get up. It’s really important to understand how my knowledge of women’s history contributed to my ability to stand up to all of this ridicule that was hurled at me. There were two things. One was the fact that, you know, I could think about what happened to women before me. I knew what they faced. I would think to myself, if they could do it, I could do it. Also, I had this experience when I was a child. My father was a victim of McCarthy. I had one experience with my father as a wonderful man who believed in trying to make a difference and trying to work towards a better world, and as a young girl, I was confronted by the world’s opinion of people like my father, and I had to decide whether the world was right. I think early on I learned that just because everybody says it, doesn’t make it right or true.

WCT: You spoke briefly in the book about the idealistic climate and optimism of the ’70s, as well as that underlying rage. Given today’s climate, do you think if you were to start The Dinner Party today, would there be that same optimism?
JC: I think that what there isn’t-let’s back up a little bit. I always thought big. Big dreams, big ambitions. I was just this girl from Chicago who had nothing, no money, no nothing. What I think I was fortunate in, in terms of the time when I was a young artist, because I kept coming up against a lack of support in the art world for my big ideas-I think the fact that there were a lot of other people who wanted to do something about our circumstances as women and the injustices we were facing, I was able to build, with no money, a structure of support for my goals. I think that would be very difficult today because today it is all about money.

WCT: And me, me, me.
JC: Right. I think that would be much more challenging. What do you think?

I always thought big. Big dreams, big ambitions. I was just this girl from Chicago who had nothing, no money, no nothing.

WCT: I agree. You don’t see people working together, as much.
JC: Not in the service of something beyond themselves. There are a lot of art collectives, especially younger artists are working together. I just got an e-mail from young women in Denmark who are working together and running a show. I think that the difference is that there is not this idea that working together in the service of a larger vision, like trying to make a change, trying to contribute to a better world. I think that sense of optimism that fueled the ’70s is not evident right now. I think that’s too bad because there is something thrilling in feeling like you can have an impact on history.

WCT: You also say that you are dismayed to see the continued erasure of women’s achievements and we have yet to break the cycle. The Dinner Party was intended to interrupt that cycle. What, given the fact that optimism isn’t evident and the cycle continues, gives you hope?
JC: I think you have to choose hope. At a certain point, since none of us know the outcome of what is going on, the outcome of the species’ race to destruction, we have no idea whether we will avert destruction or rush pall mall into destroying our environment or some other stupid thing. We don’t know what will happen. You can choose to give into the despair and be sure it’s all going to end up hell in a hand basket or you can say, no, we as human beings have the capacity to transform ourselves. So, it’s a choice, actually.

In fact, some years ago, when Donald, my husband, and I were working on the Holocaust Project, we went to the University of Southern New Mexico to hear [Holocaust survivor] Elie Wiesel speak. He spoke to about 2,500 young students. ... After his speech, there were a lot of questions from the students that showed a lot of hopelessness and despair. I’ll never forgot this-Elie Wiesel looked at them, he looked down and he said, "How is it that I, who have faced the worst that human beings can do, can be hopeful and you, who have your lives ahead of you, feel so hopeless?" I thought that was very profound.

WCT: Are you dismayed that still many women don’t learn about their history or are even exposed to it unless they are privileged enough to take a women’s studies or gender studies class in college?
JC: That’s definitely evidence of erasure. That’s [the] living, breathing epitome of erasure. That, and the fact that young women artists are not educated about the feminist art movement and, as a result, they repeat and repeat and repeat the same things. We have a show up, now that I juried [an event] called "Feminists Under Forty" that was open to young women in New Mexico, young women artists. It was a wonderful show but there’s no question that many of the themes reiterate 1970s feminist art. Part of that is the same issues exist for women today. But, on the other hand, they aren’t building on the work that was done before them, and that’s unfortunate, but it might be that we just have to reinvent the same old wheel over and over again until we finally build a cart and roll out of that predicament.

WCT: The Dinner Party was inclusive of historical lesbians. At the time, was there any resistance from others working on the project?
JC: No, there’s a lot of misinformation about the 1970s. It’s like later on, gay and lesbian people, of course, because they also have their history erased, imagined that and invented this, but there were a lot of lesbians in the studio. It was not an issue. Because we were focused on work, if you worked, we didn’t care what your sexual orientation was. The only thing I can remember was my aunt worked on The Dinner Party because she had needlework skills. She was a very oppressed woman married to a very bigoted man. She became very good friends in the studio with a woman named Helene Simich-a very, very out lesbian. I don’t think my aunt realized that, and she invited Helene and several other women from The Dinner Party studio to her house for dinner. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when my uncle had to have dinner with Helene because he was such a homophobe, you can’t believe! But that was probably the only example [laughs] of an issue.

I’ve felt really pleased because over the years I’ve gotten so much support from the gay and lesbian community.

WCT: For sure, and like you said, it’s because of that connection. Our history has also been erased so much and there has been so much overlapping between the communities.
JC: And Natalie Barney, one of the women at the table, was one of the wildest women history every produced!

WCT: Let’s talk about Through the Flower [the non-profit feminist art organization]. It must be a pretty exciting time for you because now that it’s permanently housed, you’ve been able to refocus.
JC: In addition to our programming and exhibitions and conversations, we are focusing entirely on education. We are working with some very, very fine art educators at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, which produces more art teachers than any other school in the country, [and] we’re producing a K-12 Dinner Party curriculum. Over the years, there have been many, many teachers who have done school "Dinner Partie"s. Some have been really great, and some have not. With the permanent housing of The Dinner Party, I decided it might be really important to provide some guidelines. In March 2009, we’re going to launch our K-12 curriculum. In the summer of 2010, we’re going to start a summer workshop program, a workshop for K-12 teachers that will help them use the curriculum in a very effective way. I intend to start teaching a 10-day summer workshop for university-level studio art, art history and art education professors in approaching content-based art, which is what feminist art is. I’m also writing a book on studio art education. As well as working in glass. I’ve been working in class. But in terms of Through the Flower, that’s our whole emphasis now-the K-12 Dinner Party curriculum and the workshop programming starting in 2010.

WCT: I think it’s wonderful to get these kids where they are so young. Imaging the impact.
JC: For example, last weekend, there’s a young woman who teaches in Napa Valley at a private school. This will be her third year of doing this. She started by doing a school Dinner Party for five grades. It’s an elementary school. This year she’s involved three schools: a private school, a public school and a Catholic school based on this huge project. That’s fantastic. That’s a really good example of how useful The Dinner Party can be in terms of teaching people about women’s history.

WCT: That’s the most important part, that we continue to teach each new generation.
JC: And it’s part of their curriculum. Not like you said, as an add-on, like if you’re lucky enough to get a women’s studies class. And it’s actually everybody, boys and girls, learning women’s history just like we learn men’s history.

WCT: It shouldn’t be where you’re 22 and-
JC: Wow, I had no idea! I had no idea there were young lesbian artists! I had no idea who Romaine Brooks was! But there were all these women artists working on issues of lesbian identity going back to the ’20s. I had no idea! How could I go all the way through college and never know, right?

WCT: I remember taking an art history course, and learning about women artists for about five minutes that semester. It wasn’t until I took a gender and art history course that I learned anything at all about women’s history.
JC: I know, it’s terrible! And then art history isn’t as interesting to you when you feel unrepresented.

It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. The institutions-that’s why I’m writing this book on university studio art curriculum-because the institutions have not kept pace with the changes that have taken place. There are a lot of us now who want the museums to be more representative. We want to see our history represented in our history classes and on the walls of museums, and we go there and it’s the same old, same old: white, male, heterosexual, Eurocentric narrative everything, You’re like, yuck! It gets me in a rage. It gets me in a complete rage.

WCT: Is it changing at the university level for women artists? I know my mother went in as an art major and was so ridiculed, she changed her major to English and was miserable.
JC: That’s the story of a lot of women. What’s changed a lot, and its very confusing to young people, is entry level. There are many, many more women now showing in juried shows, within group shows, in galleries. What haven’t changed are the collection policies of the major museums. Still, the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art is only four percent women. The permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the 19th and 20th-century galleries, is three percent. The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., which is a tax-funded museum-99 percent of the collection is male and 97 percent of the collection is white. Those figures have not budged. It would be really interesting for someone to go to the Art Institute of Chicago and do a count. It’s really hard to get museums to give you the statistics. They don’t want to reveal that.

They might have a show by woman artist, but that doesn’t translate into a permanent collection. That also doesn’t translate into major modern shows. Like the Tate Modern, in 2005, only 2 percent of the solo shows were women.

So, when people tell me it’s all changed now, I’m like, "Excuse me?" Yeah, it’s a cosmetic change. It’s a surface change. That’s very confusing to young women coming up, because they are told we live in post-feminist world and they see a lot of women showing in galleries, so they don’t believe it hasn’t changed.

Chicago will discuss The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation Tues., April 22, 7:30 p.m., at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark. The event is free and open to the public; see www.womenandchildrenfirst.com.

Copyright Windy City Times. For more articles from Chicago's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.windycitymediagroup.com

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