The Dinner Party Controversy

The Dinner Party threatened the status quo on several levels. Not surprisingly, the piece generated a lot of media attention and endless controversy.” –Dissent Magazine

The Dinner Party reiterates its theme with an insistence and vulgarity more appropriate, perhaps, to an advertising campaign than to a work of art.” –Hilton Kramer

“I find it all about Judy Chicago’s ego rather than the poor women she’s supposed to be elevating – we’re all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It’s almost like the biggest piece of victim art you’ve ever seen.” –Cornelia Parker

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago in The Brooklyn Museum. (Used with permission).

“…ceramic 3-D pornography.” –Bob Doran

A very passionate critical essay.

When I first read these critiques of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, I asked myself a question:

Why were so many people offended by The Dinner Party when much of what is considered “fine art” are sculptures, or the like, with phallic imagery?

And most of the phallic imagery is not discrete. You cannot deny the imagery because it is out in the open, no artists felt the need, like Georgia O’Keeffe, to hide what their work really represented.

Why is there a sense of shame automatically attached to vaginal imagery, so much so that artists have to deny that there even really exists any in their work?

Emily Dickinson's Plate at The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago. (Used with permission).

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is much more than just the “vulgar” vaginal imagery its criticizers can’t seem to get over. Each plate incorporates something about the woman it represents. The plates aren’t just simply vaginal imagery. Each is beautifully embroidered to the point where its attractiveness overpowers the vaginal imagery itself.

Emily Dickinson’s plate is a great example. It has beautiful layers of lace and has a delicate pink color. The plate looks very innocent and pretty. Many people criticized Chicago for this plate saying it was disrespectful to Dickinson because she was a woman who greatly respected privacy. I disagree and I think Chicago was definitely taking this into consideration when she decided what the plate would look like.

The other plates are just the same. I don’t think the focal point of each plate should be the vaginal imagery, rather everything else incorporated in the pieces. I’d say it’s very ignorant to disregard the hard work that went into every detail of every plate. The focal point should be everything else these plates have to offer and what they reveal about the women they represent.

The Washington Monument has phallic imagery! (Used with permission).

The F.A.Q. (Frequently Asked Questions) page of Judy Chicago’s website brings up many interesting points that seem to answer my questions.

In the F.A.Q. page, they referenced the Washington Monument as being a phallic symbol. It was an interesting idea because I never realized how much of a presence phallic imagery has in our architecture.

These examples are, of course, not as obvious as some works of art like the classic piece, David by Michelangelo. Even so, people definitely seem to notice the phallic imagery present in today’s art and architecture. Look at this funny picture of someone who visited the monument.

The page continued on to explain why there might have been such controversy with The Dinner Party.

Phallic imagery is everywhere in art and architecture but vaginal imagery on the other hand is not. Just like it was stated on the F.A.Q. page, “The critical outrage that surrounded The Dinner Party’s world-wide exhibition tour (1979-1996) can be best understood as emanating from this aesthetic lack which renders female forms unfamiliar and therefore, shocking.”

Everyone is afraid of things they are not accustomed to or things that they have not seen before. The Dinner Party’s blatant incorporation of vaginal imagery, confirmed by Chicago herself, served as a cultural shock for most. It was something that was not seen before and therefore many interpreted it as “vulgar,” as something that was wrong since it hadn’t been done before.

This was the very reason why Chicago chose vaginal imagery for the plates in The Dinner Party. She wanted to start a movement in women’s art and history. The most obvious representation of women was not being represented in the arts as that of men was, or even the slightest bit. So, Chicago took that fact and finally made a tradition for the use of female imagery in the arts.

Advertisement for Axe.

I also believe that much of the controversy stemmed from female stereotypes. Society generalizes women as private, delicate, and sophisticated individuals. A woman’s private parts are sacred and if she makes much use of them then she is condemned by society. Therefore, the exposure of female genitalia is not going to be very accepted.

It seems the only time that it’s right for anyone to expose a women’s body is when they are objectifying them in advertisements and the like. But that’s not vulgar or offensive at all…right?

4 thoughts on “The Dinner Party Controversy

  1. The quote:

    “I find it all about Judy Chicago’s ego rather than the poor women she’s supposed to be elevating – we’re all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It’s almost like the biggest piece of victim art you’ve ever seen.” -Cornelia Parker

    really burns me. Since when do vaginas equal victims ?? It’s like having pride for being a female and having a vagina is so foreshadowed by some “pornographic” element to the piece (which is completely unapparent to me).

  2. I feel that people allow phallic imagery, but not vaginal imagery. I think this totally has to do with feminism. It is okay to make women feel uncomfortable around phallic imagery, but we hide away vaginal imagery as to not disgust men. Just like it is weird for a woman to go to a strip club, but not a man. It’s too much of a “mans world” and women’s feelings need to be considered just as highly.

  3. I understand where Judy Chicago is coming from with promoting vaginal imagery, and I agree, it’s silly how much more phallic imagery is accepted than vaginal. It’s not the vaginal imagery that I have a problem with, but the idea that a vagina represents a woman. A statue of a penis that entirely represents a man is also not a good thing, which is why I feel that the Washington Monument is not a particularly good one. However, obelisks have gained a certain cultural presents beyond being phallic, and besides, do not look quite as much like penises as many of the Dinner Party plates resemble vaginas.

  4. I completely agree with the points you bring up in this blog post. Like you, I never really looked at the Washington Monument in that way before. This society is filled with double standards and this is just one of them. Include a vagina in art: oh no! it’s offensive, degrading to all women and shouldn’t be out there for the world to see. Include a penis: it’s not offensive…it’s art! It is after this class that I realize advertisements, like the one you included, disgust me. It’s ridiculous.

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