Amelia Jones, “The Sexual Politics of the Dinner Party: A Critical Context” [from Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism, ed. Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, pp. 409-433]
Controversy surrounding “The Dinner Party” most likely did not surprise Judy Chicago nor anyone else in the feminist art scene, yet the majority of disapproval coming from male critics reveals a contradictory amalgamation of ideals that, for me at least, surprised me in its inconsistency. The majority of the attacks focus on two main complaints: the alleged lack of focus on formal elements of the piece and the emphasis on “vulgarity” in the form of the sculpted or painted labias. The first criticism stems from fear of what Jones describes as the “threat to the modernist system of determining value,” (pg. 414) a system which decries the literal, personal aesthetic in favor of distancing oneself from anything visually pleasing and focusing purely on formal elements of a piece. The flaw in these criticisms lies in the fact that they ignore Chicago’s referencing and careful dismantling of the art world’s long tradition of depicting female genitalia as “a locus of objectification.” (pg. 417) In a move that at times has been taken too literally, Chicago uses the labia as the visual centerpiece of the table, yet does not ascribe to it the same essentialism the male artists of the past almost always tried to do when evoking female sexual imagery. Instead, she uses a diverse array of patterns, colors, shapes and forms to suggest the diversity of ethnicity, nationality, class etc., and depict each woman as an individual whose lives were each significant in a unique way. In this manner she implies that their shared biology alone united the celebrated women guests. Chicago re-appropriates hyper-sexual feminine imagery and turns it into a positive symbol of unity and achievement, while at the same time respecting the individuality of the women represented and their unique cultural heritages. In short, she acknowledges their subjectivity and thus makes an outright statement of rebellion against the objectification of female forms in the art world. So to say “The Dinner Party” is kitsch, populist, and trite ignores Chicago’s thorough understanding of the work that came before her and the artistic intelligence necessary to reclaim the highly politicized and misrepresented imagery she displays in her piece.
With this understanding, it becomes clear that the vulgarity charges stem solely from the unwillingness of modernist, primarily male artists to acknowledge the perspectives of those who disagree with the established method of producing “high art” and fear of letting go of the notion of artistic “purity.” Jones raises an interesting point when she interprets the objections to the sexual imagery as an angry reaction against the undermining of “the (male) modernist critic’s belief in the propriety of the phallus as the proper symbol of creative impulse.” (pg. 414) Combined with the misinformed idea that purity in any sense of the word can be applied to certain art strategies, Jones implies that male critics of Dinner Party so strongly associated the phallus as “pure” that the vulva, in their minds, becomes impure, pornographic, or trivial in some way. Thus the very inclusion of such obviously female imagery shook the very foundation of their idea of art. While Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” may have been problematic in some ways, its primary goal of establishing a new, more female centric and overall more accepting set of standards for the art world definitely met with a measure of success.