The Dinner Party
The Dinner Party is a monumental installation celebrating forgotten achievements in female history. Chicago described it as, "as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of women, who, throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table." The central form is a forty-eight-foot triangular table with symbolic places set for thirty-nine "guests of honor"—remarkable women from different stages in Western civilization. Each guest has her own runner, embroidered on one side with her name and on the other with imagery illustrating her achievement. Each place setting includes a glass plate, decorated with a butterfly or floral motif symbolizing the vulva. By incorporating elements of a contemporary social event with the status and appearance of a banquet, Chicago elevates her guests to the role of heroes, a traditionally male epithet. In essence, Chicago states, the work "takes us on a tour of Western civilization, a tour that bypasses what we have been taught to think of as the main road." The floor is inscribed with the names of 999 additional women worthy of recognition, while acknowledgment panels on the walls honor the 129 collaborators who worked with Chicago on the piece.
Regarded as an icon of 20th-century art, The Dinner Party is arguably the most significant and recognized piece of feminist art ever made, notable in its incorporation of collaborative working process, political symbolism, the sheer scale of the media response, and the unprecedented worldwide grassroots movement it prompted in reaction to the work's condemnation. The piece's lasting importance lies in its defiance of fine-art tradition by representing a feminine history suppressed by patriarchal society, as well as its celebration of the traditional "feminine" crafts: textile arts (weaving, embroidery, and sewing) and ceramic decoration. Featured in sixteen exhibitions in six different countries, The Dinner Party has been seen by millions of viewers.
Response to the work has been mixed. Many have praised the work, including art historian Susan Caldwell, who wrote that "it produces the sort of chill that comes only from beautiful works of strong conviction and conception." American curator and art critic Lucy Lippard said of the work, "My own initial experience was strongly emotional... The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings". Some critics, however, hold negative opinions of the work, with American art critic Hilton Kramer calling the work "vulgar" and "crass", and artist Cornelia Parker stating "we're all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It's almost like the biggest piece of victim art you've ever seen. And it takes up so much space! I quite like the idea of trying to fit it in some tiny bin – not a very feminist gesture but I don't think the piece is either." The work has also been criticized for having a racial bias. Writer Esther Allen notes that the work excludes Latin American women like Frida Kahlo, and author Alice Walker notes that Sojourner Truth's plate is the only one that has three faces instead of a vagina, possibly, she proposes, because "white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas".
Ceramic, porcelain, textile, glass - Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum