Lots of people think that Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” is lousy art. Chicago (and a few hundred disciples/volunteers) made the restaurant-size work in the ’70s as a kind of feminist encyclopedia. The tables are decorated with elaborate place settings for 39 women, from an archetypal “Primordial Goddess” to Susan B. Anthony, and each plate is decorated with a motif deemed particular to that honoree—or at least to a part of her anatomy. If you only dimly suspect that Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings resemble female genitalia, then you ain’t seen these dishes yet. The whole thing looks like an R-rated banquet at an overdressed Trump hotel. All art, of course, is to some degree political. But can something this blatantly didactic still be any good?
The fact is, “The Dinner Party” is one of the most influential pieces of the last 50 years. Without it, there would be no art-star Cindy Sherman, no “Vagina Monologues,” even, in a way, no Hillary Clinton. Chicago obviously wasn’t the first or best-known feminist, but no American woman before her attempted such a “masterpiece” on a scale usually reserved for men. What’s more, she announced her political intentions like a candidate going into battle. Chicago once took out an art-magazine ad in which, dressed in boxing trunks and a sweatshirt, she declared, “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name Judy Chicago.” Maybe that’s where Hillary learned the power of the right last name.
"The Dinner Party” has spent most of the last 30 years locked away in storage. In spite of its importance, no one wanted to own it. Why? Those vaginas on plates certainly didn’t help. Neither did the piece’s hectoring subtext—museum curators were wary of showing a work that tacitly accused them of having ignored art by half the human race (however true it was). Even some feminists thought “The Dinner Party” to be simplistic and demeaning and complained that Chicago had hijacked their movement. But recently it opened in its first permanent home, at the Brooklyn Museum, in its new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art—which wouldn’t exist without “The Dinner Party,” either.
The funny thing is that, despite the impact that “The Dinner Party” has had on the world at large, the art world itself looks much the way it did three decades ago. The number of women in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art still languishes at a mere 3 percent. Women account for only one twentieth of art up to 1969 owned by the Museum of Modern Art. And although women constitute the majority of graduate students, curators and scholars in contemporary art, they get less than a third of the solo shows in New York’s Chelsea-district galleries. What’s worse, Chicago says, is that “there is a whole generation of women who disown feminism while enjoying the benefits feminists won.” She’s talking about the art world, but her point could apply even more strongly to Britney, Paris, Lindsay et al. Thanks to feminism, they can behave just as badly as men. And thanks to “The Dinner Party,” we can write about them when they don’t bother to wear underwear.
Chicago, 68, now sports anodized red hair, flashy eyeglasses and a fondness for clashing, patterned outfits. She’s mellowed a bit. “We could have been a little friendlier to some of the men back then,” she says, “who otherwise might have supported us.” But in the next moment, leading viewers around “The Dinner Party,” she proclaims that the “establishment museums continue to force down our throats a single narrative of art by white European males.” After all these years, Chicago still has her boxing gloves on.