Food for feminist thought

Mary Evans relishes this re-evaluation of a landmark work’s collective construction

June 20, 2013

The subtitle of this book immediately points to many of the problems implicit in this detailed and fascinating account of the making and the reception of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. The work in question (now in a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum in New York) was always controversial: its depiction, through a series of dinner plates dedicated to prominent women in feminist history, achieved a greater part of its fame, if not notoriety, through the images of the vulva on every plate. As Gerhard writes: “Cunt art of the 1970s…unquestionably represented challenging fare.”

Quite how challenging that fare was is a central part of Gerhard’s narrative and she makes it clear that those hostile to The Dinner Party included a broad spectrum of opinion, from feminists appalled at both the reductionism and essentialism of Chicago’s vision as well as her narrow choice of subjects, to campaigners against pornography and a range of well-known art critics critical of what they viewed as the populist aesthetic of the work. At the same time, and as Gerhard also sets out, the work attracted massive popular attention and – as she writes in the book’s epilogue – had a quality that engaged even its most sceptical viewers. This might have been “raw” feminism but it nevertheless communicated a passionate account of a collective situation and history.

Running through Gerhard’s book is an openness to visual experience that makes it, with all its rich detail about the actual mechanics of the making of The Dinner Party, a history replete with questions. In chapters 3 and 4 we are told of the many people who worked on the creation: the often unpaid workers who embroidered, ran errands, helped to make the plates and generally got what was literally “the show” off the ground. Chicago was clearly the dominant author of the project but she relied on numerous others to bring her vision to fruition; the question raised is the immediate one of the reliance of many great projects on the unnamed other – the people, in Bertolt Brecht’s words, who “built the pyramids”. This is not to detract from the power of Chicago’s vision but it is a comment on the kind of criticism that her project attracted, namely consistent criticism of the central idea and almost no attention to the work involved in its realisation.

But in that absence of recognition of the collective lies, perhaps, part of the very genesis of Chicago’s art and it allows us to understand more fully the reasons for her choice of a specific part of the female body as an organising symbol. If the underlying motive of her work is to dramatise the absence of women from the historical record and the public place of literal and symbolic power, it immediately raises the question of how this is to be done in ways that simultan-eously unite and individuate. That tension, which I would argue is a central theme of feminist politics in any decade or century, is implicit in The Dinner Party as much as in Gerhard’s book. The failure of critics to endorse The Dinner Party might then be read not just as a rejection of Chicago’s aesthetic but a failure of the recognition of the problems of how to represent visually the collective.

The material that Gerhard has collected for her book stands as an important achievement of feminist history. In this, there is a sense in which the account of the making of art has an importance as great as the art itself: we can “see” The Dinner Party in ways other than the visual as a result of this book. After reading it, I am still unsure what I think about Chicago’s work but I have a greater understanding of the issues that she confronted – issues that were raised recently in the work of Suzanne Lacy in Silver Action at London’s Tate Modern. Both are concerned with the politics of recognition, a question that Jane Gerhard’s book does not solve but, in the best sense, explores.

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