Lynn Hershman: Looking back, what would you have done differently?
Judy Chicago: Nothing. I don’t spend a lot of time in regret. You do the best you can as you go along. I think the only thing that I would say that was unwise in the 70s was the fact that we cast the whole discourse about change in terms of gender and not in terms of values, which meant that we trusted some women we shouldn’t have, and we alienated some men we shouldn’t have. And as I said recently, we never thought that we would see the that all our efforts would result in getting Condoleezza Rice appointed Secretary of State. You know, that was not our idea. So, she’s not our friend even though she’s our gender. So, I think that was unclear in terms of what we were after in the 70s. Which was a transformation of not only white middle class society, but global society. The planet, transformation of the planet. And what we needed to do was be clearer about the values we were fighting for. But, you know, it’s easy. Everybody can get a Ph.D. in hindsight.
LH: People alluded to various fights that were going on at the time, but no one has really talked about fights among women, fights among academics and non-academics. Can you say anything about what the problems were and how they were solved?
JC: Well, one thing was that I kept myself very far outside of those fights. I always tried to find a higher ground where I could find common cause with many people, and I . . . For example the west coast east coast thing had nothing to do with women or feminism. It had to do with the west coast/east coast art world struggle that is that the east coast didn’t take the west coast seriously. At the same time, there’s no way the feminist art movement could have started on the east coast. It could only have started on the west coast because there was a tradition on the west coast of inventing yourself, and one could only do that outside the shadow of the European art tradition. So, even in those days, that rift between California and New York was apparent, but that was something that Lucy Lippard and I tried to overcome with the West/East Bag, which was an alliance between us, an alliance presumably between the coasts. Because, after all, the larger issues were exactly what I said before which is a transformation of values, and it doesn’t matter where you live. You know, it’s just as hard to create a transformation of values any place in the world. I think the academic/non-academic split, now, I was actually recently asked what I thought about the whole anti-essentialist discourse.
I said I thought it was a misguided moment in the history of feminist theory. And I didn’t really know that much about it because I think it’s really important to understand that in the 70s there was no feminist theory. Theory and practice were entirely combined, and whatever theory there was was being structured by those of us who were creating feminist art practice. And so the theory, the idea of feminist theory, feminist art theory began to develop somewhat later. And you know, I was thrilled at the idea that we would actually have theory to support the activities, action and practice that we were forging. Unfortunately, the theory and the practice came to loggerheads. Although I really didn’t know a thing about it. I was after the Dinner Party had its first successful showing in San Francisco and a hundred thousand people saw it and the museum made so much money they bought a cash register they named Judy, and I thought it was a big success and all the museums shut down and the whole art system kind of kicked me out.
I was completely involved in trying to figure out what to do, how to keep going as an artist. I was deep in my studio, working on the birth project. I really didn’t know the first thing about the anti-essentialist discourse, until the Dinner Party . . . well, I heard inklings of it, but it seemed sort of . . . I don’t know . . . I didn’t pay that much attention to it, until 1996 when the Dinner Party was going to be shown again at UCLA Armand Hammer Museum and the Women Studies department at UCLA threatened to picket the Dinner Party?! Because it was essentialist. I’m like . . . how is it possible that perfectly ordinary women know that the Dinner Party celebrates women, and educated intellectual theorists don’t get it? So, at that moment of course there was a very public clash around those issues. But, on the other hand Amelia Jones, who is the curator of that exhibition actually started to open up that discourse, because . . . I think it was a false discourse. I think it was young women feeling the need to flex their muscles and assert their identity. And, you know, that’s healthy, it’s fine, I figured it would wash itself out. And it did. I’ve tried to keep myself in a way apart from all that and keep looking at a big historic picture and see our . . . where we are now as part of this big historic picture, this long struggle for equity on the planet.
And it’s very interesting because in relation to the permanent housing of the Dinner Party in 2007, I’m doing the last Dinner Party book because all of the previous books are out of print. I am actually going back and re-researching every single woman on the table and on the floor. Because there’s no way I can publish a book in 2007 with research from the 70s because there have been huge advances in theory and scholarship. And I have to say, as I fill in the picture of each of these women who we wrested out from the shadows and now there’s much more information and the picture can become fuller, I’m finding myself as inspired by this as I was then. And seeing us and myself again in this long, long history, and it’s very comforting. And that’s where I’ve always tried to be. I’ve tried to keep hold of that larger historic picture.
LH: Do you feel it’s all been a success, and that you’re a success now?
JC: In 1979, when the Dinner Party opened in San Francisco, when it premiered, it wasn’t just the Dinner Party in the museum, it was that feminist culture as it was being forged on the west coast came into the museum. The museum was full of, at that time, poetry readings, performances, discourse, excitement. Karen Finely started her career out in front of the SF museum, entertaining the people in line . . . five-hour lines, with the cocktail party—all these gay guys on roller skates presenting awards to the 39 greatest cocks in history, including Vidal Sassoon as a blow dryer on a paper plate. The museum became . . . you got to see a glimpse of what it would actually mean to have a feminist society, to have a feminist world. There was no hushed, intimidated silence in the halls of the museum. There was conversation and excitement. And then the museum system shut down. I feel like it’s taken since 1979 to 2007 until we’ve reached enough critical mass to again bring this level of visibility to the cultural production of women.
Because the institutions, even though there’s been a huge amount of change, the institutions have continued to act as if the feminist art movement of the 70s was a one in a whole series of stylistic movements that came and went. That it’s over. And that’s not at all reality. Reality is the 70s feminist art movement in the west ushered in a historic change, which is the beginning of women having psychological freedom to actually express themselves as they are as women, and that has moved farther and farther and farther around the world, until there is this enormous cultural production by women—Women-centered work, not just made by women, but women-centered work. And there’s just a trickle of it still in our institutions. And, for example, this disjunct, this disconnect is nowhere near as evident, than in the reinstallation of the modern, the reopening of the modern when there are no . . . there is no representation whatsoever of the feminist art movement. It’s as if it never happened.
And all of a sudden some women appear in the 80s, but they’re plugged back into the traditional modernist line, as opposed to showing us the fact that a new narrative emerged in the 70s that has been growing and growing. And what we’re going to see in 2007 is a glimpse of it. Because in Los Angeles Connie Butler at LAMoCA is mounting an international historic feminist exhibition 1965-1980, so it’s going to look at the beginning of this historic change. And at the Brooklyn museum, in conjunction with the opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the first in the world, and the permanent housing of the DP. Maura Reilly, who is the curator of the Sackler Center, and Linda Nochlin are mounting an international contemporary exhibition. And Maura was just telling me their biggest problem now is they probably have 500 women who are all worthy of inclusion. That’s how much cultural production . . . and this is the top level. This is not even touching the amount of entry level, younger women coming into this all over the world.
So, we’re going to have an opportunity to see both historically and in a contemporary context what’s been happening, and of course, for me personally in terms of how I feel, of course I’m thrilled about the housing of the Dinner Party, but I’m even more thrilled that the Dinner Party is doing its historic work, which is acting as a wedge to open up a big space for all of this cultural production of women that has been going on explicitly since the 70s, and implicitly for centuries before.
LH: Do you personally feel successful at what you’re doing?
JC: I feel as if I have succeeded in some of my goals. I have not succeeded yet in all of my goals. It’s a good thing I’m still alive, right?
What I’ve always been working for is transformation and cultural transformation, it’s sort of like a good news/bad news. . .here’s the good news, the DP is being permanently housed. That was a huge goal, I’m thrilled. Here’s the bad news—the Museum of Modern Art can still go on with business and usual, as if the feminist art movement never happened. So that is not enough for me.
LH: Has anyone called attention to that?
JC: Linda Nochlin pointed it out very briefly in this month’s Art in America, where there are I think five different pieces about the new modern, and her’s is the only one that mentions it.
LH: Is there any information that we don’t know?
Kyle: What did you do after you left Cal Arts?
JC: I did the Dinner Party. One of the things that I have tried to do is leave a record of my struggles, achievements, discoveries, all of it. And I think that you asking me that question is actually a very good example of the degree to which women’s achievements are not incorporated into the cultural transmission. So, it’s like, what happened to Judy Chicago after 1972? Well, my goodness, she didn’t start the DP until 1974. And then she did the birth project and then she did Power Play, and then she did the Holocaust Project and then she did Resolutions, and she’s created this huge, enormous body of art and is about to publish her eleventh book! What do you mean? How come you don’t know that? That’s really interesting. How come the young women at Cal Arts didn’t know that there’d ever been a feminist art program at Cal Arts? How come young women coming out of particularly the east coast schools feel as cut off from their history as women, and their aesthetic history as I did when I was in college? Well, that’s just what I was talking about. The institutional resistance to actually allowing the meaning of all of that cultural production, whether it’s mine or it’s Nancy Spero’s or it’s Joan Semmels, or how ‘bout this, Carolee Schneemann, who basically almost single-handedly opened up the territory of feminist performance and body-centered performance.
Only one of her works is owned by any museum in the world. She’s about to be erased. Here’s the good news: we’ve made a lot of progress. Here’s the bad news: We haven’t been able yet to transmit that and make sure that young women can build on the shoulders of all of that accomplishment.
What do you still want to accomplish?
JC: Well, I want to finish the Dinner Party book. I want to insure that my body of work is preserved, and that the Dinner Party will someday be understood as only one work in a huge body of work. And I’m working to make sure . . . one of my major goals now is to work to make sure that when some young woman in the future wants to know what happened before, or how it happened that she’s experiencing what she’s experiencing, or when some young artist wants to know, Is there another way to make art than the small framework of the art world as it exists, where we pump out all these graduates students into a basically non-existent or very small system, and I’m very concerned with this kind of discrepancy between the fact that some places have a lot of art, some places have no art. Every month I read Art in America and I think what happens to all this art, after it has its moment on the pages of Art in America? Where is all this art?
Why isn’t all this art informed, informing our society, our community, our culture in a larger way? So, I’m working to try and figure out one: How to build a strong feminist organization, and pass on the feminist governance principles that I believe in that we’ve built in Through the Flower around; How to preserve my body of work; How to rethink the relationship between art and community; How to provide a place for people to go who want an alternative, who are desperate for an alternative. If I can do that, that’s enough for me.
LH: But your work itself changed even.
Well, my work changed. I was classically trained as a child. I started going to art school when I was five and then I became an abstract artist, but through the Dinner Party . . . you can’t see it because the runner backs aren’t in order of how I did them, but I came back to figuration, so I’ve been a figurative artist since then. And my work has become, particularly recently, since I took up watercolor, probably more personal and more direct, which is something I’ve been working on. I didn’t do a good job of answering the question you asked me before about what do I want to accomplish still.
I’m going to try again because there’s something I really want to say about this. I’m working on something that is much more difficult than making art. I was telling you about how I’ve been going back over the Dinner Party, all the women on the table and the floor. I’ve been looking at how much work they did and how little of it is known, how many books, how many paintings, how many pieces of music they wrote, and how little of it is known. And one of the reasons for that is that it is much more fun and much more gratifying to create than it is to figure out how to make sure what you create is going to count and going to last. And even though I’m still making art and I’m still writing I’m also working quite a lot on the problem of how to make sure that my body of art, my life’s work, my writing, the path that I forged, the choices I made will last and be available for others.
LH: How are you going to do that?
JC: Well, it’s really hard, because this is how far I’ve gotten. I was very, very fortunate that by a complete fluke, at the end of the Dinner Party, because we had to, we started a small non-profit corporation, Through the Flower, which became, when all the museum systems shut down, became the touring agency for the Dinner Party and then became the sponsor for the Birth Project and the sponsor and the touring agency for the Holocaust Project, and has supported my work. It’s just a small organization but it provided a framework for me to be able to keep working. And now we’re trying to figure out how to create a lasting organization. Now we’ve been in existence for twenty-six years, it’s a miracle, and we forged a different kind of culture in terms of how we do things, how we structure things, how we operate. We formed an alternative culture where everybody . . . we operate in a different way. And how to institutionalize that, offer it as a model. It’s not a lot of fun. Trying to figure out how to break the cycle of history that erases women’s work, erases the work of a lot of non-dominant groups, is a really frustrating, slow . . . many days I just want to go back into the studio, and I think, what I’m going to go back into the studio and make more work that’s in the warehouse? This is a problem we have not confronted yet, and it’s a really major problem for us still.
What do you think will change after 2007?
JC: I don’t know. It might just be our moment. Remember the flavor of the month? Like the minority of the week? It might just be our moment. Or, it might be the springboard into real change. There’s a lot of elements that have to happen. Number one: There have to be major collectors of feminist art. The institutions have to open up to feminist art. There has to be the institutionalization of its existence. It has to be taught, it has to be transmitted, it has to be shown. We presumably live in a free marketplace of ideas. Ok, why can’t I see Alice Neal up against Lucien Freud? Why can’t I decide who’s the better painter? Why does Alice Neal have to be in the basement? And they have to tell me over and over and over again, Lucien Freud is a great painter, Lucien Freud is a great painter. Why can’t I just look and find out? Why can’t I look and find out for myself if all these people they say are the greatest artists who ever lived, why can’t I see Suzanne Valedon next to Utrillo, her son, who she trained? Why can’t I see a whole wall of Mary Cassatt next to Degas and decide for myself? Why can’t I . . . at that point in history, then we will have made a real change.
[End of Interview]