(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
(3) Renee Cox, "Yo Mama", gelatin silver print, 1993.
(4) Faith Wilding, "Womb", watercolor on paper, 20 x 15", 1971.
(5) 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
By the time I have looked at works such as Faith Wilding's Womb , Millie Wilson's Wig/Cunt and Hannah Wilke's Seven Untitled Vaginal-Phallic and Excremental Sculptures, I am squirming in discomfort [All included in "Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party in Feminist Art History" currently at UCLA's Armand Hammer Museum of Art--Ed.]. 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 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 Judy Chicago's 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 works of art: 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 art works 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 socio-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 nonauthoritarian 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 Judy Chicago's assertions, and of the value of her feminist community building. I am thrilled that my friends and students can now share the empowering experience I had when I viewed The Dinner Party seventeen years ago.