The Judy Chicago exhibition: craftsmanship but not art

It's almost impossible, by now, to view Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" objectively. So much promotional and partisan verbiage has been expended on this work, on view at the Brooklyn Museum here, that by the time we actually get to see it we can only ask: "Is thism what all the fuss is about?"

We know from its literature that this triangular table, 48 feet on each side, with 39 place settings representing significant women and mythical female figures, was created to celebrate the achievements of women in Western civilization.

We also know that over 400 women and men worked five years to complete it, and that historically female crafts -- embroidery, lacemaking, crochet, weaving, and china-painting -- were used in its creation to honor the women who preserved the traditions of these crafts.

We ven know that the artist saw it as a re-interpretation of "The Last Supper ," that this "religious metaphor provided a way of dealing with the larger metaphysical issue of 'feminine values' and the way in which they have been denigrated by modern society."

We have further been told that the "goal of 'The Dinner Party' is to ensure that women's achievements become a permanent part of our culture." And that a corporation has been established both to maintain and permanently house this work as a "symbolic step in society's progress toward providing a real housing for women's aspirations, contributions, and ideas."

With all this in mind, what is an art critic to do when confronted by the actual work -- especially if he is male?

For one thing, he will realize that, difficult as it may be for him to be objective about a situation that is as much a politicized social event as artistic occasion, his responsibility is to try to be just that: objective -- and to apply the same standards to this work as he would to any other.

And he will remember that the quality of a work of art is determined by what it accomplishes, and not by a statement of its intentions.

Seen from this perspective, "The Dinner Party" is both a smashing success and a disappointing failure.

Its success derives from its astonishing craftsmanship, its display of what can be done in needlework and in ceramics.Its failure, on the other hand, stems from its static, tasteless, and mindlessly adolescent imagery, from its strident insistence on defining womanly character and nobility of purpose in terms of imagery often suggesting female sexual organs.

The villains are the 39 china-painted ceramic plates: Even as pure design, the vast majority of these are ludicrous, but as symbolic personifications of women of accomplishment and renown, they are truly offensive. And this has nothing to do with the fact that I am a man. I am offended form these women.

The pity of it all is that this self-conscious imagery dominates whatever else is good about this large and complex piece. To say that the needlework of the runners upon which the place settings rest is exquisite is to give minimum credit to the skills and patience of the many individuals who performed so superbly in those areas. Even the ceramic plates, if seen only in terms of craftsmanship, are exceptional objects in their own right.

"The Dinner Party" was, on many levels, a remarkable undertaking. The fact that it was a large-scale, five-year communal effort under the continual supervision of the artist gave it a sense of social purpose as well as of history. And the fact that it has become something of a rallying point for various feminist causes can only do all of us good in the long run.

But, while is intentions and the intentions of its creator were all to the good, I am disturbed by the shrill insistence on the part of its partisans that it is an important work of art. It is not. It ism beautifully crafted -- but I'm afraid it exists as pure corn in its attempts to give mythic stature to certain outstanding women through a succession of silly and tasteless sexual symbols.

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