Over the past two months at my job, I have been processing the papers of Judy Chicago, a white Jewish feminist artist who is currently based in New Mexico. Prior to working on this project, I had never heard of her. Nevertheless, through organizing and photocopying articles upon articles about her and her work, dating from the 1960s to the present, I have certainly gotten a crash course in her legacy. As I quickly learned, the centerpiece of that legacy is a work known as The Dinner Party.

For the uninitiated, The Dinner Party consists of a massive triangular table atop a tiled platform. The table has 39 unique place settings, each representing a specific woman in history, religion, or mythology. The platform on which the table rests features the names of 999 other women. All the place settings include a large plate, most of them bearing a design of stylized vulvic imagery. The piece, created by Judy Chicago and hundreds of volunteers, involves art forms traditionally associated with women: needlework and ceramics. Since its creation in 1979, The Dinner Party has attracted a whirlwind of both positive and negative reception. On the one hand, it is heralded as the quintessential feminist artistic masterpiece of the twentieth century. On the other hand, it has received criticism for being vulgar and for focusing primarily on cisgender white women (Sacagawea, Sojourner Truth, and Hatshepsut are the only women of color with a seat at Chicago’s table). As a budding information professional, I would like to turn the conversation to explore the space that The Dinner Party occupies in the subject of feminist art—both physically and intellectually.

An experience that informs my inquiry is my recent visit to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, the permanent home of The Dinner Party. At the time that I was visiting, there was another exhibit sharing the Sackler Center, called We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985. What struck me when I walked into the room was that The Dinner Party was in the center of the, well, Center. It was separated from We Wanted a Revolution by walls on two sides and dark glass on one side. Now, I bring this up not to suggest that the Brooklyn Museum is somehow being intentionally biased by centering a white woman’s artwork and placing the artwork of black women in the margins. After all, The Dinner Party only came to find its permanent home there in 2002 after decades of languishing in storage, long before We Wanted a Revolution would even have been conceptualized. Furthermore, given the immense labor that went into the creation of this piece, I would never want to suggest that The Dinner Party’s place is unearned. However, I noticed that the museum placard describing The Dinner Party characterizes it as “the most significant icon of 1970s American feminist art.” It is worth pointing out that the centering of white women’s perspectives in feminism and the representation of those perspectives as being indicative of a universal womanhood is the reason why a lot of black women, including many of the artists in We Wanted a Revolution, did not call themselves feminists or align themselves with the feminist movement. It is easy to get the impression from the way the space is organized and the language that is used that Judy Chicago is the face of feminist art, and that others are merely offshoots.

A key aspect of feminist thought, especially in the second wave, has been a critical examination of how people occupy and organize space. For example, feminist groups who shunned hierarchy as inherently patriarchal abounded. Nevertheless, attempts to dismantle oppression can unwittingly reimpose it. As Audre Lorde declared in reference to white feminists who were dismissive of the specific struggles of women of color, “What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” What does this history mean for those of us who work in the library, archive, and museum (LAM) sector? Organizing ideas and space in an inclusive and accurate way is a challenging undertaking. Aside from placing materials in physical space in relation to one another, the ways in which information professionals describe those materials influences how we and our users interpret them. Consider how much controversy there has been over subject headings in the last several decades. The absences and silences that result from the choices we make in terms of organization grow clamorous. How do we answer them?

Ayoola White is halfway through her history and archives management program at Simmons College. Wish her luck as this semester begins!

The cover photo is a photograph of two magazine articles, one entitled, “Open Hearing at the Brooklyn Museum,” and the other entitled, “Are Museums Relevant to Women.” The photograph was taken by the author at the We Wanted a Revolution Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

6 replies

  1. I appreciate this effort to question the messaging of the exhibition. We all should be critical and express our opinions. But, without seeing the full display, and hearing from the curators, I think I disagree with some of the points made. I remember when the Dinner Party came out, and my main criticism of it was its scale – it had to be displayed in a significantly large space. But beyond that, I was impressed with many elements of its creation – the inclusion of many women in the production, the in-your-face clitoral imagery, the effort to be inclusive of women over time and geography. Cisgender? That wasn’t even in the conversation then, as it wasn’t for many of the figures included, so I cannot speculate if they were truly cisgendered or not. Accepting the limitations of the original work, and accepting that it was a major contribution to advancing socially-conscious art, how does the current display work with that? Were the curators tone deaf about the changes since the late 1970s, or did they contextualize it with captions and informed docents? The nature of the surrounding exhibition seems to suggest that the museum and curators did have a more sophisticated vision. I’d love to hear from them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lincoln, you raise some great points. I think hearing from the curators would add some key insight to this discussion, as you say. It is also true that, for certain people we do not know if they were cisgender. I debated using this term in my article, but I decided to do so because, as a cis person myself, I consider it important to highlight the exclusion (intentional or not) of trans people. When you say that the term cisgender wasn’t a part of the conversation back then, my question is, which conversation are you referring to? The term may not have existed, but that doesn’t mean the concept didn’t. This comes back to my larger point. There was not just one single conversation. Feminism was and has always been a varied movement with a lot of different and even conflicting voices. Betty Friedan’s feminism existed at the same time as the Combahee River Collective (a Black lesbian feminist collective), at the same time as radical separatist movements, at the same time as emerging elements of trans feminism (even if that term wasn’t coined just yet). There were multiple conversations happening at once, but certain conversations occupy greater space in public memory. That is what I was trying to get across.

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  2. I’m a curator, and love that you’ve posted about this. One of my biggest challenges is curating works so they can be understood in their historical/social/etc context, while also not allowing the contemporary context (in this case, 1970s America) to overshadow our efforts to both make an item relevant to current visitors and to use what we have learned (or tried to learn) as a culture in that time to inform more thoughtful, inclusive exhibition design.

    Also worth pointing out that just because an identity wasn’t a part of the conversation at the time a work was created, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t enter into our contextualizing efforts about a piece now. This sometimes happens in label/panel copy, but often takes place in educational programming, where people are urged to think and converse about what the social climate at a given time was like, how it compares to today, whose voices were left out of those conversations, etc. This doesn’t take away from articulating the impact a work had at the time, but helps us find its current relevance and articulate its continuing impact today.

    While hearing from the curators and artists gives us valuable feedback about motivation, it is also mission critical that we hear from visitors (whether a casual visitor or, as in Ayoola’s case, someone with subject knowledge that can complement the curatorial vision). Your call for inclusion, and critical engagement with cultural heritage and information sources, made me very proud of HLS and its ongoing awesome work.

    Liked by 1 person

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