The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    The Dinner Party
    Book Description:

    Judy Chicago's monumental art installation The Dinner Party was an immediate sensation when it debuted in 1979, and today it is considered the most popular work of art to emerge from the second-wave feminist movement. Jane F. Gerhard examines the piece's popularity to understand how ideas about feminism migrated from activist and intellectual circles into the American mainstream in the last three decades of the twentieth century. More than most social movements, feminism was transmitted and understood through culture-art installations, Ms. Magazine, All in the Family, and thousands of other cultural artifacts. But the phenomenon of cultural feminism came under extraordinary criticism in the late 1970s and 1980s Gerhard analyzes these divisions over whether cultural feminism was sufficiently activist in light of the shifting line separating liberalism from radicalism in post-1970s America. She concludes with a chapter on the 1990s, when The Dinner Party emerged as a target in political struggles over public funding for the arts, even as academic feminists denounced the piece for its alleged essentialism. The path that The Dinner Party traveled-from inception (1973) to completion (1979) to tour (1979-1989) to the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum (2007)-sheds light on the history of American feminism since 1970 and on the ways popular feminism in particular can illuminate important trends and transformations in the broader culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4568-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION Toward a Cultural History of The Dinner Party
    (pp. 1-20)

    JUDY CHICAGO’S INSTALLATION The Dinner Party, the most monumental work of the 1970s feminist art movement, has been praised, damned, celebrated, and denounced since its debut in 1979. In fact, it delineated the need for women’s history, but strangely until now it has had no history of its own. This is particularly surprising because contemporary accounts are plentiful. Mademoiselle and Ms. discussed The Dinner Party, as did Newsweek, Mother Jones, the CBS Nightly News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the New York Times, Art in America, and Artforum. People stood in line for hours to see it wherever it opened, while...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Making Feminist Artists: The Feminist Art Programs of Fresno and CalArts, 1970–1972
    (pp. 21-47)

    IN 1970, ARTIST JUDY CHICAGO took a position at Fresno State College (FSC, now the California State University, Fresno). She arrived on the innovative campus for the spring semester, not sure of what to expect.¹ Professionally, she brought with her a reputation as an up-and-coming artist with a recognizable name, a quality that enabled her to push the FSC Art Department in new directions. Personally, she arrived with the feeling that she needed a way to reconnect to original content for her art.² Worn down by the pursuit of recognition in the modern art scene for over ten years, Chicago...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Making Feminist Art: Womanhouse and the Feminist Art Movement, 1972–1974
    (pp. 48-75)

    THE HOUSE ON 533 NORTH MARIPOSA in Hollywood, California, opened on January 23, 1972. The weeks leading up to the opening of Womanhouse were intense as the twenty-three students enrolled in the Feminist Art Program (FAP) at CalArts worked countless hours on the rooms each had designed, either alone or in collaboration. The seventeen rooms had been plastered, sanded, painted, and illuminated. Windows and doors had been repaired, toilets cleared, gardens emptied of trash, steps rebuilt. Now, for one month, the public could walk through their feminist art environment and see for themselves what the group had accomplished.

    The months...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Studio as a Feminist Space: Practicing Feminism at The Dinner Party, 1975–1979
    (pp. 76-108)

    IN 1974, CHICAGO BEGAN what turned into a five-year project on a monumental work, The Dinner Party. For over a year, the artist had been working on historical themes in her art. As her thinking about women’s history and about women’s exclusion from the grand sweep of art history evolved, Chicago settled on the idea of a dinner party seating thirty-nine women with three table wings representing time periods, each seating thirteen guests. Under the table, a porcelain floor with the names of 999 women would show a long history of achievement—traditions of accomplishment building over generations. Eventually her...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Joining Forces: Making Art and History at The Dinner Party, 1975–1979
    (pp. 109-148)

    BETWEEN 1976 AND 1979, Chicago headed a significant cultural feminist art studio in Santa Monica, California. She had succeeded in drawing people to help her complete a monument to women’s history, The Dinner Party. As the studio expanded, Chicago grew more comfortable with the process of cooperation that enabled the work-intensive project to proceed. The sheer amount of art being made each day made it nearly impossible for all decisions to run through Chicago. Workers consulted with each other over how to address the range of problems or issues that came up. At the same time, even as volunteers took...

  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  10. CHAPTER FIVE Going Public: The Dinner Party in San Francisco, 1979
    (pp. 149-179)

    THE SCHEDULED OPENING for The Dinner Party— March 1979—loomed large over the studio. The group worked a grueling schedule to finish, their lives outside the studio seeming to shrink as the opening date approached. Yet in the face of the tremendous task of completing The Dinner Party, keeping the studio financially afloat also required a tremendous amount of energy and sacrifice. That story—of the finances of The Dinner Party— warrants historical attention. It too represents the ways that the women involved in the project practiced feminism. The feminism practiced in this arena was not cultural in terms of...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Tour That Very Nearly Wasn’t: The Dinner Party’s Alternative Showings, 1980–1983
    (pp. 180-210)

    DESPITE THE CROWDS and the enthusiasm on display in San Francisco, the formal gatekeepers of the institutional art world did not embrace The Dinner Party either before or after its brilliant opening in 1979. That spring, the next two museums scheduled to show The Dinner Party reneged on their agreements, leaving Chicago and Gelon scrambling to find alternative spaces to show it. News of the cancellations was a terrible blow.¹ For Chicago, the popularity of The Dinner Party was a powerful testimony to audiences’ connection to the piece and justification enough for museums to show it. Yet museum curators, boards...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Debating Feminist Art: The Dinner Party in Published and Unpublished Commentary, 1979–1989
    (pp. 211-245)

    THE DINNER PARTY OPENED in its second and last major museum show in the fall of 1981 at the Brooklyn Museum. The Brooklyn opening of The Dinner Party confirmed the work’s symbiotic relationship with the media. Before the museum openings, Chicago and Gelon cultivated media attention as a way to raise money and build audience interest in the piece. As it became clear that museums would not display the work, Chicago, Gelon, and community organizers used the media to build an alternative, nonmuseum-based tour. Ironically, creating a tour for The Dinner Party outside of traditional venues required a level of...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT From Controversy to Canonization: The Dinner Party in the Culture Wars, 1990–2007
    (pp. 246-282)

    AFTER THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM OPENING, The Dinner Party moved to Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlanta for community shows, and then abroad. Three Canadian museums showed it in 1982 and 1983; huge crowds turned out and made the venues significant and (somehow still) unexpected profits. The international tour became an unbridled success, opening to enthusiastic reviews at the Fringe during the Festival in Edinburgh, the Warehouse in London, and at the contemporary art museum, Schirn Kunsthalle, in Frankfurt, Germany, where the showing was accompanied by a gala women’s festival at the city’s newly renovated opera house.¹ The final museum show in the...

  14. EPILOGUE A Prehistory of Postfeminism
    (pp. 283-290)

    IN THE SUMMER OF 1989, Judith Green from La Crosse, Wisconsin, wrote to Through the Flower describing how she first came to know about The Dinner Party. Her letter, like many others sent to the artist, testified to the circuitry of community and media through which The Dinner Party reached viewers, the well-worn paths between word of mouth, newspaper, and feminist reviews, consumer products, and audiences that had made the piece into one of the most famous feminist art blockbusters of all time.

    When visiting Houston in the spring of 1980, Green convinced a friend to drive her to the...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 291-332)
  16. Index
    (pp. 333-336)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 337-337)