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Welcome to the Dinner Party!

Notes for Day 1 of Critical Feminist Studies, F07
Welcome to the Dinner Party!

I. (pass out picture of Sojourner Truth plate from The Dinner Party)
Start w/ reading an image:
write for 5 minutes about what you see

II. Tell each other: who you are,
what you saw/what puzzled you/
what your reaction was to what you saw
" " " " " being asked to start by writing,
instead of listening to me tell you something you didn't know?

III. Here's what the artist said about the sculpture:
"Three faces, emanating from a single body form, were inspired by African art. The sad face on the left is painted naturalistically and weeps for the suffering of the slaves. The highly stylized face on the right
reflects the rage experienced by black women but expressed only at the risk of harsh punishment - sometimes death. The center face, a highly decorated mask, symbolizes the concealment of the real self required not only of black women, but of their white sisters as well. The upraised arm and clenched fist which complete Sojourner's portrait repeat the angry gesture she made in that Ohio church."
(The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage, p. 88)

IV. what to do w/ the differences among our readings/hers?

V. Culler: "meaning is context-bound—
and context is endless"
enlarge the context: image of ST part of 1979 installation
(in San Francisco,
now permanent collection of Brooklyn Museum of Art)
of The Dinner Party, by artist named Judy Chicago
using to figure/literally/what this course is about/
what it means to do feminist literary studies

VI. this is what Judy Chicago did:
selected 1038 women in western history
inscribed names of 999 of them on porcelain floor tiles
honored 39 of them w/ symbolical place settings @ a table:

equilateral triangle, 13 settings on each side
each one got a china plate in a vulvar form,
elaborate needlepoint runner worked in period techniques,
narrating her life
(ST: pieced quilt of strip-woven African patterns,
combined w/ triangular sections of printed fabric,
to honor slaves,
who pieced weaving from home into large quilts)

VII. 70s particular historical moment,
2nd wave feminism
positive mode of representing female body,
reclaiming it from patriarchal construction
as passive, fetishized
fr. flat ancient goddesses representing relative constraint/containment
to sculptural thrusts of Va. Woolf: creative female subject,
active vaginal forms, muscular, 3D

explicitly sexual, bodily content was a revolt,
in context of high modernism/pure abstract aesthestic objects
deliberate choice to use media associated w/
women's domestic labor
(china painting, ceramics, needlepoint)
and to make the form monumental

intensely controversial exhibit
1. damned by postmodern feminists as
biologically essentialist, naïve

2. dismissed by modernist art critics as
pornographic kitsch
transgressive/in-your-face threat to inherent artistic value
----both in over celebration of craft
(make debased sentimental domestic art form monumental;
handmade female crafts aggressively, blatantly sculptural)_
----and by flamboyant exploration of
boundaries of aesthetic value
explicit sexualization/politization of history of women's culture
“feminized restaging of all-male club of Last Supper,
from point of view of those who cooked it
but not figured as hands; rather:
direct, relentless, biologically redundant
representation of labial folds

3. also dismissed by feminist artists/art historians
because populist
this period in feminist art criticism→
rampant anti-pleasure rhetoric
don’t be captured by illusions:
dis-identifactory practices erode cultural consumption

4. dismissed by radical feminists who shared her aesthetics, but not her politics
feminism challenges exclusionary, elitist system of values
but Chicago aimed @ elevating women to state of transcendence, w/out questioning exclusions that transcendence implies
she was invested in upholding opposition between high/low
ascribed to structure of value she critiqued:
wanted installation viewed as high art
not only reinforced masculinist notions of greatness
but self as “Master of Studio”
betrayed a feminist commitment to collaboration

5. strongest critique, however,
came from women of color, who asked
the most compelling questions of the exhibition
how does ST plate differ from “mold” I’ve described,
of relentlessly biological vulvar forms?

One place set for black woman,
only one in collection that shows a face instead of a vagina
(actually three faces!)
Alice Walker wrote in Ms. Magazine abt.
Chicago’s ignorance of black women artists
“white women can’t imagine black women have vaginas;
or if they can, where imagination leads them is too far to go”
exposes hesitancy of white feminists
in relation to black female sexuality

6. most important critique of TDP as
comprehensive narrative of women’s history
1978 group of Hispanic women fr.
National Woman’s Political Caucus visoted studio,
wrote ltr. complaining that no pre-conquest New World heroines were honored @ table;
called for boycott and letter writing protest

VIII. chose ST plate as central image for this course:
graphic portrayal of basic assumptions about
what feminist art/can do/
what feminist reading is/can do
about varieties of both art & reading
and—most importantly—because
the woman this plate figures was illiterate
who knows of her/her speeches?
Much of what she has to say
(can read more speeches later in semester if you chose)
is abt. class, abt. expanding the category “woman”
from lady, to include women like herself who were
not isolated @ home but labored in the field, enslaved
significant: these speeches were transcribed
(most famous perhaps invented)
by literate white women who heard her speak
since she wrote nothing herself, these texts of speeches
(and narrative of her life, written by Olive Gilbert,
clearly ventriloquized) raise questions abt. authenticity

she constructed herself, was own myth maker
Painter on her visiting cards: free bourgeois matron
assembled appendix to Narrative in 1875,
w/ newspaper reports, autographs, collage of accolades;
dictated account of her warm mtg. w/ Lincoln
(she hadn’t heard of him; he’d heard often of her)
capacity to claim symbolic identity
and did some powerful speaking
--took master’s family to court for
selling her son to Ala; got him back
--twice took D.C. streetcar conductors to court for
refusing to let her ride, one for assault and battery,
both victorious

IX. all that is to figure this course called
Critical Feminist Theory
start to give you a sense of how I’m proposing
that we take on a # of difficult jobs:
Interrogate what it means to write & read as a feminist
problematizing acts of reading and writing,
and objects we read and write
attend to the political dimensions of reading, writing
Highlight not only gendered but
racial/class/national limits of that activity
(class valences of “dinner party”!)
literacy abt. politics, empowerment, agency
African slaves were denied literacy
(FDouglas: “teaching a slave to read would forever
unfit him to be a slave”)
pathway to liberty (cf. today: 70% males in prison not completed h.s.,
40% functionally illiterate, 19% illiterate)
inarticulate: in jeopardy
use words to express who you are,
to challenge, organize for better world
teaching/reading/writing for social justice
JBaldwin, A Talk to Teachers: paradox of education—
Examine society in which you are being educated, create ability to make own decisions, imagine alternatives

X. also do what lit courses usually do:
Meet 2x week to discuss theory and literature
Start w/ Va. Woolf’s Three Guineas
Every Wed. evening post on-line reaction to reading
(past or future; tomorrow night re: ST plate or 3 Guineas)

in addition, 25-pp. more formal writing:
2 pp. response in Sept. 4 pp. proposal in Oct,
6 pp. draft of research in Nov,
12 pp. critical feminist project in Dec.
on topic of own chosing, interest—
meet w/ you twice to figure that out,
guide your research

also decide together what we'll be reading
together in the second 1/2 of the course
(late 19th/early 20th c. texts, among my favorites;
contemporary science fiction or film
we may have some questions on table,
particular texts will seem appropriate; we’ll see)

Discussion continues in the Course Forum area--
go there and add your thoughts!