In 1979 American Judy Chicago exhibited her ground breaking and iconic (collaborative) installation The Dinner Party (1979), to which the viewer is invited.
Most recognised art over the centuries has been created by men in the West. This is not because women can’t make good art, but because women have been systematically excluded from the art world for centuries. The representation of women, therefore has been predominately from a male, patriarchal viewpoint. The prominent messages about women created by male presentation includes a persistence of female passivity or females represented as sexualised objects for male heterosexual pleasure/the male gaze. From Degas to Picasso to Rubens to Titian and so on, women have been represented by male artists in specific and limiting ways. Such centuries old engrained ideas about the nature of womanhood have been hugely influential in wider culture, endorsing the construction of an oppressive female gender identity to this day.
‘My resistance began early on’ Chicago states….’I set myself against these images because they did not have anything to do with me”
When Chicago exhibited ‘The Dinner Party’ in the late 1970’s it caused a huge controversy in the art world simply for its emphasis on women. It did not follow the expected and predictable representation of women for men AND it was also created by an actual female, not male, artist. The installation also used imagery of female genitalia. However rather than reflecting parts of a female body for the titillation of the male gaze, here female genitalia is presented as a celebration of womanhood itself.
The work comprises of a large triangular shaped tabled with settings for thirty nine guests and is inscribed with the names of historical and mythological women (including Sappho, Sojourner Truth, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf) and is adorned with plates reflecting yonic/labial imagery.
Feminist theorists highlighted the work for opposing the silencing of women and for the artist’s agency and empowered representation of the female both culturally and sexually.
Chicago’s employment of the domestic setting subverts traditional ideas of the female and private realm. Her use of ceramics and textile art (e.g. embroidery) celebrates traditional female creativity while also subverting and opposing ideas of grand ‘masculine mastery’.
The work also not only highlights ideas of female production within culture, but itself raises such issues as the interpretation of art by challenging how patriarchal language constructs identity and also gender within art and culture itself.
In her career Chicago set out to make art that didn’t deny her “experience and feelings as a female person.”
Despite women making up more than half the population of the world, for women to define their own experience of womanhood by themselves, for themselves, is still however perceived as a divisive and revolutionary act.