on making room for women's images
BY DIANE BROWN and NANCY LANE FLEMING
Nancy Lane Fleming: Judy, were you surprised
that The Dinner Party is coming to Clear Lake
City? Did that seem an unlikely place to you?
Judy Chicago: No, I think women's hunger for
images that affirm us crosses not only state
boundaries but national boundaries. It was
really good that the women in Houston who
initiated the idea of The Dinner Party coming
here had the support of the University of
Houston of Clear Lake City and of Dean Calvin
Cannon, because that facilitated bringing it.
Women in other cities have not had that level of
support. Such an interface between a women's
group and an institution is a very positive step,
because it means that institutions begin to be
responsive to our needs and begin to say yes-,
we will make room for women and women's
images and women's explorations. In most of
the other cities, women have been organizing to
try to bring the piece and it happened that
Houston was the first place for it to work. I
feel like that's a statement that women were
not about to let the system totally block out
The Dinner Party.
NLFPeople are getting so involved. I'm so eager
to see the needlework, to see the plates. I'm
tired of looking at pictures. One of the things I
thought about asking you tonight is how close
to it can we get?
JC: Not close enough to touch it.
NLFThat's what I figured. Is there going to be
JC: Yes, there is a guard rail that wraps around
the piece, that protects it. The guard rail turns
out to be a perfect kneeling rail, which I never
realized, but a lot of people did actually kneel
on it and look closer. I've been asked a lot of
times about people not being able to see the
backs of the runners. We could make a lot of
money with a binoculars concession.
NLF:Can you see across the room?
JC: It's really big, and you can't see the backs
of the runners across the room. There is a certain kind of meaning in that. As I said to this
woman who asked me, I said you don't think I
spent six years making a piece and didn't think
about the fact that some of the images would
be hard to look at?
NLFM/hat does that mean, Judy Chicago, that
you can't see?
JC: Well, it means I wanted people to want to
know, I mean to want to know about all this
stuff and all this Tightness and all this heritage
we have and to not be able to have it all, be-
Nancy Lane Fleming co-hosts Breakthrough on
the Air, a weekly program broadcast every Wednesday at 6:30 on KPFT-FM. Diane Brown is a
working feminist. This edited interview was recorded for Breakthrough on the Air.
cause that is actually where we are at. We have
been so deprived of all this information that I
wanted people to experience that. The question
about whether the community-based support
here is going to change the experience-that's
something I can only find out. One of the most
important things is that women, not only in
Houston but all over the country, have had the
experience I had, which was trying to get something they wanted and believed in and encountering resistance.
Diane Brown: You made a statement in The
Dinner Party book that part of the trick that's
played on women nowadays is to tell us that
our equality has already been achieved, we've
got it, we've got laws that protect us, etc., etc.
Do you think that your success, this far, and
what The Dinner Party has achieved this far is
part of that battle? Is there resistance on that
level because of the success?
JC: It is really important to be clear about
what success is. I think we have to look to the
19th century and the first wave of the women's
movement in America. There was a profound
change in consciousness and some of that
change became institutionalized and the rest of
it was wiped out of history. So now what we
are experiencing is a profound change in consciousness which we have all been a part of
creating and I have tried to contribute to that
with my work in The Dinner Party, and with
my work in the whole last decade. The fact that
we're even having to deal with getting the piece
shown, as opposed to getting the piece housed
permanently, says something about where we
are. It could still be totally erased. The level of
the struggle now is just to get our point of view
visible. There is a whole other step, which is to
make sure that it never gets erased again.
NLFflne of the things that impresses me about
what you have done is that you have documented your own work. Not only have you added
all this historical research to what women now
have accessible to us, but there is a documentary film which hasn't come out yet.
JC: It will be ready for the Houston opening.
It's called Right Out of History. It's a 90-min-
ute color feature.
NLFdt seems to me that you have gone to such
an extent to protect this effort from being
erased-I'm not going to say that that assures it
won't be, but that you have made such an
JC: I tried to conceive of the whole project,
which is bigger than the piece. The project is
the piece, the two books and the film. And I'm
glad I conceived of it that way because, you are
right, it protected it. It protected the piece
from being blocked out and obscured. And
there is something else-in the art library last
week, I almost made a scene. There's ail these
young girls in there, right? So I'm going to the
shelves looking for the history of needlework,
OK? What there is, is seven shelves on the history of tapestry. Of course, by the time the
tapestry industry had been developed, women
had been pushed out of weaving and it was
mostly men who made and designed tapestry.
So there is seven shelves on that. The depth, the
level of scholarship is nowhere near the same. I
bet you that most of these young girls are
sitting here writing about men and what men
did. It's like paying attention to ourselves is the
first step, because what makes something
important? Seven shelves of books on it. Who
tells us that we have to write books about what
the men are doing? Who tells us we can't spend
our energy documenting ourselves?
NLFTalking about needlework makes me think
you've chosen in china-painting and needlework
the two major media of the dinner party and
then in using the concept of the dinner party
you've chosen traditional feminine things-
women's work-for what is being seen as a
major feminist art statement. Could you talk a
little bit about what it means to have chosen
JC: Well, I think you have to look at my work
generally. There are two things that are very
strong in my work. One is an interest in fringe
media generally. You know, I worked in plastics, I worked in fireworks. I worked in fringe
media because it allows a new point of view
much more easily than bronze. By the time you
look at a bronze sculpture you bring in all the
associations and it's difficult to break away.
Number one, china painting and needlework
are media that have really been ignored by
major artists, because they are not taken
seriously enough. They have really closed off
the possibility of seeing what incredible visual
potential those media have. Also, it's to honor
women's traditional crafts. I meant it and chose
it as homage to women's traditional work.
But the other thing in my work is turning
around negative things, as opposed to pretending they don't exist. It's like confronting the
nature of the vagina, which has all these
negative, demonic associations. I chose to use
the word cunt because it had much more of
that meaning and I tried to address it on a
metaphysical level. OK, what does that mean if
a cunt is lousy and I have one? What does that
mean about me?
NLF: Is this what you mean when you say you
want to make the feminine holy?
JC: Yes, of course. It is a matter of turning
around what has been considered negative and
looking at it from another point of view. Who
did the cooking, who set the table? What do we
consider holy, what do we consider evil? We
learn a lot about the values of our culture, by
turning things around. So if you take a form of
art that is not taken seriously, like china-paint
ing or needlework, as a fine art, you look at it
and begin to say is there something here other
than what we all assume is here? Sometimes we
can come up with a lot of new material.
DB: In that context, are you doing something
totally different, or are you connecting in with
what all good art does. Is there one thing that
all good art has in common? Does The Dinner
Party fit there or is it totally revolutionary?
JC: Well, I think in a way that is four questions. I have a friend who is an art historian and
she got into a gigantic fight with another art
historian about The Dinner Party because he
dismissed it as not art. And she said, how come
it is OK for Poussin to make a painting honoring all the great men of history or Raphael to
make a painting honoring all the great classical
men of history, all the great geniuses of male
civilization, how come that is OK and that is
art, but when a woman does the same thing
that is not art?
So it is revolutionary in the sense that a
woman had never been from a woman's point
of view. It is not revolutionary in terms of the
history of art. It is very much in the context of
the history of art that an artist chooses to
compose a picture which deals with the history
of art or the history of culture. It just tells us
that women are not supposed to do that, and
that is a very important issue.
Who will be the prime symbol makers? Who
will make the symbols that tell us about reality? What we came up against is that issue of
who will be the prime symbol makers. It is OK
for women to make formal art. It is OK for
women to participate now in the prevailing art
values. You know you can even get shown by
doing that. But to challenge the prevailing art
values, to say: listen there is a whole other set
of symbols that we are interested in, that we
have to offer, that is a whole other thing.
Because that challenges the whole idea of what
is and what is not important-who is and who is
I would like to say something about 'artist
of The Dinner Party.' For a while, I think I was
a little mixed up about the dinner party and me.
Was I The Dinner Party? I have been an artist
for 20 years, and The Dinner Party has occupied about a quarter of my time as a professional artist. A lot of the issues I have dealt with in
The Dinner Party are issues that I have dealt
with before-they have come out of the body
of my work.
NLF: It seems to me that if there has been a
body of work that has been myth-making by
male artists, we could be open to the challenge
that what you are about is making myths that
are primarily relevant only to women. My question is, what do you want men to take away
from The Dinner Party?
JC: I wish I had the statement that Calvin Can-