Step 1: Initial Exploration and Analysis
“The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago is a massive work to undertake and understand. It is an installation art piece, and there is some general philosophy and background that must be understood to understand the visual design of the piece itself. The primary artist of the piece, Judy Chicago, has never hidden the fact that “The Dinner Party” is a feminist work of art (Brooklynmuseum.org). It has 39 place settings, and those place settings sit at evenly spaced intervals around a triangular table (Brooklynmuseum.org). Unlike some pieces of art whose interpretation may be more open, every stitch in every napkin and piece of cutlery at Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” has a specific meaning (Brooklynmuseum.org). The visual design of the piece is clearly a function of the message that Chicago wanted to send with the piece itself, and there is so much meaning and purpose packed into the piece that it would be nearly impossible to analyze the entirety of the piece in a short discussion (Brooklynmuseum.org).
Visually, the piece is striking. It takes up an entire room, and each place setting is intricately designed and crafted by hand. The artist chose a number of interesting techniques for the design and overall craftsmanship of this piece—according to Chicago, she chose forms of art that have traditionally been “women’s” forms of craftsmanship over the years (Chicago). Thus, the pottery is hand-thrown, the napkins are embroidered, and the glass blown for the installation itself (Chicago). One notable thing about each place setting is the presence of feminine imagery; Chicago also seems fascinated by butterflies, which are heavily present throughout the piece as well.
This piece evokes a number of feelings in the viewer, and not all of them are positive. One of the feelings that is evoked when I consider this particular piece is a feeling of sadness: one of the messages that Chicago intended to send with her piece was a sense of the feeling of invisibility that women have historically had in the arts and elsewhere. There is a sense of enormity to the room, and there is beauty in the work, but there is also a sense of emptiness, because it is a table that will never be filled. All the women who came before Chicago who worked in traditionally female crafts like pottery and weaving will remain nameless forever; Chicago was only able to give names and honor to 39 of them.
In terms of Gardener’s intelligence domains, Chicago’s work is also incredibly interesting. Chicago did not complete the entire work herself; she incorporated the work of many different female artists when she structured the project. For this reason, the piece seems to fit into the interpersonal intelligence space; she needed the interaction and the cooperation to create this massive piece of art. It should be noted that the collaboration that Chicago had with other female artists actually adds to the message of feminine solidarity that she seems to be sending with the piece. However, as a piece of art, the piece itself seems kinesthetic in nature. The piece interacts with the space around it, filling it; it seems as though there should be people present in the space, using the utensils that are provided and interacting with the art itself. It also calls to the invisible role of women in society: to provide nourishment and support but never to eat at the table, which again, evokes in me a sense of sadness.
Chicago wanted to bring light to the way the art world is male-dominated—not only because there are more famous male painters and sculptors than female, but also because the art forms that women commonly utilize are not really considered to be art in the same way as traditionally male art forms. Her social motives are made very clear in her work, and she is very successful in her attempts to portray the invisibility of female artists in society.
Another fascinating framework to see this particular piece of work from is through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While it may seem as though this piece reflects a need for self-actualization, its base is actually in the safety and security part of the hierarchy, and different facets of the work touch on safety and security, love and belongingness, self-esteem, and self-actualization. “Women’s art,” in the way Chicago frames it, is born from the desire to make the everyday beautiful; however, it is also born from the need to clothe and show love for one’s family, and even to provide financial security for one’s family. For instance, during the pre-Industrial Revolution era, many women in Europe would create clothing as a way to help support their families; these pieces were undoubtedly works of art, but they were not considered as such because of the institutionalized beliefs of the time. They were anonymous, and their anonymity—and the need that Chicago felt to break that anonymity—reflects the self esteem portion of Maslow’s hierarchy. The physical act of creation is what reflects the self-actualization part of Maslow’s hierarchy: it demonstrates to the world that women have inner and outer experiences and needs as rich and as varied as their male counterparts in the art world, even if they have not broken into the traditional artistic sphere.
Step 2: Research the Work
It is difficult to get a good photo of Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” because of the scale of the work; however, this image gives a good basic view of the layout of the piece (Cooke). The banquet table forms a triangle, which is a traditionally feminine symbol; each edge of the table reflects a different era of human and female history (Beckman). The first edge of the table reflects the early part of human history, which focuses on the mother goddess and women up until the time of the Roman Empire (Beckman). This part of the table is sometimes called “Wing I” (Beckman). Wing II features dinner guests from the time around the birth of Christ to the Reformation, and the third wing features women from the American Revolutionary Era until modern-day feminism (Beckman).
Featured here is a detailed image of the place setting that was designed for English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Cooke). Her place setting features one of Chicago’s iconic vulva-butterflies, a symbol of femininity and strength (Fineman). Not all of these place settings were created by Chicago herself, but she was the one who found the artists and commissioned the different pieces necessary before putting the entire piece of work together (Fineman).
All of the pieces in the exhibit are specially created to reflect the people who are meant to be sitting at the table. Virginia Woolf and Sojourner Truth are among the women who are included at the table (Fineman). When this piece was first introduced, it was met with much vitriol from the press and from politicians; people proclaimed her imagery to be too vulgar and too explicit to be “art” (Fineman, Cooke, DeBasio). The “art or not art” question will be examined in some depth in the next section; however, one way or another, there was an immense amount of craftsmanship that went into the creation of all the pieces of this particular project, regardless of the political or social implications (Cooke). It is a piece that is created on a very large scale and small scale simultaneously, because of the amount of detail present in the creation (Cooke, DeBasio, Fineman).
Step 3: art and “Art”
Although the mainstream media and political sphere have lambasted this piece significantly over the years, there is no doubt that this piece as a whole—and its constituent parts—qualifies as art. Each piece of every place setting has been meticulously constructed to reflect the nature of the woman who would be sitting there; it demonstrates her worth as a woman and reflects a celebration of femininity that is common in feminist art (Lippard). Interestingly, this piece qualifies on various levels as fine art, applied art, decorative art, and visual art; as one digs deeper into the piece, it is easy to see that nearly all forms of art are represented here. Obviously, the piece is an installation piece, but the use of crafts and other non-traditional medium—as well as the creation of figurines and sculptures—indicate that this piece should fall under the umbrella of decorative and fine arts, respectively.
Some say that modern art isn’t art in the same way that Renaissance Art is art, but this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of pieces like “The Dinner Party” (Hoban). It is an alternative approach to art, to be certain, but Chicago’s take on installation art and the creation of “The Dinner Party” links fine arts to modern art in such a way that it is very difficult to deny the artistic merit of the piece. Many have tried to deny the artistic merit of this particular piece, but it is nearly impossible to argue with the merit of the piece—people who tried to deny the artistic merit of the piece largely felt threatened by the overall philosophical code and message that the artists were choosing to send with their work (Cooke, Fineman).
This piece reflects the philosophical theory of feminism; it reflects a desire for solidarity between women across generations, as well as across time and space. The women featured at the table are, by and large, European or American, however; there is little in the way of reflection of other cultures. As a result, one can assume that this piece does not really reflect global humanism as a value. This is not, as many would assume, because Chicago does not value men or the masculine; instead, the purpose of this piece is to shine light on the invisibility of women and the invisibility of women’s contributions to society over the years. This piece certainly meets the requirements for being part of the feminist art movement and the postmodernist movement. It does not fit the requirements for minimalism, because “The Dinner Party” reflects such attention to depth of detail in the piece as a whole.
Step 4: Interpretational Perspectives
This piece addresses a number of socio-cultural issues. It addresses issues of historical culture—the ways that women have historically been oppressed is one of the major perspectives from which the artist is working on this piece. There are also structural and symbolic aspects of culture that are addressed in this particular piece, because of the heavy use of culture-dependent symbolism used in the different place settings. Even the shape of the table—the triangle—is a European symbol of femininity, and it does not necessarily cross boundaries into other Eastern or African cultures. This is particularly important for observing the perspective of the piece: Chicago’s work is firmly centered in a western socio-cultural perspective. She does not, despite her apparent frustration regarding the invisibility of women, see women of color from other cultures as important for her project; perhaps she merely feels incapable of speaking for them. Chicago does suggest that the act of creating art is an act of self-discovery for the artist, however, and perhaps this is why she has taken a firmly western perspective in her piece “The Dinner Party” (Chicago).
This particular piece has gender symbolism associated with it as well as flower and plant symbolism. However, much of the flower and plant symbolism that Chicago used in her work is contrary to the traditional meanings for these symbols; for instance, the lily is supposed to mean purity, but in Chicago’s work, it is often associated with female sexual organs and femininity. The triangle is a symbol that is closely associated with gender, and the triangle is utilized heavily through the work. It occurs repeatedly as a motif both in the grand scheme of things—through the physical design of the table—and on a smaller scale, as a repeated symbol for femininity and the strength of the female in the assorted place settings. There is no doubt that gender and femininity is the central focus of this piece—the flower motifs are also used to represent the beauty of femininity and female sexuality. In a thematic examination that is, perhaps, singular to second-wave feminism, the female form and female experience is examined without any kind of comparison to the male experience. The symbols utilized are completely tied to the feminine, without comparison or any symbolic or literal opposition between the forces of masculinity and the forces of femininity.
Aside from the feminist sentiment, Chicago created this particular piece from a very keenly-crafted political perspective. There is no doubt that she knew her work would challenge entrenched political beliefs; it seems silly to assume that the sexual imagery would not attract the attention and ire of those conservatives in power who were fighting to keep women from reclaiming their power. While probably not intended as a piece from a political perspective, there were undoubtedly women invited to Chicago’s “Dinner Party” who were incredibly active in the political realm—including women like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Mary Wollstonecraft (Cooke).
As a piece of feminist artwork, there is obviously a gender perspective at play. However, Chicago does a very interesting thing with this piece and chooses not to lambast the masculine—the entire piece is an exuberant celebration of femininity. Those who were disturbed by the piece were disturbed by how readily Chicago was able and willing to throw aside accepted beliefs and traditions regarding the superiority of the masculine and create a piece of art so focused on celebrating everything feminine from a feminine perspective.
Step 5: Judgments and Conclusions
For its time, this piece was an astounding one. Today, we are able to look at it with different eyes: because of how far American feminism has come and all the successes that it has achieved, women are now given more freedom than ever before to reach their goals and follow their dreams. However, the backlash against the piece for its sexual content is telling of the time; Chicago was living in a different world than we are living in today. Today, the struggles of the past do not seem as impactful as they almost certainly did during Chicago’s planning and creation of this work; instead, we can view this piece as a beautiful representation of the different ways that women have impacted the course of history against all odds.
The artist has provided a very clear reading of her piece, and as a result, the meaning is clear; she has given the viewer insight into the design and creation process that actually helps the viewer better understand the meaning of the piece. Sometimes artists choose to allow the viewer to view the piece and make their own assumptions and develop their own understandings; by giving the viewer her understanding of the piece, Chicago has made the piece much more impactful and meaningful.
The most surprising thing about this particular work is the depth of detail utilized throughout the work. The piece took a very long time to create, and it is apparent very quickly why it took so long: it is immensely detailed and every place setting is unique. Every time I saw a new photo of the piece from a different angle, I was able to see new details that were not immediately apparent before. Each woman who was invited to the dinner party had a place specially made for her and for her talents, dreams, abilities, and accomplishments; each setting was a beautiful examination of her life, celebrated through art. In this way, the piece was an incredibly successful one; it fulfilled the artist’s desire to celebrate the feminine and expose the invisibility of the women who had come before her.
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Cooke, Rachel. 'The Art Of Judy Chicago'. the Guardian. N. p., 2012. Web. 14 July 2015.
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Lippard, Lucy R. "Sweeping exchanges: the contribution of feminism to the art of the 1970s." Art Journal 40.1-2 (1980): 362-365.