Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, “Conversations with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro” [from The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, Broude & Garrard, eds., pp. 66-85]

by chunte4

Judy Chicago’s discussion of “coding” in the art world summarized one of the greatest challenges women and minority artists often have to struggle with their whole careers. I agree with Shapiro that the act of coding in itself doesn’t have an inherently negative effect on ones work. As she says, coding can help artists learn about “the formal language of art,” (pg. 70) the understanding of which can become useful for any artist’s work. However, many woman artists don’t have a choice in whether they use coding to hide references to their personal lives or not. In the art world, especially during Chicago’s time, the industry would not take women artists seriously due to their gender, or, even if the gender of the artist was not immediately revealed the art itself could face rejection if it appeared too “feminine.” Thus to gain any sort of attention or make a living off one’s art, hiding the true significance of it became necessary. The discussion of codes in the article helped put “The Dinner Party” in a different perspective for me. As one of the few widely recognized and seriously considered pieces that focused on women and the biological markers of femininity, Chicago’s piece, intentionally or not, became a representative of all female centric work in the mainstream despite the fact that Chicago had many peers working around the same time as her and making great contributions to the 70s feminist art scene. However works by artists such as Ana Mendieta, Howardena Pindell, and Carolee Schneemann carried undeniably gendered overtones from the beginning. Unlike Chicago they did not code the majority of their works as gender neutral while suppressing the female centric message in an effort to legitimize their art in the face of the mainstream art industry. As a result, said industry never allotted them the same level of attention and esteem that Chicago got. Chicago stated herself that “my struggle as an artist in the seventies grew out of an effort to put together the sophisticated formal language of contemporary art with the rather raw and unexpressed subculture I wanted to begin to deal with” and that she had internalized the idea that her true forms were “repugnant.”(pg. 70) In addition she remarks that “the artist’s submission to this code allows art to be bought and sold like pork bellies in a market and manipulated as commodities.” Therefore through a combination of suppressing her “natural forms” and focusing primarily on the formal aspects of her piece, Chicago became a well respected artist within the art world despite a desire to make overtly feminist pieces as she did with the dinner party. It follows then that because she had already managed to achieved a certain level of fame in the mainstream art world, the Dinner Party stood out amongst all other artworks made by feminist artists during that time as the single defining piece of the movement. As with any piece presented in this way, other artists with different visual languages and different ideas as to presenting a truly empowering feminine narrative had issues with the piece ranging from its explicit focus on vaginas, which some believed placed too much emphasis on sexual organs as the defining aspect of womanhood, to the presentation of the plates representing women of color, which some believed did not represent them with the same leve of respect as the other women revolutionaries. For me however all this speaks to a need for a redefinition of “real” art. Coding should not be a requirement of success, and, if more literal or honest work became more widely accepted, the art world could gain many new challenging, compelling works by women  artists.