“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young queer woman explores an LGBTQ cultural artifact in furtherance of her queer education. Think of it as your syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
Forty years before Janelle Monáe broke the internet with those unforgettable pussy-lip pantalons, visual artist Judy Chicago was doing the damn thing. “Pynk,” The Vagina Monologues, and just about any loud and proud vulva-focused creative work can trace its lineage back to Chicago’s late-’70s magnum opus The Dinner Party, a painstakingly intricate art installation that combines so many media—pottery! painting! weaving! embroidery! traditional Native American beading!—that it’s truly overwhelming.
The piece, which first opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in March of 1979, is unsubtle by design: In creating The Dinner Party (pictured below, in part), Chicago aimed to give 39 women artists, healers, and notable figures from history (hundreds more, if you count the 900-plus names scrawled on the tiles of the installation’s triangular “Heritage Floor”) literal seats at the proverbial table. It has been seen by more than 1 million viewers in 16 exhibitions spanning six countries.
It is also, like the rest of Chicago’s extensive multimedia catalog, capital-F feminist. Save for one place setting, each plate at The Dinner Party clearly resembles a vulva, a controversial choice that still sparks inquiry and outrage decades down the line. With few exceptions, its components, down to the most minuscule of details, were handcrafted by hundreds of female volunteers over the course of four years.
Why revisit the massive piece’s complicated legacy 40 years later? Well, it did recently get a name-drop in Episode 2 of Showtime’s The L Word: Generation Q, which caught my attention, like anything that comes out of Bette Porter’s mouth. In a brief scene, Bette (Jennifer Beals) fondly recalls the first time she saw The Dinner Party to Dani (Arienne Mandi), the fiery, barb-tongued young femme spearheading Bette’s campaign for mayor of Los Angeles.
The exchange lasts less than a minute, yes, but the point still stands: The L Word writers didn’t have to reference The Dinner Party. Alluding to Chicago’s best-known, most controversial work decades later was an intentional choice—perhaps to highlight the generational gap between Bette and Dani, two queer women who came of age at radically different stages in the contemporary battle for LGBTQ rights. A “Generation L, meet Generation Q” moment, if you will.
I’m also a queer woman who lives a short train ride away from the Brooklyn Museum, the borough’s premier fine art destination and The Dinner Party’s permanent home as of 2007. Though my art history professor in undergrad had made a point to highlight Chicago’s work and I’d seen The Dinner Party in person one time before, I swung by the museum this month and managed to catch an intimate guided tour of the work. Because my life is actually an episode of The L Word, I had a date in tow, too.
After being ushered up to the gallery by our guide—an animated older female art historian who came armed with a binder full of Dinner Party lore and enough sass to put my gay ass to shame—we witnessed the work in all its glory. The Dinner Party takes up an entire room, so experiencing it fully requires some mobility, attentiveness, and patience.
Our guide walked us through each place setting at the table with care, beginning with the primordial goddess (before women were oppressed, they were revered—imagine!) and ending with painter Georgia O’Keeffe (talk about vagina art, huh?).
She sprinkled in fun tidbits that had me and the girl I was with half in love with her. For example: O’Keeffe was the only Dinner Party guest who was still alive when Chicago unveiled the work. Apparently, O’Keeffe had corresponded with Chicago while The Dinner Party was still in progress, but, surprisingly, the modernist painter had no desire for a seat at Chicago’s feminist table because she didn’t want to be labeled a woman artist or a feminist artist. “The Dinner Party,” O’Keeffe replied when asked about the work, according to The Chicago Tribune. “Judy Chicago? Is she still alive?”
Or maybe it wasn’t so surprising. Today, we take the proliferation and celebration of the term feminist for granted. In the ’60s and ’70s, when O’Keeffe was still alive and trying to make a living off of fine art, the label carried a provocative, distinctly negative connotation that erected more barriers than it broke down. I’m sympathetic to O’Keeffe’s desire to distance herself from a descriptor that carried so much weight, even if it suits her work so profoundly. After all, there’s a reason Chicago included her in The Dinner Party: If Chicago’s unapologetically feminist work made vagina art mainstream, then O’Keeffe’s iconic (and very yonic) paintings of flora from the early 20th century planted the seeds for a budding revolution.
That’s not to say Chicago is above critique. The most-cited complaints about The Dinner Party revolve around its abundance of vaginal imagery and its lack of racial diversity. Of the 39 place settings, the majority belong to white women from the Western historical canon, or mythological women who are traditionally depicted as white. As The Color Purple author Alice Walker astutely observed in a Ms. magazine article, the only plate that doesn’t explicitly resemble a vulva belongs to famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth, a black woman.
“It occurred to me that perhaps white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas,” Walker wrote. Indeed, The Dinner Party’s glaring whiteness smells suspiciously of white feminism, the term black feminists and other feminists of color use to critique feminist frameworks that examine structural oppression as it pertains to gender, but not race, nationality, or socioeconomic status, or any intersections of those key factors.
The Dinner Party’s other big issue? The conflation of genitalia with gender identity, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the “biology”-heavy rhetoric of trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). Whether it was her intention or not, Chicago’s use of patently yonic imagery to represent 38 out of the 39 guests equates having a vagina with being a woman.
The Dinner Party was completed in 1979, just 10 years after New York City’s fateful Stonewall riots, and decades before the term “transgender” would become commonplace, even within queer or feminist circles. It’s worth putting Chicago’s work into temporal context, which helps explain her artistic choices, although it does not necessarily justify them.
Should Chicago have invited more historical women of color, particularly black women, to The Dinner Party? Absolutely. Should she have relied so heavily on vaginal imagery to signify womanhood and the sacred “feminine”? This question I struggle with more.
It’s easy for me—a bisexual 20-something Brooklynite in 2020 whose Women and Gender Studies education encompassed both Betty Friedan (1963’s The Feminine Mystique) and Judith Butler (1990’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity)—to denounce the fallacy that “vagina” equals “woman.” I wholly embrace the trans women in my life as who they are: women, as simple as that. Personally, I find it more difficult, although insightful, to put myself in the shoes of Chicago, a boundary-pushing female artist who saw her chance to pay tribute to the beauty and resilience of womanhood as women’s equality ebbed and flowed throughout history.
In 2020, connoting women or queer women with vulvar imagery (yes, that includes Monáe, who certainly fielded criticisms for those “Pynk” pussy pants) is a choice that can alienate some women as much as it celebrates others. Chicago is at least aware of this, telling W magazine in 2017 that she thinks it’s “an incredible advance that we’ve begun to understand the complexity of identities.” In 1979, the same choice was controversial, too, but for entirely different reasons: Some conservative art critics wrote off the intricate, incredibly labor-intensive work as “vulgar” by sheer virtue of its vagina-ness.
Chicago told W that in the 1960s the word pussy was “the worst,” a word that male artists she worked with in Los Angeles used to insult each other. “And now I’m an old lady doing a show called ’Pussies,’” she added, “and all these young women are like, Club Clitoris, Vagina China!”
Times have changed, but the question remains: Should you make a rezzy at The Dinner Party in this year of our Lord, 2020? If the juicy combination of vulvas, dinner, and a party don’t entice you, then surely the work’s enduring relevance and controversy in pop culture should.
I recommend doing some light research to familiarize yourself with the work’s criticisms before stopping by the Brooklyn Museum for a visit. Bonus points if you channel your inner Bette Porter and bring along a cute femme to impress with your sexy, sexy brain. That may or may not have been my personal power move. You’ll never know. I don’t kiss and tell.
The Dinner Party is on display at the Brooklyn Museum, where it is housed permanently in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.