Join us for our annual conversation about the best summer books for kids and young adults.
Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni
Artist Judy Chicago pioneered the concept of “feminist art” in the ’70s, pushing back in a male-dominated art world. Her best known work, “The Dinner Party,” explored women in history and myth, an iconic installation that continues to inspire today. As Chicago’s 75th birthday approaches, a trio of nationwide exhibitions and events celebrate her contributions to both fields. We talk with her about what’s changed and what hasn’t for female artists.
- Judy Chicago artist; feminist; educator; author, 'The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History' and 'Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education'
The Art Of Judy Chicago
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIPerhaps you've been to see "The Dinner Party," read her autobiographies or considered Judy Chicago a feminist arts icon. Or maybe the name doesn't ring a bell but you've seen the influence of her work in the art world regardless, work that calls attention to the gender and equities that exist in the sphere and our culture at large where even today work by women artists makes up just about 5 percent of the work in major permanent collections in the United States and Europe.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIJoining us today to talk about the role art has on our society, how we teach it and how we define feminism today is the woman who quite literally made her own name, Judy Chicago, artist, author, feminist and educator. You have upcoming books coming out and there's one called "The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History" and "Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education." Thank you very much for joining us here on this snowy day in studio. It's wonderful to have you.
MS. JUDY CHICAGOThank you, Christina.
BELLANTONISo I had a chance to go see the exhibit that is on right now at the National...
CHICAGO...Museum of Women in the Arts.
BELLANTONI...Women in the Arts, exactly, and was really struck by all of your work. And "The Dinner Party" might be one of the most known of those. But you, as a young woman of artistic ambition in the '60s, you encountered a lot of resistance from your teachers. So how did that experience shape your career and all these things that we see on display at this wonderful museum?
CHICAGOWell, the work at the Women's Museum focuses just on the work -- some of my work from the 1970s. It's called Judy Chicago's Circa '75, because this year I'm turning 75. And there are exhibitions and events all over the country celebrating my birthday. I'm going to have the longest birthday on earth.
CHICAGOAnd (word?) Show is one of those shows. And last night, I did a conversation there with a historian named Jane Gerhard about a book she wrote about "The Dinner Party." But one of the things about what you were saying, of course, is most people know me in relationship to "The Dinner Party." And as gratified as I am about that, for a very long time "The Dinner Party" kind of blocked out all the rest of my work. And that's, this year, really changing dramatically.
CHICAGOThe shows around the country focus on different aspects of my work. And of course I'm publishing two new books, the first of which "Institution Time" is a critique of studio art education.
BELLANTONIYeah, and we are going to delve into that a lot. And one of the things you mentioned about all of your different types of artwork if you've worked in so many different mediums from learning, you know, auto mechanic techniques to be able to work with metal or learning how to blow glass, you know, your etchings. For me what struck me was one of the exhibits, it reminded me almost of a diary. And we see your beautiful handwriting, you know, with your art, and whether that was pastels or paints or sketches.
BELLANTONIAnd one thing that struck me in particular as somebody who's involved in politics here in Washington, you quoted Elizabeth Cady Stanton as saying, had Susan B. Anthony been of the orthodox sex she would've been a U.S. Senator or a Supreme Court Justice. Do you believe that?
CHICAGOWell, you could say the same thing. I mean, like, you know, when we're in school -- when I was in school we all -- I mean, my generation learned all about Paul Revere's Midnight Ride but I didn't read or know anything about Susan B. Anthony. And when I started my study of women in the late 1960s, it was a shock to me to discover that Susan B. Anthony was so well known and so celebrated during her time that she helped to start the Chicago -- the women's building at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
CHICAGOAnd she was there during the opening days of the fair. And everywhere she went, tens of thousands of people would stand on chairs and applaud her and celebrate her. And yet within 20 years she was barely a footnote in history, which is of course what has happened to too many women and too many women artists. You know, people always say this thing about how your work won't be recognized until you're dead. Well, that's true for male artists. It's not true for women artists. It's the total opposite.
CHICAGOFor women artists it's the opposite. There are many women who are celebrated like Susan B. Anthony in terms of politics and then forgotten. And that's something that I have really devoted my life to try to change. And in terms of the book institutional time, it's a critique of the failure of institutions to transmit our history and our culture.
BELLANTONIAnd it goes right to something -- I don't know if you watched the Academy Awards last night, but Cate Blanchett, when she accepted her Best Actress Award she said, you know, the world is round, people. These are stories about women and they are actually making money and doing well. I mean, where do you think we stand today? Have things evolved or is it really still the same?
CHICAGOWell no, of course it's not the same. I mean, it would be very foolish not to acknowledge all the changes that have taken place. But, you know, I mean, I can't really speak except mostly as an artist, because that's where my energies and my thinking and my work has been focused. And in terms of women artists, a question I'm asked all the time, you know, how much has it changed. Well, you know, certainly for young women artists and for artists of color we -- they can be themselves in ways that I never could.
CHICAGOYou reference my problems when I was in college and in my early professional life where, you know, I was repeatedly told I couldn't be a woman and an artist too. And that my male professors hated my imagery. Well, I mean, some of that has changed. And on the other hand, as you pointed out, the institutions in terms of major museums, there are still very small percentage of women's work collected in the permanent collections.
CHICAGOAnd the path to art history, which is what I have always been focused on, I wanted -- from the time I was a child going to the Chicago Art Institute, I wanted to make a contribution to art history. And the paths into art history are through solo exhibitions in major museums, permanent collections in major museums and monographs -- solo monographs. In the 1970s, 1.5 percent of solo monographs were on women. And now 40 years later it has risen to a rousing 2.7 percent. So you tell me how much change there has been at an institutional level.
CHICAGOThat's -- I mean, that's one of the things that, as I've gotten older, I've become more concerned about. And that's one of the reasons I wrote "Institutional Time." In 1999 after a 25-year absence from teaching, I went back to academia and I taught project classes around the country. I wanted to find out how much things had changed or not from when I was both a student and when I started my first feminist art programs in the early 1970s.
CHICAGOAnd, you know, yeah, there's been some change. There are more women teaching but in terms of what an institution is supposed to do, which is to transmit culture, teach history, educate young people about the past in terms of women, there's an incredible failure. So that -- one of the reasons I went back to teaching, I was getting all these letters from young women saying they didn't know anything about the feminist art movement. They still weren't learning anything about women artists. They weren't learning anything about women's history.
CHICAGOAnd, you know, there are, in terms of art, more female undergraduate students than there are male. And still they're not learning about what women before them thought and taught and created. And as a result, they cannot build upon the gains of the past. And also what's happened in terms of art school is there has been a move away from skilled training. And certainly there is very little focus on content.
CHICAGOYou were asking me about the fact that I worked in so many different media. That's because my work is content-based. And I have selected a particular technique in terms of what would be the most appropriate to what I wanted to express. And I have developed, and I also learned from the time I was a child, a whole range of skills. In contrast I use a quote in the beginning of "Institutional Time" by a man named Howard Singerman who wrote a book called "Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University." And he graduated with an MFA from one of the best schools in America.
CHICAGOAnd the quote is "Although I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture, I do not have the traditional skills of the sculpture. I cannot carve or cast or weld or model in clay." Why not? And if you don't have the skills to be able to express your ideas, what kind of art can you make?
BELLANTONIIt's a very provocative question. And if you have some questions for Judy Chicago, you can join our conversation. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send a Tweet to @kojoshow. I'm Christina Bellantoni sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi and we are joined in studio by author and artist Judy Chicago. So when you talk about K through 12 arts education, what surprises you the most about how young kids are taught about art today?
CHICAGOWell, you know, artists in my generation, when we went through university art education -- studio art education, the art education departments were always looked down on. And as I talk about in "Institutional Time," I didn't know very much about K through 12 at all. In 2007, "The Dinner Party" was permanently housed at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum where, by the way, it accounts for a third of the traffic through the museum.
CHICAGOAnd shortly before its permanent housing, my husband photographer Donald Woodman and I were teaching at Vanderbilt. And I got -- I received an email from a K through 12 art education magazine saying that there was going to be a tribute to me and "The Dinner Party" in the magazine. So I read the article and I understood the teacher was well intentioned but I was actually horrified because what she had done with her students was a project of autobiography plates.
CHICAGONow there's nothing wrong with doing autobiography plates. It just has nothing to do with "The Dinner Party" which is intended to teach women's history and also to help young women think beyond themselves because sometimes young women get too mired in the personal. So I thought, you know, if "The Dinner Party's going to be permanently housed -- over the years there'd been a lot of K through 12 teachers who had done projects about "The Dinner Party" but since I had sort of negative attitudes, or at least uninformed attitudes about K through 12 education, I didn't pay that much attention to it.
CHICAGOSo all of a sudden I turned my attention to it and I thought if this is going to happen in the future, maybe there should be some guidelines for K through 12 teachers who want to use "The Dinner Party" in their classes. So I became -- I was introduced by a woman named -- to K through 12 education by a woman named Consinsky (sp?) who was married at that time to the Chancellor of Vanderbilt. She was an expert in art and public policy.
CHICAGOAnd when I began to read about what had been going on in K through 12 education I was really blown away because a lot of the changes that I had hoped to see at university level were actually happening in some of the K through 12 classrooms. That is sensitivity to gender and diversity. There's a wonderful curriculum writer named Marilyn Stewart who wrote a book called "Rethinking Curriculum in Art," which really is very compatible with my own ideas and philosophy about art. Okay. That's the good news.
CHICAGOThe bad news is that even though most K through 12 students who take art will not become professional artists, K through 12 art programs generally focus on hands-on activity, okay. The problem with that is that if somebody isn't going to be an artist, they have not been introduced to the array of ways in which they could in fact be involved in art when they become adults. They could become collectors. They could become an appreciative audience. They could be an art historian. They could be a conservator. They could be a curator. They could write about art.
CHICAGOThere are lots of ways of being involved in art. And I would like to see K through 12 programs introduce children to that idea s well as giving them a hands-on studio education. On the other hand, my personal concerns are mostly with university level studio art.
BELLANTONISure. And I would love to transition to that but I am curious, what ways could you maybe inspire that wanting to get into curation or art history if you're not a hands-on talented artist in that sense as a child? Should they take students maybe on more field trips to museums or how would you do it?
CHICAGOIt's interesting, you know, because for example, the Brooklyn Museum, you know, they get kids coming to see "The Dinner Party" and they have programs -- you know, educational programs out of the museum for K through 12 students. But one of the things that's really curious is most of the tours of "The Dinner Party" by students are not art classes. Because art classes have been of course cut, you know, because of this idea that art is somehow not important. And of course, you know, I think art is the most important thing in the world because it's through art that we have the opportunity to think about what it means to be a human being.
BELLANTONIYep. This segues directly into the higher education questions. We have an email to email@example.com from Davis who lives in our Adams Morgan neighborhood here in Washington saying, "What concerns do you have about the lack of learning opportunities for young artists, particularly women? I'm very concerned about the future of the Corcoran here in D.C. which I'm told is going to be absorbed by George Washington University. I hope G.W. doesn't screw it up."
CHICAGOWell, I actually just -- my husband and I just read that. We just were -- have been in Washington for a couple days and, you know, we of course lament also what's happening to the Corcoran. But of course, you know, Brandeis University closed the wonderful Rose Art Gallery when they got into trouble. Detroit is having trouble and, you know, the first thing people think about, oh, let's sell the art because somehow art has gotten all wrapped up in the idea of money. And that's not what art's about. Art is about human values and the transmission of human values.
CHICAGOAnd, you know, it's so interesting. People don't understand this sometimes, is that the two areas of political struggle that we have seen recently are art and abortion, and they're linked because actually it is through children and through art that the future is shaped. When a society is over, what's left is its art. And so there's fierce battles around what art should be preserved, what art is important. And now money has entered and sullied this picture because now people think, oh I can look up on ArtNet and see how much a work of art sold for. And now I know if it's good or bad.
CHICAGOBut you know what? Like my gallarus (sp?) says, you can buy penny stocks or you can buy blue chip stocks. It's history that determines what art is important and what art is going to last. And the fact that we have come so far away from that, both in terms of things like selling -- you know, giving away art, selling art, destroying art institutions. After all, when people give art to a museum they give it in trust. The idea is going to be passed on to the future.
CHICAGOSo I think it's unfortunate what's happening with the Corcoran. And I think it's unfortunate what's happened in terms of young artists and them being introduced to a system of art that stresses money. When I was young, none of us ever thought we would make a lot of money by making art. That's not why we did it. We did it -- I myself wanted to make a contribution to the world.
BELLANTONIJust like being a writer. And one thing that's very interesting about your technique and career is that you've been so collaborative. You've worked with so many different people and always recognize all of the artists that are putting together some of your work. And that's different from some artists, not even just men but just in general. That's not necessarily the most common...
CHICAGOActually, some years ago I was at -- my husband and I were in New Zealand and I was speaking about -- I was doing lectures about my work. And when I was talking about my collaborative work, particularly "The Birth Project," and I would mention the needle worker who had worked on this or that piece. And afterwards somebody stood up in the audience -- I'll never forget this -- and they said, you know, last week we had an artist here from Australia. And he was saying, oh, I have these two assistants without whom I couldn't do my work.
CHICAGOAnd so, after he finished talking, I asked him what their names were. And he said, I can't remember.
BELLANTONIThat's an appropriate spot for us to take a quick break. I am Christina Bellantoni, Editor-in-Chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And I'm talking in studio with Judy Chicago. And we will be right back.
BELLANTONIWelcome back, I'm Christina Bellantoni, Editor-in-Chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with artist, author, feminist and educator, Judy Chicago in studio. Tell us, do you think there should be more institutions focusing on art created by women? Why or why not? Give us a call at 1 (800) 433-8850, send a Tweet to @KojoShow, or email Kojo@WAMU.org. So, Judy Chicago, here in studio with us.
CHICAGOCan I answer that?
BELLANTONIYeah. Yeah. And I was going to ask about higher education, in general. But please, do answer that question.
CHICAGOYou know, it's so interesting, between 1985 and 1993 my husband and I worked on a project on the Holocaust. And so we spent a lot of time in Jewish institutions, although our goal was actually to create a body of art that would bring the discourse on the Holocaust out of the Jewish community and into a broader, more diverse audience. However, nobody ever says, should there be Jewish institutions? It's just so fascinating to me why women's institutions are so questioned.
CHICAGOAnd, as I often say, as long as the Museum of Modern Art is the museum of men's art, yes, we need our own institutions. That's one of the points that I was making before; it's that, it is through institutions that culture is transmitted and art is preserved. And women's art -- a lot of women's art has been lost.
CHICAGOThere are basically only four institutions in terms of art and culture in America focused on preserving women's culture and history: that's the National Museum of Women in the Arts here in Washington; the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America at Radcliffe Harvard, where my archives are; the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum; and the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. Now those four institutions cannot possibly deal with all of women's history and cultural production.
CHICAGOAnd until we have institutions that allocate 50 percent of their resources to women, yes, we need our own institutions so that our culture and our achievements will be preserved.
BELLANTONIAnd what would you say about higher education? How would you see that reformed? You said you were more concerned about that than even K through 12 art education.
CHICAGOWell, I think that no thought was given -- at the end of the 19 century, when women were finally admitted to universities -- no thought was given to the fact that they were going to come into classes that were focused entirely on what men did and what men thought and what men had preserved of their own culture. There has -- and that's the same in terms of art. For example, for a very long time, women did not have access to adequate art training. And by the time they did finally break through that, a lot of art training was focused on the female nude.
CHICAGONow, what was a young woman to make of everybody staring at a naked woman's body? Where was there a place for her in that discourse, in that history and in that perception? So, at this point in time, 100 years later: yeah, there are women in art courses; yeah, there's women's history course; there are women's studies courses. But they're peripheral to the main male-centered curriculum. And that has to change. Why should I have to study Paul Revere and my brother doesn't have to study Susan B. Anthony? That makes no sense to me, especially since Susan B. Anthony basically changed the face of a nation.
CHICAGOSo we have a long way to go. And one of the things that I argue in "Institutional Time" is, because of that, there's an inherent bias against women in studio art education. Not only because of the fact that women's history, women's art and the feminist art movement are not in the major mainstream curriculum, but also because studio art education is focused not on content. I worked with hundreds and hundreds of women, and even though it's a generalization to say that women's work tends to be more content oriented, that has been my experience both as a teacher and as an observer of women's art.
CHICAGOAnd so because there is no discussion of content in studio art education generally, it is biased against women. For example, I'm going to tell you a story. Some years ago, when I was still living in Santa Fe, a friend of ours who taught at Art Institution in Santa Fe asked me to look at the work of one of his students. So I walked into her studio and there were these hanging, eviscerated torsos. And I looked at the work and I said to her, who molested you and when did it start? She just burst into tears. And she said, How did you know that? How did you know that?
CHICAGOMy professors at school, all they said about my work was, Maybe you should hang these from an I-beam. Now how did that serve her as a young woman needing guidance, particularly because her subject was so difficult, so hot, as it were? She needed guidance to be able to find some distance from that and be able to transform that experience into art that people could look at. And she was getting no guidance whatsoever.
BELLANTONIIf you're a working artist, tell us what are the biggest challenges you've had to overcome. Give us a call at (800) 433-8850, send a Tweet to @KojoShow, or email Kojo@WAMU.org. Like Angela, who emailed us, she's a middle school art teacher and she wanted to thank Judy Chicago for the profound influence that you have had on my mission as an art educator, she said, for the past 15 years as a teacher in Maryland. She's been teaching mixed media -- a mixed media unit that is based around the dinner party. At the beginning of the unit, she asked her sixth graders to name as many artists as they can.
BELLANTONIEvery year, the list contains all white male Europeans, with O'Keefe occasionally making the list. I'm horrified this has not changed. At the end of this unit, during which students research and make art in the style of female artists and male artists of color, their lists are much more representative of our diverse society. And we're going to take a couple calls. One is, I think a clarification on a discussion we were having about The Corcoran. This is an official from George Washington University. Hi, Steve, you're on the line.
STEVEYeah, thanks very much. Yeah, I'm Steve Knapp, President of the University and I've very much enjoyed what I think is a very important discussion of a very important topic. And it's been great to hear Ms. Chicago really present her vision, which I think is a very important one. What I wanted to clarify is there seemed to be an understanding that the George Washington University was somehow taking over The Corcoran Gallery...
CHICAGOI can't hear a word.
STEVE...and in fact what's occurring is that the art is being taken on by the National Gallery of Art, which can't sell any art.
STEVEThey're absolutely forbidden to sell any art and they won't be doing that. What we are doing is merging with the college, The Corcoran College of Art and Design, and hoping that with the stewardship of the collection itself being taken on by the National Gallery, we'll be able to develop a really innovative arts education program, which I think will embody the kinds of principles that Ms. Chicago has eloquently describing.
BELLANTONIThank you very much for that Steven, and we'll definitely be taking a look at that. Maybe something Kojo can look at in the future.
BELLANTONII appreciate that.
STEVEThe key thing is none of the art is being sold.
BELLANTONISo also on the line we have Maryanne, who is an artist with experience in women's art in the 1970s. Hi, Maryanne. Thank you so much for calling.
MARYANNEHi, I'm really a craftswoman, although I think the line between art and crafts, when it comes to the work of women, is a very permeable bond. What I wanted to say was that, during the late '70s, I lived in Rome and had a studio there that I shared with other women. It was a women's cooperative studio. And, at a certain point, just talking among ourselves, we realized how little women's art we'd seen and how little we understood what the content of that was over time. And we went all over Italy and asked to see women's art.
MARYANNEAnd it was mostly in the basement -- Artemisia Gentileschi was in the basement. And we got -- we took slides of women's art. And then at Dasha Moreni's (sp?) theater in Rome, we held evening discussions and times to look at women's art. We thought originally it would just be one day or two days maybe at the most. And it ended up being much longer, because women just crowded in. We are so hungry for an art that includes the artistic materials that we work in. So often, women have been economically distressed, so a lot of their work is in ephemeral materials.
MARYANNEWe haven't had the training to work in what is quote "considered the formal art fields." And I, myself, as a potter and as a silversmith, try always to include in my work a real recognition of the work of generations of women. And I think it's a critical thing to do. And I'll give you a small example. Often, what you may have of your grandmother's, that's art that comes from her hands -- and many, many women were artistic -- maybe lace that she made.
MARYANNEAnd what I will do then is make ceramic items that include the design, the imprint of that piece of lace, so that all of the grandchildren can have something to hold in their hands that is a fossil, a replica of something very fragile, but something beautiful and meaningful, so that they know that work with their hands with many materials can embody love and the meaning of women's lives.
CHICAGOIf I may just interject one thing, I think that's very admirable. But I'll tell you something, that's the job of our art institutions. And that is exactly what I've been saying, is that we have to do it ourselves. I had to dig up all by myself, our history, because our institutions are failing us. And, after all, who owns, particularly, our public institutions? The National Gallery has like, I don't know, 97 percent white male in its collection...
CHICAGO...and 99 percent non-people -- I mean, you know, 1 percent of artists of color. And it's a tax-funded institution.
MARYANNEAbsolutely. And I -- where I also found the work that we did to find women's art very painful, is to discover the extent to which women's oeuvre has been presumed or faked to make it look like male artists have done it. And this has really bothered me, that where I could find, for instance an Artemisia Gentileschi, it was often attributed to her father.
CHICAGOYes, well I mean, the issue is how to change that.
CHICAGOThat's the issue.
BELLANTONIThank you, Maryanne. We really appreciate hearing from you. And we have Robin on the line. This kind of goes to what we've been talking about with higher education, Robin has a question about Judy Chicago's thoughts on hiring practices. Hi, Robin.
ROBINHi, how are you doing. I'm a painting and press-making major, who's 55 now. And I went straight from college into manual labor. And then I became a self-taught graphic designer-illustrator, technical illustrator and art director and had over 20 years in that experience. And I never wanted to make my whole career about teaching, but I like to teach once in a while. But I seem to -- I'd like to ask Judy how you feel about the MFA being used as a minimum hurdle to teach art at high school or college level. Do you really find that that's legitimate measure of one's art experience and background or the ability to teach?
CHICAGOWell, I think, and one of the things I point out in "Institutional Time", that when I was looking at K through 12 education, is it sort of dawned on me -- this was kind of like stupid -- but it dawned on me that university level is the only level where people are hired without any requirement that they know anything about teaching. I mean, even to teach kindergarten, you have to have a teaching certificate. You have to have taken some classes. What I'm concerned about is two-fold: One, that most people who teach at university level have had very little background in terms of teaching.
CHICAGOAnd, you know, the only two support systems in the country for artists is, one, the gallery system and the other is the university system. And so, obviously, artists need to make a living. And if they can't make a living through a gallery, their alternative, other than to get a full-time non-art job, is to teach. And so, it seems to me, and I talk about this in "Institutional Time", that we need to completely revamp the requirements for, particularly, higher education. I don't know about MFAs for high school teaching. I've never heard of that.
CHICAGONow, I know they're talking about PhDs for college education. You know, I think the whole system needs to be looked at overall. And what I'm calling for in "Institutional Time", actually, is a national or international dialog about curriculum, curriculum reform and requirements for teaching, so that art, yet again, becomes united with the human spirit.
BELLANTONIAnd that's a good plug for "Institutional Time", which comes out on March 18, and "The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History," is out on April 15, and also Judy Chicago's Circa '75 exhibit is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which is at New York Avenue and 13th street in Washington D.C. now through April 13, this year. You can get all of those details at KojoShow.org. It has been such an honor to have Judy Chicago here in studio with me: artist, author, feminist and educator. Thank you for sharing all of your thoughts. We could talk to you for two hours.
BELLANTONIAgain, I'm Christina Bellantoni, Editor-in-Chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Have a great day and stay warm.
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