There is a hierarchy in the arts: decorative art at the bottom, and the human form at the top. Because we are men.
—Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant, 1918
Faith Ringgold (American, b. 1930). Mrs. Jones and Family, 1973. From Family of Woman Mask Series. Sewn fabric and embroidery. Collection of the artist. © Faith Ringgold
Throughout the history of art, decoration and domestic handicrafts have been regarded as women’s work, and as such, not considered “high” or fine art. Quilting, embroidery, needlework, china painting, and sewing—none of these have been deemed worthy artistic equivalents to the grand mediums of painting and sculpture. The age-old aesthetic hierarchy that privileges certain forms of art over others based on gender associations has historically devalued “women’s work” specifically because it was associated with the domestic and the “feminine.” That hierarchy was radically challenged in the 1960s by Pop and feminist artists, alike (e.g., Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can series). In the wake of the Women’s Liberation Movement, feminist artists in particular sought to resurrect women’s craft and decorative art as a viable artistic means to express female experience, thereby pointing to its political and subversive potential.
Miriam Schapiro (American, 1923). Explode, 1972. Acrylic and collage on canvas. Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY. Gift of Lucille Bunin Askin, 81.38. © Miriam Schapiro
In the quest for a “female aesthetic” or artistic style specific to women, many 1970s feminist artists sought to elevate “women’s craft” to the level of “high art,” and away from its derogatory designation as “low art” or “kitsch.” As Lucy Lippard explained in her 1973 essay, “Household Images in Art,” previously women artists had avoided “‘Female techniques’ like sewing, weaving, knitting, ceramics, even the use of pastel colors (pink!) and delicate lines—all natural elements of artmaking,” for fear of being labeled “feminine artists.” The Women’s Movement changed that, she argued, and gave women the confidence to begin “shedding their shackles, proudly untying the apron strings—and, in some cases, keeping the apron on, flaunting it, turning it into art.”6 For instance, Ringgold’s handmade, narrative quilts celebrate an undervalued female creative production, just as her “Family of Woman” masks and figurines from 1970—portraits from her childhood of Mama Jones, Andrew, Barbara, and Faith—included costumes sewn by the artist’s mother, who was a professional seamstress. Likewise with Miriam Schapiro’s femmages, which she describes as “activities as they were practiced by women using traditional women’s techniques to achieve their art.”7 Schapiro viewed her use of brightly colored, patterned fabric as a conscious feminist statement. As she wrote in 1977, “I wanted to validate the traditional activities of women, to connect myself to the unknown women artists who had made quilts, who had done the invisible ‘women’s work’ of civilization. I wanted to acknowledge them, to honor them.”8 Schapiro’s femmage, like Ringgold’s narrative quilts, opened the path for the re-evaluation of anonymous art done by women.
Cover of the Exhibition Catalogue Womanhouse (showing Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro). Design by Sheila de Bretteville. (Valencia: Feminist Art Program, California Institute of the Arts, 1972). Photograph by Donald Woodman. Courtesy of Through the Flower archive
Womanhouse, 1971–72, the large-scale cooperative project executed as part of the Feminist Art Program at CalArts under the direction of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, is another such example of feminist artists reclaiming the domestic and “women’s work.” It sought to challenge the traditional roles historically assigned to women in middle-class American society by exploring the subject of women’s labor directly. It was within this inherently domestic environment, or “woman-house,” that 21 women artists were granted space and a voice to present and perform work about stereotypically “feminine” tasks, including scrubbing floors, ironing sheets, cooking, sewing, crocheting, and knitting; cycles, such as menstruation; and forms, such as eggs, breasts, lipstick, and so forth. This landmark exhibition, through its reclamation and use of the domestic-private sphere, takes traditional female experiences as a subject with political and subversive implications.
Sandra Ogel (American). Ironing, 1972. From Womanhouse. Performance. Photograph courtesy of Through the Flower archive
The Dinner Party should be understood within this context. It is a multi-media work that consists of ceramics, china painting, sewing, needlework, embroidery, and other mediums traditionally associated with “women’s work,” and, as such, not generally considered “high art” by the art world. In an effort to celebrate undervalued female creative production, Chicago consciously sought to reclaim and commemorate those mediums traditionally considered “craft,” as fine art ones equivalent to painting and sculpture. By creating a monumental work of art dedicated to anonymous art by women historically, Chicago thumbed her nose at those who dared to question its artistic value—or the labor involved in its production.
Around the same time that feminist artists were beginning to study mediums and materials associated with “women’s work”—china painting, quilts, sewing, embroidery—they were also searching for a clearly readable means of expressing female subjectivity in abstract forms, which often resembled eggs, spheres, caves, or other round forms. This vaginal or “central core” imagery, as it came to be called, was another important development in 1970s feminist art, one that is integral to understanding The Dinner Party.
6. Lucy Lippard, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976), 57.
7. Melissa Mayer and Miriam Schapiro, “Waste Not, Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled,” Heresies 4 (Winter 1978): 67.
8. Miriam Schapiro, “Notes from a Conversation on Art, Feminism, and Work,” in Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work, ed. Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels (New York: Pantheon, 1977), 296.