Betty Brown


A REPAST OF FEMINISM REVISTED AT
SEXUAL POLITICS SHOW --part 1 [go to part 2]

[1]
[2] [3] [4] [5]

(1) Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party" (detail), mixed media, 36" x 46 1/2' each side.
© 1979 Judy Chicago. Photo: Donald Woodman.
(2) Betye Saar, "Liberation of Aunt Jemima", mixed media, 11 3/4 x 8 x 2 3/4", 1972
(2) Renee Cox, "Yo Mama", gelatin silver print, 1993.
(3) Faith Wilding, "Womb", watercolor on paper, 20 x 15", 1971.
(4) Yoko Ono, "Cut Piece", photograph documenting performance at Yamaichi Concert Hall, Kyoto, Japan, 1964. Photo: Lenono Photo Archive.

"Connecting was the function and meaning of women's traditional art, and it is still consciously a function of feminist art today."

Harmony Hammond, "Creating Feminist Works" 1

It is early summer, 1979. I have flown with my husband to San Francisco to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. 2 We stay in a bed-and-breakfast in Haight Ashbury, travel through the wine country, gorge ourselves on gourmet food. And, I insist, we go to see Judy Chicago's Dinner Party. It is installed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which is, at that time, located on the upper floors of an office-like building downtown. We take a cab to the museum. There are people lined up outside the building and halfway around the next block. I am not at all sure I want to wait for what promises to be at least an hour to see any art exhibit, but I am intrigued by what my students and colleagues have told me about Chicago's project, so l convince my recalcitrant husband to stick with it.

We wait in line. We round the block, go up the stairs, crush through the entryway, then edge into the hallway of the museum. As we get closer to the installation itself we begin to encounter photographs, written documentation, finally a video about the genesis and process of the project. I am amazed at how many different people grappled with the challenges of creative collaboration to work together on the project (I had always thought art was something you did on your own). I begin to think that Chicago must have both a strong sense of vision and remarkable interpersonal skills (What about all those horrible rumors I'd heard about her? I ask myself 3).

I see a uniform-clad museum guard shepherding some of the crowd in a less than gracious way and I remember what one of my colleagues told me about her experience at The Dinner Party. As she neared the door, one of the guards pulled her aside and said to her, "You don't want to go in there. It's nasty."

When I finally enter the exhibition space, it seems the very opposite of nasty to me. I walk into a dark, dramatically lit room. I see a large yet elegant triangular table set with glistening sculpted plates, each plate laid over a spectacular fabric runner. The table itself is elevated on a shiny tile floor, with hundreds of names scripted over its surface. This may sound corny, but the first impression I have is one of awe: It is so beautiful and so powerful. I circle the table again and again, reading the names of the women represented by the plates, whispering the names of the women written on the floor, hearing in my mind echoes of the names of the women-the many women-who had worked together on this project. 4

First I look at the place settings for the 39 guests. Each is a mythic or historic woman of power. I know some of the names, but not all. As I circle the triangular table, I realize I want to know them all. The plate for the Amazon, the mythic female warrior, is placed next to that for Hatshepsut (Later I learn that she was an Egyptian matriarch who assumed the throne and became noted for her civic reforms). The medieval mystic Hildegarde of Bingen is represented by a plate with a stained glass design. I can relate to this, since I have long been drawn to the writings of the mystics and have always loved stained glass interiors. Nearby is the powerful plate for Renaissance ruler Elizabeth R. I grin, remem-bering how I had loved stories about Elizabeth as a child simply because my name, Betty, is derived from Elizabeth, I feel connection with the powerful ruler.

I am drawn to the forceful geometry of Sacajawea's plate, aware that it reflects the visual traditions of her Native American heritage. And I find Sojourner Truth's plate compelling; it has three faces that I think must represent her African roots, her suffering under slavery, and her courage to speak for abolition after her escape. Susan B. Anthony's plate image seems about to lift off its low circular surface. I ask myself if Chicago is depicting Anthony's (relative) liberation. When I see that Georgia O'Keeffe's plate appears to fly free, I guess I must be correct.

I look at all the plates, then study the tiled floor below the table. The names of 999 women of achievement are written on the floor. I read as many as l can. I see that other suffragettes are clustered near Anthony. Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Colette, Doris Lessing - all writers whose work I admire - are scattered under Virginia Woolf's plate. And Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and Frida Kahlo are there with O'Keeffe. I realize, as I walk around The Dinner Party, that I am being changed by this art. I still smile to think of it.

Something wonderful happened during my encounter with that art, in that room, in that museum. I began to feel connected to all the women portrayed there. I began to feel part of the project, part of the community, part of the history. I began to feel proud, proud of the women's history depicted there and proud to be heir to plate painters, table-setters, weavers and embroiderers whose traditional art forms were honored there. I began to feel the embrace of cultural reification in a way l never had at any of the male-centered exhibits I had seen before. I began to feel proud to be a woman. I began to feel, like The Dinner Party itself, beautiful and powerful.

One of the most important things art can do is give form to and thereby validate viewers' experiences. However, not all kinds of experiences have been selected as worthwhile material for art exhibitions; not everyone's story has been deemed valuable. Sut Jhally, Communications Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, insists that when we view cultural products, we need to ask: "Whose stories are told? Whose visions of the world do we not see? Who is silenced in our culture?" 5

Almost all of the exhibitions of Western art I viewed until the 1970s focused on images produced by men for a presumed male audience. 6 As a woman, either I had to deny my femaleness so as to identify with the male producers and viewers, or I was alienated to some degree by the viewing experience. It was not until I saw Judy Chicago's Dinner Party that I could fully identify with the content of an art exhibit. That viewing experience changed and empowered me, as it changed and empowered thousands of others.

According to Lucy Lippard, "Nothing that does not include the voices of people of color, women, lesbians, and gays can be considered inclusive, uni-versal, or healing. To find the whole we must know and respect all the parts." 7 But in most of Western cultural history, a singular cultural perspective-that of the privileged European Judeo-Christian male-was assumed universal and designated appropriate for all viewers. This led to a restricted range of experiences being represented in the arts.

Throughout the 1970s, women-particularly women artists and art historians-challenged the assumptions behind the historic belief in "universal" art production and reception. Their challenges led them to develop new art forms that establish community with increasingly inclusive and diversified audiences and collaborators.

Their challenges also paved the way to contemporary pluralism-the dispersal of a false universal into more valid multiplicity-and initiated ongoing debates over race, gender, class and identity politics as they apply to cultural production.

"Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party in Feminist Art History" currently on view at UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, presents Chicago's monumental oeuvre as a central icon, fundamental to the Feminist Art Movement and to the issues that movement interrogates. The Dinner Party is placed in the context of feminist works by over fifty artists--including Judie Bamber, Maureen Connor, Tee A. Corinne, Renee Cox, Cheri Gaulke, Lauren Lesko, Yolanda M. Lopez, Marlene McCarty, Faith Ringgold, Rachel Rosenthal, Betye Saar, Carrie Mae Weems, Faith Wilding, Hannah Wilke, Sue Williams and Millie Wilson--and is accompanied by a substantial catalogue with an introduction by art historian/exhibition curator Amelia Jones, as well as essays by feminist scholars and critics Laura Cotingham, Susan Kandel, Nancy Ring, Laura Meyer and Anette Kubitza.

I open the catalogue, designed by Susan Silton, to read Wilding's provocative words: "There's lots of vagina in our work, but it is not about vaginas. Rather, we are inventing a new form language radiating a female power which cannot be conveyed in any other way at this time. . .These images. . .are about being a human body in this world. . .a holy body: which knows, thinks, pains, remembers, works, imagines, dreams, yearns, aspires, and which may not be violated. As women artists we are presenting an image of woman's body and spirit as that which cannot and must not be colonized either sexually, economically, or politically." I turn the page. There is a reproduction of Wilding's Womb painting from 1971. I turn the page again. There is Millie Wilson's Wig/Cunt diptych from 1990. I turn the page once more. There is Mira Schor's Cunt and Penis from 1993. These are followed by Harmony Hammond's Durango (a large wrapped oval form 1979), Hannah Wilke's Seven Untitled Vaginal-Phallic and Excremental Sculptures (1960-1963), and Tee A. Corinne's #40 from the Yantras of Womanlove Series (1982). By the time I have looked at these artworks I am squirming in discomfort.

It is difficult for me to write--much less say--"cunt." I realize my unease over the popular word used to describe my own genitalia indicates how deeply ingrained is the cultural shame about our body parts. Sex is indeed a profoundly important and deeply political issue. I think of Sut Jhally, who reminds us [in his video on Desire, Sex and Power in Music Videos] that each society has many, many stories to tell about sexuality, but that our commercial culture has historically concentrated primarily on telling only one such story--the story of heterosexual male fantasy. Is that why I feel this way when I look at and write about cunt art?, I ask myself.

Amelia Jones' catalogue essay reads, "The first part of the title of this exhibition, Sexual Politics, alludes to Kate Millett's best-selling book of 1970, in which she theorizes "sex" (or "sexual difference," as we would say today) as a site of oppression and so a locus for political intervention. My reference to this book--with its polemical call for a politics oriented around 'our system of sexual relationship. . .[as one] of dominance and subordinance'--marks both my commitment to rethinking the terms of 1970s feminist art theory and practice and my interest in examining the politics of sexuality (especially the politics of sexuality within feminism itself). These politics are manifest in the debates that have surrounded The Dinner Party, which I would like to position in this catalogue and exhibition as part of the ongoing history of feminist art practice and theory in the United States and Britain."

How does she accomplish this in the exhibition, I wonder. I turn to the end of the catalogue, to the Checklist of the Exhibition, to survey the manner in which the exhibition is organized. The first category is, not surprisingly, "Judy Chicago's Dinner Party." This is followed by several categories designed to place "The Dinner Party in Context" and "to expand upon the popular and art historical understanding of issues raised by the piece by showing how they have been addressed in other feminist works." The first is "Female Imagery: The Politics of Cunt Art" which includes, of course, most of the art I saw reproduced at the beginning of the catalogue. "Bodily Functions: Menstruation, Birth, Maternity" includes Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom and examples from her Birth Project as well as parts of Mary Kelly's famed work about birthing and nurturing her son. "Objectivity/Subjectivity" explores how women have been conditioned by the ideals of beauty perpetuated by male culture (I think again of Sut Jhally's compelling video documenting the objectification of women in rock videos). "A Woman's Place Is In the Home: Politicizing the Domestic Sphere" includes two of my alltime favorite art works: Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, in which the smiling, apronned domestic grasps a screaming white child in one hand and a rifle in the other; and Mierle Laderman Ukeles' Maintenance Art, in which the artist turns cleaning chores into aesthetically rendered Zen repetitions.

The artworks in "Violence, Abuse, Autobiography" use the "personal is political" dictum of feminism to bring previously shame-based experiences like rape and battering to public light. Collectively they reveal that these are sociological and political--not just individual "problems." In "Intimacy, Eroticism, Autobiography," artists explore their own sexuality. Cheri Gaulke's This Is My Body documents a 1982 performance in which she linked traditional Christian misogyny with the Western dominance over and ultimate devaluing of nature.

The relationship between women and nature is also presented in "Herstory: Women, Nature, Goddess" with works like Rachel Rosenthal's Gaia Mon Amour (documenting a 1984 performance). Feminism has employed diverse approaches to challenge history's exclusions. The final section, "Alternative Histories/Alternative Authorities" highlights works such as Faith Ringgold's French Collection series, "an antiracist, feminist refashioning of the mythologized foundations of modernism."

Theorists tell us we are in the Post Modern period. I applaud that if it means that this is indeed a time in which the singular aesthetic of modernism, based on separatist individualism, is expanded to pluralism; so that art involving a sensitivity to our connections with others, to our shared local and planetary communities, is also valued. As Suzi Gablik writes in The Reenchantment of Art, "The idea of self-directed professionalism has conditioned, if not totally determined, our way of thinking about art, to the point where we have become incredibly addicted to certain kinds of experience at the expense of others, such as community, for examples or ritual. . .There is a need for new forms [of art] emphasizing our essential interconnectedness rather than our separateness, forms evoking the feeling of belonging to a larger whole rather than expressing the isolated, alienated self. . .The emerging new paradigm [of creativity] reflects a will to participate socially, a central aspect of new paradigm thinking involves a significant shift from objects to relationships. . .A new emphasis falls on community and environment rather than on individual achievement and accomplishment. . ." 8

I have always understood feminist artists in general--and Judy Chicago in particular--as being innovators of art that embodied this new paradigm, this new shift from objects to relationships.
In a 1979 article about The Dinner Party Thomas Albright wrote, "The studio is usually thought of as a lonely place, but it would be hard to imagine a scene of busier communal activity than the compact southern California atelier presided over by Judy Chicago." In that same article, in reference to her collaborative process, Chicago asserts, "I'm trying to facilitate, in a nonauthoritanan way." She goes on to say, "Women have never achieved in isolation. It is a fantasy to talk about women making it up on their own bootstraps. Women have always had a support system of other women. . .There is still an incredible prejudice against feminist art--a resistance to accepting the fact that women's experience is important enough to be the subject and basis of art making. Women are accepted in the art world if they accept prevailing values, which means following mainstream trends. I feel the mainstream is corrupt. . .I have had to bypass the art world to make it as an artist. . .I have had to build an alternative audience." 9

I became a member of that audience when I saw The Dinner Party in 1979. Over the years, l have become increasingly aware of the truth of Chicago's assertions, and of the value of her feminist community building. I am thrilled that all of you can now share the empowering experience I had when I viewed The Dinner Party seventeen years ago.

[continue to part 2]


1 Cited in Arlene Raven, "Harmonies: Harmony Hammond." Reprinted in Raven's Crossing Over: Feminism and Art of Social Concern (Ann Arbor/London, UMI Research Press, 1988).

2 This account of my first viewing of The Dinner Party is taken from my forthcoming book, The Feminist Art of Community Building (New York, Midmarch Arts Press, 1996).

3 Much of the criticism levelled at Chicago seems to be due to her gender, which is to say she has been maligned for what is often commended in men. For example, while successful men with aggressive personalities are often praised as "having balls," women with active, assertive characters have often been called "bitches." Male artists who employ numerous assistants to help or even execute their art are called "masters," while women who work with others yet leave their own names prominent (instead of retiring into the anonymity to which women were traditionally consigned) are called inconsiderate and domineering. Chicago has been subject to this kind of double standard more than any other woman artist I know of.

4 All of the collaborators on The Dinner Party were listed and credited in the documentation that preceded entry into the installation itself.

5 Sut Jhally, Dreamworlds II, Desire, Sex and Power in Music Video, 1995, educational videotape.

6 The classic article on what is termed the "male gaze," that is, the presumption of the male viewer in Western culture, is Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen, v. 16, no. 3, Autumn 1975, pages 6-18.

7 In, Suzanne Lacy, ed. Mapping the Terrain. New Genre Public Art, Seattle, Washington, Bay press, 1995, page 32.

8 Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, London and New York, Thames and Hudson, 1991, pages 2-7.

9 Thomas Albright, "Guess Who's Coming to Judy Chicago's Dinner," ARTnews, January 1979, pp. 60-64.