The first time I saw Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party was not at the Brooklyn Museum, where it is currently a featured exhibit, but on spring break at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I was a freshman in college in the process of shedding the sheltered, suburban skin I’d developed throughout childhood and hungrily trying on new modes of existence. I was excited to be alive-excited to be a vegetarian, excited to vote for Gore…or Nader, excited to protest against environmental injustices, and excited to be in an unknown city, with my new college boyfriend, on what felt like my first adult vacation.
I stumbled upon The Dinner Party while wandering around the museum that afternoon in New Orleans. Tucked into a wing of Chicago’s other work, I found a large triangular table covered with 39 ornately designed plates, each set with a napkin, goblet, and silverware, in honor of a famous historical or mythical woman. The room was darkly lit-sacred and cathedral-like-with single spotlights beaming onto each renowned woman’s plate. Walking the perimeter, I saw pre-historical goddesses and biblical figures like Ishtar and Judith mingling with Common Era heroines like St. Bridget, and more contemporary revolutionaries like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
At that point in my life, I didn’t yet know how to cook (let alone have any idea that food and cooking would become such an important part of my life), and had never thrown my own dinner party. But as I walked around the place settings-wishing I could run my finger along the edges of the plates and peek inside the chalice-style goblets-I could sense a sort of electric power emanating out of the table. I felt the shadows of these women around the table, sharing their stories of hardship and struggle, quietly murmuring consoling words to another over lost loves, and crying out with delight over triumphs. Their stories were all their own and also part of a shared history. And although I probably couldn’t have articulated it standing in that museum room six years ago, I somehow knew that all of their stories were mine as well.
Chicago has said that The Dinner Party (which was created in the five year span of 1974-1979) was “meant to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.” But I think it does something more than that. In choosing to create a dinner party as the vehicle for honoring these historical heroines, Chicago turned the notion of dinner as “women’s work” on its head. She also, though less explicitly, confirmed the role of the dinner table in revolutionary work. Dinner tables are the place, Chicago seems to say, where bread is broken together and community solidified. And it is only after the community is strong that the seedlings of so many world-changing revolutions can be sown. There is a line in the Talmud that says, “…[I]f there is no flour, there is no Torah…” which inextricably links nourishment, study, and life. Chicago’s Dinner Party seems to extend this idea to say, “If there is no dinner, there is no revolution.”
I haven’t yet visited The Dinner Party exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and I’m curious how I will feel when I do (besides having the urge to throw a serious dinner party of my own!). I’m no longer a freshman in college or struggling to piece together my independent identity. I’m still excited by the world around me, but do not walk through it with the same wide-eyed intensity. And to be honest, I am far less of a “revolutionary,” in the traditional activist sense, than I fancied myself six years ago. But I look forward to stepping once more into Chicago’s Dinner Party – I will reintroduce myself to these amazing women, and raise a glass to the future.