The Dinner Party
The Dinner Party elevates achievement by women in Western culture to a heroic scale traditionally reserved inequitably for men. A massive ceremonial banquet in multi-media art, laid on a triangular table measuring 48 feet on each side, The Dinner Party combines the glory of sacramental tradition with the intimate detail of a social gathering. Thirty-nine guests of honor, mythical and historic women whose accomplishments were largely erased from male-dominated histories, are represented by individually symbolic, china-painted porcelain plates and intricately needleworked table runners. Each plate is essentially an independent work of art and features an image based on Chicago’s vulvar and butterfly iconography, a symbolic representation of the female core intended by the artist as an affirmation of empowered female agency. The plates reside atop elaborate runners decorated with historically significant details associated with the women honored. The first name of each woman begins with an illuminated letter magnificently incorporating a small symbol or motif that references the subject’s importance. The table itself is set upon the enormous Heritage Floor comprised of over two thousand hand-cast, gilded and lustered tiles, inscribed with the names of 999 other women of importance. The Dinner Party dominated art headlines during its early history and, though enormously popular with the more than a million viewers who saw it in a dozen cities worldwide, it bore the brunt of hostile opposition from some quarters of the art world who saw it as an assault on modernist traditions and from the political right who felt threatened by its feminist agenda. Perhaps emblematic of how much things have changed, today it is thought of as, in the words of renowned critic Arthur C. Danto, “one of the major artistic monuments of the second half of the 20th century.” It has influenced the lives and work of thousands of people and has become the iconic example of how art can change the world, the expanded role for the artist in society and women’s freedom of expression. Roberta Smith in The New York Times said that it has become “almost as much a part of American culture as Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney, W.RA. murals and the AIDS quilt.” The Dinner Party was conceived by Chicago and executed by 400 artisans from around the world, working under her supervision from 1974 to 1979. She intentionally chose mediums traditionally associated with women—such as weaving, china painting, ceramics and needlework—that enhanced the impact of the installation’s powerful rejection of female marginalization and erasure.