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The Dinner Party: Artist Judy Chicago’s Iconic Symbolic Celebration of Women’s Heritage in Creative Culture

From Hypatia to Susan B. Anthony to Virginia Woolf, a sacrament and an insurrection restoring women’s place in history.

“I spent the morning in needle-work,” pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel wrote in her journal on an unexceptional July morning in 1786. To persuade her conservative mother to let her leave home and join her brother in his astronomical endeavors, Herschel knitted a year’s worth of stockings for the family. But even as this tiny five-foot woman was gazing at the cosmos by night through her twenty-foot Newtonian telescope, making comet discoveries that paved the way for women in science, by day she remained consistently engaged in craftwork. Just before her seventy-eighth birthday, Herschel became the first woman awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. That week, her nephew, the astronomer John Herschel, wrote to congratulate her on the accolade and offered in the same breath: “My mother … begs me to thank you for your kind and beautiful present of needlework (which even I could admire).”

At the age of eighty-one, beloved artist Louise Bourgeois — who came from a long lineage of craftspeople — reflected on her lifelong fascination with “the magic and power of the needle” in her diary: “The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.”

Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel by Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party.
Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

That redemptive and rebellious aspect of needlework is a centerpiece of The Dinner Party (public library) — the iconic 1979 project by artist Judy Chicago (b. July 20, 1939), celebrating women’s heritage in creative culture.

At once a sacrament and an insurrection, the project was born out of and into the women’s empowerment movement of the 1970s. But any hubristic impulse we may have had, until recently, to dismiss its central point as no longer relevant or needed has been swiftly disarmed by the political situation of our day — a situation that is foisting upon us the unwanted, discomfiting awareness that misogyny and other forms of bigotry are alive and well, that we live in a society not nearly as woke as we may have thought, and that somehow we must break bread with people who have a very different view of the present and of the tapestry of former presents we call history.

Chicago’s words from decades ago stun with their relevance today:

Women had always made a significant contribution to the development of human civilization, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized.

Caroline Herschel plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Caroline Herschel plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

The monumental installation, every meticulous detail of which is painstakingly crafted by hand, features an open triangular table, each side 46 ½ feet long, covered with fine white cloths embroidered in gold. Thirty-nine place settings grace the table, thirteen per side — a number of deliberate duality, referring to both the thirteen apostles at the Last Supper and the number of witches in a coven, contrasting the holiness of maleness with the demonization of women.

At the center of each place setting is an exquisite hand-painted fourteen-inch china plate, representing a particular period in Western civilization and a particular woman — artist, writer, scientist, saint, mythic figure — who made a powerful mark on that period. Among the women are Susan B. Anthony, Caroline Herschel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hypatia of Alexandria, Emily Dickinson, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf. Painted onto each plate is the vibrant, symbolically stylized vulva of each woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Mary Wollstonecraft plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Georgia O'Keeffe plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Georgia O’Keeffe plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hrosvitha plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hrotsvitha plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Susan B. Anthony plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Susan B. Anthony plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

Surrounding each plate are a golden chalice, lustered ceramic flatware, and a gold-embroidered napkin, resting upon a generous runner embroidered in the needlework style specific to the period and region in which the respective woman lived.

Embroidery detail: illuminated capital from Virginia Woolf runner (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Embroidery detail: illuminated capital from Virginia Woolf runner (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Virginia Woolf plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Virginia Woolf plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Elizabeth Blackwell plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Elizabeth Blackwell plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Emily Dickinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Emily Dickinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Amazon plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Amazon plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Anne Hutchinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Anne Hutchinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Ishtar plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Ishtar plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hypatia plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hypatia plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

The table itself stands on an enormous triangular floor covered in 2,300 handcrafted ceramic tiles, inscribed in gold luster with the names of 999 notable women grouped around the women represented at the table — a constellation of influences and affiliations celebrating the long and interwoven history of women’s accomplishment.

Table overview (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979, Brooklyn Museum)
Table overview (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979, Brooklyn Museum)

Chicago details the extraordinary craftsmaship process that brought the project to life in Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (public library) — from her decision to learn china-painting after becoming enchanted by the quality of color in an antique porcelain plate to her assembly of a diverse team of craftswomen collaborators to learning about the rich cultural history of needlework and ceramics.

Chicago writes:

Studying china-painting exposed me, for the first time, to the world of women’s traditional arts. I learned a great deal from the women with whom I trained — not only about china-painting, but also about a very different way of being an artist. Most china-painters see teaching as part of their work. Their teaching takes a number of forms; they give classes and seminars, but most importantly, at least for me, they teach by example. During exhibitions, they sit in their booths and paint while crowds of people watch them. This act and the public response to it intrigued me; the china-painters’ activity was in stark contrast with the isolated and private act of creation associated with twentieth-century “high art.”

In an homage to these women and their countercultural approach to art, Chicago decided to do same with The Dinner Party — a project that began as a solo endeavor, but after a year and a half of work, made it clear that completion would require a studio of skilled workers.

Woven banners hanging at the entry of the installation, greeting visitors (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Woven banners hanging at the entry of the installation, greeting visitors (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

Four years elapsed between the time Chicago enlisted the help of her team of craftswomen and the time The Dinner Party was completed and exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1979. Once a week, the bustling rhythm of labor at the studio was halted for an evening of discussion, lectures, and a potluck dinner. The materials and fabrication of the finished project cost more than $250,000 — close to $875,000 in today’s money.

Chicago reflects on the wonderfully emboldening grassroots spirit of the project — the same spirit in which the vast majority of art in human history was made:

We worked as I had worked for fifteen years: without knowing where the money would come from. I’d sell a drawing, we’d get a small grant, someone would make a donation — and we’d have enough money for another month or two.

The installation itself, as powerful today as it was four decades ago and at least as culturally necessary, is currently housed at the Brooklyn Museum and lives on, alongside essays detailing its creative process and exploring its cultural significance, in the commemorative volume The Dinner Party.

BP

Chirri & Chirra: A Japanese Parallel Love Letter to the Natural World and the Whimsical World

A vital and vitalizing reminder that sweetness, kindness, and goodwill are irrepressibly alive in the wilderness of the human spirit, though we might sometimes get lost in the forest before rediscovering them.

Chirri & Chirra: A Japanese Parallel Love Letter to the Natural World and the Whimsical World

“Two girls discover the secret of life on a sudden line of poetry,” Denise Levertov wrote in her stunning 1964 poem “The Secret.” Somewhere in the world, two girls are always discovering the secret of life, as are the twin protagonists in the poetic and largehearted Chirri & Chirra (public library) by Japanese children’s book virtuoso Kaya Doi.

Although prolific and beloved in Japan, Doi’s work has been slow to migrate West — in no small part because her vibrant yet delicate illustrations demand a special attentiveness to color and paper quality, impossible to reproduce with the cheap commodity approach commercial publishers have even to children’s books today. After chancing upon one of Doi’s enchanting books, Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of such courageous and sensitive gems as Cry, Heart, But Never Break and The Lion and the Bird — took a chance on Doi. And what a beautiful chance it is.

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The dreamsome story follows Chirri and Chirra, each on a bicycle, that most poetic of vehicles, as they wander into the forest on a daylong adventure. Everywhere they go, they are met with the kindness and hospitality of various animals — creatures wildly unlike themselves, yet animated by a common impulse for goodness.

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The story is driven by two parallel loves — of the natural world and of the whimsical world — and ends in the greatest unifer of all: song. The two girls find themselves amid a fantastical congregation of animals in the middle of the forest — a common theme of Japanese modernist folklore — and conclude their adventure by joining in the colorful choir of creatures.

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In a world shaken by uncertainty and mistrust, Chirri & Chirra stands as part pleasurable escape, part vital and vitalizing reminder that sweetness, kindness, and goodwill are irrepressibly alive in the wilderness of the human spirit, though we might sometimes get lost in the forest before rediscovering them.

Complement it with Japanese artist Komako Sakai’s uncommonly tender reimagining of The Velveteen Rabbit, also from Enchanted Lion Books.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

H.L. Mencken on Reclaiming Democracy from the Mob Mentality That Masquerades for It

“This fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon… nowhere so horribly apparent as in the United States, perhaps the nearest approach to an actual democracy yet seen in the world.”

H.L. Mencken on Reclaiming Democracy from the Mob Mentality That Masquerades for It

In a recent conversation with the smartest person I know, she suggested that society might have a certain threshold for the tolerable rate of change, past which people begin to shut down and push back on progress. As Bob Dylan put it, “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.” Perhaps it is that if we dismantle our crutches too quickly and attempt to leap forward, we end up falling backward — crutches though they may be, the limiting beliefs that exist in any given society at any given time exist for a reason, as a comfort and a hedge against the overwhelming uncertainty of progress and possibility. When a society has shed its crutches of inequality in a relatively short period — from finally recognizing the dignity of all love with marriage equality to finally taking stock of a generations-old wound with Black Lives Matter — vast swaths of the population are perhaps bound to find the rate of change intolerable, bound to find themselves tossed into a brave new world that feels incomprehensible and uncertain, and to react by facing backward rather than forward.

How are we to make sense of this primal and perilous human instinct?

The influential scholar, journalist, satirist, and cultural commentator H.L. Mencken (September 12, 1880–January 29, 1956), celebrated as “the Sage of Baltimore,” explored precisely that in an incisive article for the Baltimore Sun published in July of 1920 and later included in the posthumous Mencken anothology On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (public library).

H.L. Mencken
H.L. Mencken

A more politically wakeful and wokeful Twain, Mencken bridged rigorous scholarship with satire to dismantle the hypocrisies of populism. In some ways, like everyone who ever lived, he was a perfect product of his time flawed by present standards; in others, he was a deep and far seer into a future that has proven itself as today’s present. In this strikingly prescient piece, Mencken is writing just three weeks before women won the right to vote. (A decade later, he would fall in love with and marry Sara Haardt, a German-American professor of English and an Alabama native who had been on the front lines of ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment in the Deep South.) Despite his dated gendered language, to which there remains only one adequate response, Mencken’s ideas remain at least as sobering today as they were nearly a century ago.

He writes:

The weakness of those of us who take a gaudy satisfaction in our ideas, and battle for them violently, and face punishment for them willingly and even proudly, is that we forget the primary business of the man in politics, which is the snatching and safeguarding of his job. That business, it must be plain, concerns itself only occasionally with the defense and propagation of ideas, and even then it must confine itself to those that, to a reflective man, must usually appear to be insane. The first and last aim of the politician is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes — to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.

[…]

It seems to me that this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon, and that it is nowhere so horribly apparent as in the United States, perhaps the nearest approach to an actual democracy yet seen in the world. It was Americans who invented the curious doctrine that there is a body of doctrine in every department of thought that every good citizen is in duty bound to accept and cherish; it was Americans who invented the right-thinker. The fundamental concept, of course, was not original. The theologians embraced it centuries ago, and continue to embrace it to this day. It appeared on the political side in the Middle Ages, and survived in Russia into our time. But it is only in the United States that it has been extended to all departments of thought. It is only here that any novel idea, in any field of human relations, carries with it a burden of obnoxiousness, and is instantly challenged as mysteriously immoral by the great masses of right-thinking men. It is only here, so far as I have been able to make out, that there is a right way and a wrong way to think about the beverages one drinks with one’s meals, and the way children ought to be taught in the schools, and the manner in which foreign alliances should be negotiated, and what ought to be done about the Bolsheviki.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Conformity

A century and a half after Kierkegaard’s piercing insight into the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, Mencken considers the codified conformity — or, per the vital distinction artist Ben Shahn made, conformism — that masquerades as democracy:

In the face of this singular passion for conformity, this dread of novelty and originality, it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life.

[…]

Such tests arise inevitably out of democracy — the domination of unreflective and timorous men, moved in vast herds by mob emotions. In private life no man of sense would think of applying them. We do not estimate the integrity and ability of an acquaintance by his flabby willingness to accept our ideas; we estimate him by the honesty and effectiveness with which he maintains his own… But when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand…

The larger the mob, the harder the test.

Following this tendency to its logical end, Mencken concludes:

As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Mencken’s On Politics remains abrim with piercing and prescient insight on public life and its most deadening pathologies. Complement it with Leonard Cohen’s unreleased, remarkably timely verses on democracy, then revisit Walt Whitman on why literature is essential to a democratic society and John F. Kennedy’s sublime speech on poetry and power.

BP

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