Judy Chicago: Feminism and Women in the Arts
Judy Chicago was born Judy Cohen in Chicago, 1939 to Arthur and May Cohen. She grew up Jewish; her father was a postal worker and Marxist and her mother a medical secretary Chicago’s parents instilled a value of the arts in both she and her brother, Ben, both of whom are now artists. Chicago attended UCLA and most of her art as a college student reflected the death and loss of her late husband, Jerry Gerowitz. As a grad student at UCLA, Chicago’s work transformed into exploration of her sexuality, which is now the basis of the majority of her projects.
Chicago’s upbringing plays a lot into her feminist lifestyle. Her father’s participation in the American Communist Party greatly affected her beliefs, due to the group’s liberal views on women’s rights. She also grew up in the Jewish religion and culture, which additionally shaped her views on feminism, due to the unequal treatment of women and men in terms of recognition, praise, and education. Soon after her husband died, Chicago changed her name from Gerowitz to Chicago, further emphasizing her value on women’s rights and independence from traditional culture and heritage.
Chicago’s work, The Dinner Party, is her most well known piece. It is a sculptural installation that depicts a place setting for 39 women, both historical and mythical, and measures 48 feet on each side of the triangular table. The table runner has each name embroidered at the place setting, and the floor beneath the table includes tiles inscribed with 999 more female artists. Each woman’s place setting contains a plate, utensils, and a goblet. These objects represent the women’s accomplishments in the arts, and are symbolized with a flower or butterfly-like sculpture that represents a vulva. All women depicted in the piece are praised for their work in traditional female work, such as textiles and china painting, which are often written off as “craft” rather than fine art. The place settings begin as more flat sculptures and progress into more high relief and detailed as the chronology continues. Chicago created The Dinner Party with the intent of “[ending] the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record” (Wikipedia).
“Women’s history and women’s art needs to become part of our cultural and intellectual heritage,” Judy Chicago (theartstory.org).
Gender biases and inequality have been present in cultures across the world for ages, and issues with it still exist today. One study at Muhlenberg Elementary in Pennsylvania had children assess why they believe men are more fairly portrayed and recognized in terms of contribution. Students were told to write down every historical person that contributed to society that they learned about either in school or from his or her parents (Speirs, 145). After analyzing the results, students “discovered they knew less about the women than the men [in American culture]”. This allowed the students to gain “critical awareness of why women have been excluded” from their own culture (Speirs, 145).
In a sense, Chicago is trying to change the views on women in the arts as well as women as a whole, and is essentially trying to reshape the cultural memory artists have of women. The Dinner Party was made in the mid 1970’s, right after the first wave of the feminist movement. Inequality was prevalent at the time and though feminists have been actively working to correct this, Chicago’s piece takes action towards rewriting cultural memory. By creating a sort of monument to acknowledge women’s accomplishments that were once overlooked, Chicago is essentially writing her own memory of how these women were recognized and praised in Jewish and American culture.
Though Chicago’s work is primarily gender driven, she also touches on her Jewish heritage, and often combines the two. Feminism in Jewish culture has been prevalent since the 1970s, when a group of feminists, Ezrat Nashim, came together to “create a community for study, prayer, and social action” (jwa.org, Hyman). The women who participated in Ezrat Nashim wanted change; they wanted women to be treated equally as men in terms of education and scholarship, as well as having equal celebrations of their birth (jwa.org, Hyman). Growing up in a Jewish family with values such as tikkun olam, or “repairing the world”, influenced Chicago’s interest in women’s rights (forward.com, Silberman). This instilled value shows in The Dinner Party through Chicago’s place setting for Judith, who was “responsible for saving the Israelites from Assyrian aggression during biblical times” (forward.com, Silberman). Several other Jewish women, such as biblical characters like Miriam and Esther, are represented in the piece.
Though The Dinner Party has been criticized as “vulgar”, “kitsch”, or “preachy”, the current general consensus is that the piece glorifies and celebrates women and the feminist cause. “Because we are denied knowledge of our history, we are deprived of standing upon each other’s shoulders and building upon each other’s hard earned accomplishments. Instead we are condemned to repeat what others have done before us and thus we continually reinvent the wheel. The goal of The Dinner Party is to break this cycle.” Judy Chicago (theartstory.org)