Judy Chicago: Art As Activism

October 28, 2007 at 1:27 pm (art, feminism)

I’m in midst of revising a paper I wrote recently about Judy Chicago. I thought it might be of a general interest to folks around here (feminism + art = awesome), and moreover posting it is a good way to force myself to comb through the damn thing. I’m hiding it mostly below the fold, as it’s quite long for a post.

Here it is:

Judy Chicago is one of those rare individuals whose career is both coherent and multiform. Very accomplished in art, activism, education and authorship, feminism has been the primary driving force of Chicago’s work since even before she undertook the task of monumentalizing womanhood in projects such as The Dinner Party and the less discussed Birth Project.

Chicago was born Judith Cohen on July 30th, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. As detailed in The Benezit Dictionary of Artists, she graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1962 with a BFA. She then received an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1964 (“Judy Chicago”). In 1970, she started the first-ever feminist art program at Fresno State College. From 1974 to 1979, Chicago worked on her best-known project, The Dinner Party. Other significant artistic ventures are The Birth Project, completed between 1980 and 1985, and The Holocaust Project, which she and her husband Donald Woodman finished in 1993. Chicago founded a non-profit organization 1978, Through The Flower, to educate the public about women and feminism, and as a tool to manage the massive administrative needs of her ambitious projects.

Judy Chicago’s politics were very much shaped by her childhood influences. Her father, Arthur Cohen, was a member of the Communist Party and recognized the oppression of women (Levin 305). Judy Chicago was one of the so-called “red-diaper babies” (Levin 307), children brought up in a decidedly progressive, immediately post-World War II atmosphere of leftist and Communist thinkers — in Chicago’s case, secular, working-class Jews. In her family of origin, “left-wing politics replaced Orthodox Judaism” (Zemel 6), and Jewish identity was synonymous with intellectualism and “a commitment to social justice” (Zemel 6). This bedrock of progressive thinking clearly permeates most of Chicago’s work.

The one notable exception is that she kept her art-making and her activism very separate in her early career. Chicago was in her Minimal period from 1965 to 1973 (Through The Flower), using many mediums to experiment with colors and simple forms, avoiding the incisive cultural commentary that infuses her later creations. So distinct from her later career is this work that most of it was eventually destroyed by Chicago herself (Danto 32).

In 1974, this more benign phase drew to a sharp close: Chicago began work on The Dinner Party, the project that, more than thirty years later, still defines her public face. It took five years and the contributions of hundreds of craftspersons working under Chicago’s direction. The Dinner Party is a monument to the secret history that patriarchal society has bridled and ignored: the history of women. It serves as a tribute and an elaborate form of documentation.

The work itself consists of a triangular banquet table, each side stretching forty-eight feet (Through The Flower). The table is set with thirty-nine places for thirty-nine important women, some of them from history, some from mythology, and still others who inhabit the murky intersection of the two (Through The Flower). The entire surface is covered with ornately embroidered textiles, marking each woman’s place with her name and a visual homage to her story. Each place-setting has a unique porcelain plate; every plate is painted with an undulating, flowerlike abstraction of femininity, reminiscent of the better known work of Georgia O’Keeffe (who is, incidentally, one of the thirty-nine chosen females). Finally, the entire display sits atop a porcelain base, inscribed with the names of an additional 999 influential women (Through The Flower).

Since its completion, it has been exhibited in fifteen venues and seen by more than a million people (Through The Flower). Just this year it was given a permanent home at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn, New York.

Chicago’s original intention with The Dinner Party was to “teach women’s history to a diverse audience” (Chicago 12). There is a level of debate about whether or not she succeeded. Art critic Janet Koplos, for one, considers the project “not altogether satisfying” (75), noting that it “remains dependent upon written information” (75) to communicate the histories it attempts to teach. The Dinner Party is a work of staggering proportions, and is certainly a powerful, provocative monument; as a teaching tool, however, it leaves some things to be desired. Commemorating important women in tapestry produces an impressive tribute, but, in this case, fails to impart the details of any story beyond the leading lady’s name.

After finishing The Dinner Party, Chicago turned her gaze to a more specific element of womanhood that has been largely left of out the artistic landscape. From 1980 to 1985, she created a series of images — like the runners of The Dinner Party, embroidered by a large team of craftspersons — about the awe-inspiring physicality of birth, which now constitute The Birth Project. Chicago choose needlework because, as the domain of women, it has often been excluded from definitions of art (Through The Flower). In this project, she once again made a conscious decision to fill in an inexcusable cultural blind-spot.

Where The Dinner Party may have partially failed, The Birth Project was entirely successful. Having set out to provide an artistic visualization of pregnancy and birth, she did exactly that, conveying both the wonder and the horror of an event experienced in some capacity by everyone. Some of the images are tender, but more of them are terrifying. Chicago shows us anguished women being torn in half, melting women collapsing into new beings, faceless women nursing hungry crowds. Every piece displays an uncompromising focus on the messy, bodily reality of birth. This is exemplified by “Hatching the Universal Egg,” in which a mother uses one hand to gently cradle the egg that contains her unborn baby, while using the other hand to grip the thick, corpulent cord that connects them.

Despite being truer to its stated mission, The Birth Project has been viewed by only a quarter of the number of people who saw The Dinner Party. The images now reside in some thirty institutions, including hospitals and schools, and a small, central group are housed at the Albuquerque Museum (Though The Flower).

Depending whether one defines successful activism by its political consequences or by its personal meaning, the effectiveness of the activist dimension of Judy Chicago’s work is debatable. It is true that Judy Chicago didn’t teach anybody the story of the life of Alice Paul or Isabella Bird by having their names scrawled onto tiles . She didn’t correct any imbalances or pass any just laws. She did, however, do something meaningful and valuable and necessary. She looked out into the world and saw a long history of injustice, and she was honest, both about this history and about human limitations. She was massively honest, producing in a single project more than one thousand square feet of honesty about these things. The Dinner Party — and, in fact, her whole body of work — has two levels of truth to it. There is the outer level, in which Chicago stares in the face the fact of all of these remarkable and remarkably under-acknowledged women. And there is an inner level, in which she confronts the truth of what is within our ability, here and now, to do about it. These women are dead and gone. We cannot undo their oppression now. We cannot even fully rectify it in the way we retell the past today, for these unsung heroes stretching back to the beginning of history must number in the millions, in the tens of millions. All we can do is be honest about what happened, about whose stories where neglected. To the extent we can find them, hidden in history, we can memorialize them. We can write down their names.

Works Cited

Chicago, Judy. Letter. Arts & Activities. September 2006: 12

Danto, Arthur Coleman. “The feminine mystique: Judy Chicago and the Feminist Art Movement.” The Nation. 25 Nov. 2002: 32

“Judy Chicago.” Benezit Dictionary of Artists. Paris: Grund, 2006

Koplos, Janet. “‘The Dinner Party’ Revisited.” Art In America. May 2003: 75-77

Levin, Gail. “Judy Chicago in the 1960s.” Impossible To Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s. Ed. Avital H. Bloch and Lauri Umansky. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Through The Flower. 2007. Through The Flower. 27 September 2007.

Zemel, Carol. “Holocaust Project: From Darkness Into Light.” The Women’s Review of Books 11.7 (1994): 6

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