When I began working at the Schlesinger Library in 2017, my first major project involved processing the papers of Judy Chicago, a white Jewish feminist artist who is currently based in New Mexico. Prior to working on this project, I had never heard of her. Nevertheless, through organizing and photocopying articles upon articles about her and her work, dating from the 1960s to the present, I have certainly gotten a crash course on her legacy. As I quickly learned, the centerpiece of that legacy is a work known as The Dinner Party.
For the uninitiated, The Dinner Party consists of a massive triangular table atop a tiled platform. The table has 39 unique place settings, each representing a specific woman in history, religion, or mythology. The platform on which the table rests features the names of 999 other women. All the place settings include a large plate, most of them bearing a design of stylized vulvic imagery. The piece, created by Judy Chicago and hundreds of volunteers, involves art forms traditionally associated with women: needlework and ceramics. Since its creation in 1979, The Dinner Party has attracted a whirlwind of both positive and negative attention. On the one hand, it is heralded as the quintessential feminist artistic masterpiece of the 20th century. On the other hand, it has received criticism for being vulgar and for focusing primarily on cisgender white women (Sacagawea, Sojourner Truth, and Hatshepsut are the only women of color with a seat at Chicago’s table). As a budding information professional, I would like to turn the conversation to explore the space that The Dinner Party occupies in the subject of feminist art—both physically and intellectually.
An experience that informs my inquiry is my recent visit to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, the permanent home of The Dinner Party. At the time that I was visiting, there was another exhibit sharing the Sackler Center, called We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–1985. What struck me when I walked into the room was that The Dinner Party was in the center of the, well, Center. It was separated from We Wanted a Revolution by walls on two sides and dark glass on one side. Now, I bring this up not to suggest that the Brooklyn Museum is somehow being intentionally biased by centering a white woman’s artwork and placing the artwork of black women in the margins. After all, The Dinner Party only came to find its permanent home there in 2002 after decades of languishing in storage, long before We Wanted a Revolution would even have been conceptualized. Furthermore, given the immense labor that went into the creation of this piece, I would never want to suggest that The Dinner Party’s place is unearned. However, I noticed that the museum placard describing The Dinner Party characterizes it as “the most significant icon of 1970s American feminist art.” It is worth pointing out that the centering of white women’s perspectives in feminism and the representation of those perspectives as being indicative of a universal womanhood is the reason why a lot of black women, including many of the artists in We Wanted a Revolution, did not call themselves feminists or align themselves with the feminist movement. It is easy to get the impression from the way the space is organized and the language that is used that Judy Chicago is the face of feminist art, and that others are merely offshoots.
A key aspect of feminist thought, especially in the second wave, has been a critical examination of how people occupy and organize space. For example, feminist groups who shunned hierarchy as inherently patriarchal abounded. Nevertheless, attempts to dismantle oppression can unwittingly reimpose it. As Audre Lorde declared in reference to white feminists who were dismissive of the specific struggles of women of color, “What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” What does this history mean for those of us who work in the library, archive, and museum (LAM) sector? Organizing ideas and space in an inclusive way that gets as close to the truth as possible is a challenging undertaking. Aside from placing materials in physical space in relation to one another, the ways in which information professionals describe those materials influence how we and our users interpret them. Consider how much controversy there has been over subject headings in the last several decades. The absences and silences that result from the choices we make in terms of organization grow clamorous. How do we answer them?
A slightly different version of this post appeared on the Hack Library School Blog: https://hacklibraryschool.com/