Tackling Feminism, Education, and the Arts

A conversation with the legendary Judy Chicago.

This issue, Indy columnist Will Simmons ’14 had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with visual artist Judy Chicago about her own work, arts education, and the relationship between feminism and women in the arts. Below are Ms. Chicago’s written responses to Mr. Simmons’s questions, followed by a brief commentary on The Dinner Party, Ms. Chicago’s most famous work, in the context of its criticism and legacy.

The Dinner Party installed in its permanent home at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

WS: Given the cuts in funding to public school arts programs, why do you feel that arts education is worth fighting for, especially in K-12 classrooms?

JC: It is not that I am interested in fighting for arts educations; that is not my job. Rather, I am attempting to ensure that women’s achievements are integrated into arts education rather than being an add-on to a male centered curriculum in and out of the arts. Also, over the years, many K-12 teachers have included The Dinner Party in their classes, sometimes well, sometimes egregiously. With its permanent housing, I thought it important to provide guidelines for interested teachers, which is how The Dinner Party curriculum evolved. Now Through the Flower (my non-profit arts organization) and I are working with Kutztown University, which hosts a Dinner Party institute each year to train teachers in the best uses of the curriculum, and Penn State University (home of my arts education archives and permanent on-line site for the Dinner Party curriculum) to create a lasting legacy for the curriculum.

Judy Chicago working in her China painting studio, 1974.

WS: Do you see your legacy in the work of contemporary feminist artists?

JC: I’m dividing this question into two parts. The first is a question for historians and art historians, though I can see that younger artists (both male and female) can work freely out of their experiences, which was not the case when I was young when women artists and artists of color, gays and lesbians, had to hide their identities behind a seeming ‘universality’ which was actually a type of art making that had been forged primarily by white men. But the white male experience was taken as both the universal and the norm. Fortunately, this has changed at least for young artists, and feminist art has spread all over the world.

Judy Chicago working in her China painting studio, 1974.

WS: What still needs to be done to achieve gender equity in the arts, and in American society generally?

JC: Despite these changes, institutions have not changed sufficiently in that education is still male centered, and in major art museums, the statistics are disheartening: only 3%-5% of permanent collections in major museums around the world are made up of women artists and, for example, at the Tate Modern in London between 2000-2005, only 2% of their major exhibitions were women artists. Art history is shaped by permanent collections, major exhibitions and solo publications. In 1970, only 1.7% of solo art publications were devoted to women; today, over 40 years later, it is only 2.5%, so we are a long way from gender equity. As to American society, young women are going to be faced with having to repeat the struggle for reproductive rights all over again. As the women’s historian Gerda Lerner stated: “Women are trapped in a tragic repetition in which they have to repeat and repeat struggles that have been won, only to be lost, and then they have to struggle all over again.” It is this repetition that The Dinner Party recounts and is aimed at overcoming.

WS: Harvard’s Schlesinger Library has acquired many of your papers, and a wide variety of scholars have certainly benefited from your donation to the University. What advice do you have for a student hoping to utilize your work in his or her chosen discipline, be it education, the visual arts, or gender/sexuality studies?

JC: As you mention, my papers are at the Schlesinger Library, while my art education archive has been recently acquired by Penn State, which will maintain The Dinner Party curriculum online in perpetuity. In addition, The Dinner Party is at the Brooklyn Museum; my work in tapestry is going to the Museum of Art and Design in New York, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts has a number of my works. Together, these provide the possibility for extensive research into my life, pedagogical methods and art making. I am often asked how I survived the often-vitriolic criticism of my work; my answer is always the same. I learned my history as a woman. I studied the work of my predecessors and came to understand the obstacles they had to overcome in order to achieve their goals. Knowing, for example, that when Elizabeth Blackwell was in medical school (the first woman doctor), no one spoke to her for two years and women spat on her in the streets (women can often be the most unkind). I was able to say to myself: “If she could do it, so can I.” So my advice is simple; avail oneself of all these materials. They are there for you.