Challenging Art and our Eucations

Saturday, September 12, 2009

This post is kind of an extended commentary on another blog post. Sorry if that's too self-referential!

My friend -m- writes the blog Modest and Witty. It's a pretty phenomenal account of her life and adventures. Like me, -m- tends to rant, but in a far more cohesive and intelligent manner than I usually accomplish.

-m- just moved to New York, to go to an impressive music school. Obviously, it being New York and all, there are so many things to see and do that -m- is having quite an interesting time.

A recent trip, to the Brooklyn Art Museum, sparked a mammoth post, the entirety of which can be read here. -m- and a friend saw Judy Chicago's 1974-79 installation piece The Dinner Party.

The Dinner Party is huge. It's an equilateral triangle measuring 48 feet per side (that's a perimeter of 144 feet or 43.89 metres for all you nerds). The triangle is set up like a table, with places for 39 "Guests of Honor." Each place setting highlights the contributions of a woman, whose name is shown on the place mat/table runner. The space inside the lines of the triangle features the names of 999 other women who have contributed to predated the 39 featured women.

Instead of plates, there are intricate porcelain sculpture inspired by butterflies/vaginal imagery.

I have not seen this instillation in person, so the descriptions are based on -m-'s writing as well as the site

-m- reacts this way:

I was utterly unprepared for this installation. How could I have expected it? The catalog itself reports it as consisting of:
39 dinner place settings of porcelain flatware (fork, knife and spoon), porcelain chalice, and decorated porcelain plate. Each setting is laid out on a separate embroidered textile runner. Thirteen place settings are on each side (48 feet long) of a triangular table draped with a white felt cloth, with a triangular millennium runner at each of three corners. Each of the settings represents one of thirty-nine historically significant women. The table sits on a floor of 2304 porcelain triangular tiles (in 129 units) inscribed with the names of 999 significant women.
Ok, so it's a big table set for dinner and there are lots of women's names. Cool. This will be interesting. Right. How can I tell you what it was like walking into that room? Rather, walking into the room was just what I expected. Each setting is quite particular, and placed in a mostly chronological order. First? 'Primordial Goddess'

Ok. That makes sense.

Next? 'Fertile Goddess'


Of note, the plates at each setting are decorated in personalized floral/butterfly/vulva patterns. I add floral and butterfly to the description mostly because the plaque at the exhibit did so. My impression of the plates was overwhelmingly linked to feminine power, to clitoral and sexual potency, power, depth, mystery, and strength. There were cunts all over this table, each beautiful and different. Each cunt-plate brought its own sacred history to the table.

Next? 'Ishtar', 'Kali', 'Snake Goddess', 'Sophia', 'Amazon', 'Hatshepsut', 'Judith', 'Sappho', 'Boadaceia', 'Hypatia', 'Marcella', 'Saint Bridget'. . .

By this point, I had finished one third of the table, and I was starting to get worried. The women who earned a place at the table were assumedly at the top of the list, a list that involves more than a thousand names. Only 39 received special settings, and I guess I assumed that of those 39 I would know a vast majority. I was discovering how naïve that assumption had been.

'Theodora', 'Hrosvitha', 'Trotula', 'Eleanor of Aquitaine', 'Hildegarde of Bingen', 'Petronilla de Meath', 'Christine de Pisan', 'Isabella d'Este', 'Elizabeth R.', 'Artemisia Gentileschi'. . .

I recognized two of these names, and I could tell you about one of them. The names continued almost in defiance of my ignorance. A grief I had never experienced began to overwhelm me, and I felt tears begin to well up. I have never before cried because of a piece of art. Art has moved me toward thought, toward debate, toward laughter, toward anger, toward many things- but never tears. Of the more than thousand names celebrated in 'The Dinner Party", I would recognize a perhaps generous figure of 100.

Less than 10%.

'Anna van Schurman', 'Anne Hutchinson', 'Sacajawea', 'Caroline Herschel', 'Mary Wollstonecraft', 'Sojourner Truth', 'Susan B. Anthony', 'Elizabeth Blackwell', 'Emily Dickinson', 'Ethel Smyth'. . .

I realized even more so, that at least 50% of the names I recognized belonged to women about which I knew nothing. For example, I could not have told you yesterday (I am very sorry to admit) who Mary Wollstonecraft was or what contributions she had made. A horrifying thought occurred to me: should a similar celebration of man's historical contributions be constructed in such a manner, I would easily recognize at least 50% of the names. I would probably also be able to explain in depth the contributions of at least 15% of them. Of course, that's just a guess.

I don't remember at what point I began to cry, but I know it was after I had left the table settings and had moved to the Herstory Board section- a chronology/brief description of the contributions of every name on exhibit. I felt as though I'd been punched in the gut. Somewhere, deep within, something had been stolen from me. My education had failed me. My culture had failed me. I had failed myself. How could I know so little about the power of the feminine? How had I missed my own history so succinctly? Who was Margaret Sanger? Natalie Barney? Virginia Woolf and Georgia O'Keefe were names familiar to me, but they provided little comfort after the onslaught of the unfamiliar.

I cried. I cried for myself. For my culture. For the education that I and my sisters and brothers were missing. It was a quiet cry, privately witnessed by an almost unending row of names.
I sat down on a bench and tried to center myself, attempting to pull myself back from the brink of destructive self-pity, searching for the redemptive righteous anger that I knew must be on the other side of such a deep wound. While I waited a man came over to the lady sitting next to me on the bench and commented on the 'fascinating' board of names.
. . .


Even now I am filled with an anger and a hurt that is beyond my ability to capture.


I understand how a board filled with the history of influential women one has never heard of could be a fascinating concept. I understand and respect this man's ability to recognize a resource he had not previously encountered. I understand to a certain extent.

But it goes so much deeper than the cognitive whimsy of a 'fascinating' history display. This is personal. It is my mother, my great-grandmother, my as-yet-undreamt-of-daughter. It is me. It is the mantle I inherited by being born into this body, or rather more so by living in it. It is the lie that has been perpetuated by silence. It is the gaping holes in my history. In me. It is the lack of acknowledgment of those holes- my previous inability to even conceptualize how many holes there might be.

I knew, of course, that there was much of the history and contributions of women that I didn't know, but I had never before been confronted so tangibly by the vastness of the unknown of feminine beauty, strength, thought, and power.

I am enraged.

I am crying.

I am crying, and I am enraged by the bleeding hole where my knowledge of my grandmothers should be. I have been robbed. So have you.

We, all of us, have been robbed by patriarchal thieves bent on silencing the brilliance of half our forebears. This cannot stand, but who will stand with me?

Why do we allow such silence? What do we do about it? How can I turn this wounded-ness, this anger, into a vehicle for change?

How can we?

In order to get a sense of where -m-'s anger comes from, try this experiment. Look at the list of women whose names appear in The Dinner Party (Wikipedia lists them, showing how they are organized in the work) and start counting. I made 3 categories: Know About, Recognize Name, and Huh??

Go through the list and classify the names. Then tally them up. I'm not interested in a competition of who can tell me about the largest number of these women, but rather the internal reflection. Count them up for yourself, then see what it means to you that this list of women who have contributed tons to western society will no doubt feature people you've never heard of.

Now, I realize that unless one was a history major, womens' studies minor, and possesses the memorisational powers of a super computer, its unlikely that anyone would know all of these women. But if a similar list were compiled of men who have contributed to western society, the number of well-known names would undoubtedly be far larger.


Since I haven't seen this work in person, and since it's not like a painting that can be fully captured in a photograph or print, it's a little weird for me to start analysing the visual impact or aesthetics.

That said, I think that the significance of The Dinner Party for me lies not in what it is, physically, but what it represents. I think that all of the vaginal imagery would likely strike me as very heavy handed and overly literal. In general, though, I HATE when people trot out the idea that women's power comes from their fertility, and when people are reduced to their biology. They are ideas that simply do not interest me.

The picky/judgemental part of me needs to chime in:

Also, I'm not sure how I feel about the inclusion of saints/mythological characters/non-people. I can see how, given that most societies have had strong ties to religion, the people or gods that they venerate become important, but it's still a little weird to me. I don't really know why.

Sophia, though? Uh-uh. We're supposed to be talking about WOMEN here, and just because the word "Σoφíα" is feminine doesn't mean that it refers to a woman. Even in ancient Greece, to my knowledge there was not a female character or representation attached to the concept of wisdom. In Orthodox mystical theology, wisdom is associated with the Virgin Mary (Theotokos), but that's not the same. She's being used as an allegory for wisdom.
Shall we start calling all feminine words (words that are feminine in other languages) women? Table? Window? Library?

Sorry, that's really not the point of the post, and is possibly harmful to the point at hand......I just get picky like that. My incredible obsession with accuracy can get in the way of a lot of things. Apologies!

I think my overall point is The Dinner Party would be even more powerful to me if all of the names were people, and people who actually existed, rather than goddesses and mythological figures. It's easy to discount those non-real people if you don't subscribe to that philosophy or religion, and the goal of the work is exactly the opposite of that. It seems to be about NOT discounting and NOT overlooking.

Small bone to pick.

I realize that I haven't really responded to -m-'s anger and call to arms. I think they stand alone, and don't need reinforcement from me. Think about what you can do, though.


-m- said...

Thanks for the link and accolades- pretty soon I'll have to change the name to "Big-Headed and Witty". . .wait- that was the intended subtext of the title already. . . Darn. ;)

That said- I wanted to comment on the idea of having Goddesses included on the list. I didn't think of it in this terminology until after I read your post, but I really like having the old, *forgotten* Goddesses there.

Long ago these 'women' were incredibly well known and a part of human life in a very integral way. Then what happened? The Big Bad Patriarchy came and swallowed them up with their one true old-white-man-god. They took away the power of the goddess, made it illegal to recognize her, and eventually tried to fill the hole in our hearts (the one where we longed to have a goddess) with a virginal, subservient, lame duck (mary). The ancient power of these Goddesses was palpable, but has all but been forgotten by most people.

Also, on a different note, my personal impression of the plates was quite unlinked to fertility. I totally get your reticence toward holding fertility as the height of feminine splendor, and I agree with you. The shape of the plates, for me, was linked to sexual power, feminine power, etc. The center of the plate was *usually a clitoral image. I don't think fertility was the point of most of the plates. Though it probably was for the Fertility Goddess.


kat said...

Thanks for your thoughts on the plates. Because I've not seen the piece "live", it's possible that how I think I would react would be completely different from how I really would react. I've been massively wrong before, when it comes to art. I used to think that I hated Rothko, because any old doofus can paint blue rectangles. Nope. Saw some of those infamous blue rectangles in person and was blown away.....

I think that I did a crappy job of iterating my main point:
For me the significance of The Dinner Party lies less in its aesthetics than in its power to reclaim history.

The trope "history is written by the winner" takes on a particularly depressing meaning in this light....

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