Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Judy, Judy, Judy

In my on-going exploration of feminist art, I went looking at for Judy at our SFMOMA. I was not surprised to find that the museum has very few works by her, and (as far as I can see), nothing from the iconic, ground-breaking, still controversial
DInner Party. It showed here in 1979 at the old SFMOMA on Van Ness, was exhibited around the country for about 10 years and then, was in storage until 1977 when it found a permanent home at The Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn, NY.

This major project created a firestorm of criticism (mostly by the mainstream media) while speaking to the hearts of those of us not invested in maintaining the status quo. Her gender politics, sometimes abrasive personality and focus on sexual imagery to represent women, as well as bringing to the fore the millions of women who have been written out of history are as controversial now as they were in 1979. There still seems to be little understanding of the complexities of the 70's and feminist art is STILL "written out" or seen as marginal or irrelevant. What's the famous quote - those who don't know history are domed to repeat it? Unfortunately, the younger generations of feminists are, by and large, ignorant of their own foremothers and waste a lot of time reinventing the wheel.

David Evett pointed out in a 1981 review that the Dinner Party, like Nude Descending a Staircase, forced viewers to think about their basic assumptions regarding art. Critics like Hilton Kramer were obsessive in their criticism of the piece’s attraction to the masses, mostly women and certainly not part of the NY art establishment. So much for disinterested artistic theory but again, so much for the theory of high art, created by mostly males, always individualistic who worked in oil or carved marble.

Of course, some of the conflict between high art and lowbrow kitsch came from within the feminist movement itself. Judy Chicago wanted The Dinner Party to be viewed as high art. When studying china painting prior to starting the project, she saw herself as a “serious” artist as opposed to the housewives who were taking the class to fill up their free time.

Yet, in a recent interview, she went on to say, “What I have been after from the beginning is a redefinition of the role of the artist, a reexamination of the relation of art and community, and a broadening of the definitions of who controls art and, in fact, an enlarged dialogue about art, with new and more diverse participants.”

Because feminists had (and have) an interest in challenging elitist systems of value, the fact that the Dinner Party was inaccessible for most of the last two decades speaks volumes about the place of feminist art. The use of the female labia as the central iconography of the piece speaks to the need to examine it as a serious work placed with its historical setting, with ramifications beyond the 70’s. Berger’s theory on the gaze is as relevant then as now – the difference between the naked and the nude. The Dinner Party’s pudenda imagery is nothing if not naked, proudly and defiantly so, and all the more “shocking” because the work was created by a body of (mostly) women, using the “womanly” crafts of pottery, china painting and embroidery. Portrayals of male and female genitalia abound in art but as part of a larger image; this was the first time that the part that had discretely veiled was so openly displayed without apology.

Amelia Jones (ed). Sexual Politics. Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History. 1996
David Evett, Movable Feast, Northern Ohio Live, May 1981


Carina said...

Now this is very interesting... what others interprete as the all seeing eye you interprete as a potrayal of the feminine genitalia. What we want to see clearly depends on our point of view.

namastenancy said...

Of course, you can see the images as the all seeing eye but Judy Chicago, the creator of The Dinner Party deliberately chose images of female genitalia to make her point. That was one of the reasons that the piece was so controversial. If she'd identified her plates as portraying a religious image from another culture, there would have been far less controversy - but rattling the bars of society's cage was part of the whole installation.

Eva said...

Dear lord, how many years must we talk about her "quailty of work." the woman made history - did what no man has (and never could) do. But that's not enough! We must go back to the question if we "like" it or not.

Do you like every guy in art history? there are whole genres of art out there that I do not care for. but I can never attack and question it and say "it's lousy" they way so many can with Judy Chicago. It doesn't matter whether we like Chicago or not. Her influence is immense.

Men are now claiming craft and communal art making and embroidery and all the rest of it. It's big in the art news. Just about every week we have a new man coming into town to talk about craft. Now these men have taken the (traditionally) women's art and make great speeches and made it all their own. No one is saying the quality of work is shit or that it's just fucking embroidery. Funny huh?