I had my first encounter with The Dinner Party in 2011. I stumbled upon it while visiting the Brooklyn Museum with my Tisch classmates. I was mesmerized but nevertheless ran past it. I was in a rush to see everything and keep up with the group. I filed it away to research later… that research is happening now, nearly eight years later.
The Dinner Party is a massive ceremonial banquet arranged in the shape of an open triangle—a symbol of equality—measuring forty-eight feet on each side with a total of 39 place settings for the “guests of honor”.
The first wing of the dinner table begins with prehistoric figures like “Ishtar” and continues chronologically. The third wing makes it way all the way though the Women’s Revolution. The last place setting is for Georgia O’Keeffe.
Wing 1: From Prehistory to Rome
Wing 2: From Christianity to the Reformation
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Hildegarde of Bingen
Petronilla de Meath
Christine de Pisan
Anna van Schurman
Wing 3: From the American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution
Susan B. Anthony
Of the 39 women, I recognized only 15. I fixed that by reading about each woman I didn’t know. You can do the same on Brooklyn Museum’s website.
Of the 24 women I did not recognize, Sophia, Theodora and Mary Wollstonecraft were the most interesting.
Sophia was the mythical goddess of wisdom and the female counterpart to Jesus. She was one of the central figures of Gnosticism which dates back to ca. 180. In terms of mythical goddesses, I had only really identified with Athena. Now, I might choose Sophia.
Theodora (b. 500) was the empress of the Byzantine Empire. She ruled the empire equally with her husband Justinian I. I recognized Justinian, because he is famous for having codified roman law. He is also featured in the enchanting mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Apparently, Theodora was as well… but that wasn’t emphasized when I learned about (and visited!) the basilica. Having been born in the lower classes of Byzantium, Theodora fought for the persecuted and passed laws that expanded the rights of women and prostitutes. Admittedly… I often played as Theodora on the video game Civilization, yet I failed to learn more about her.
Jumping forward 1000+ years, Mary Wollstonecraft (b. 1759) wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (If anyone knows why she used “woman” instead of the grammatically correct “women”, please share.) It is considered the earliest and most important treatise advocating for equal rights for women.
The Dinner Party recognizes more women in history by way of the “Heritage Floor”. The floor is made up of 2,300 hand-cast tiles and includes the names of 999 mythical and historical women. Someone (or likely a team of people) put together a list of the women included on the “Heritage Floor”. While I was tempted to continue learning about the women I had not heard of, I decided that I would have to do that at a later date since it would likely become a project in itself.
I’ve shared my experience learning about the women at the dinner table to highlight my own ignorance of women’s contributions to society. I was given a great education. Yet, I didn’t learn about these women. Yes, I could have righted this wrong by learning more on my own or by taking a class on Women’s Liberation or Feminism in college, but I think it’s ludicrous that we most go out of our way to learn about women’s contributions to history.
The Dinner Party is both a monument to women and an art piece. While the looks of it don’t particularly appeal to me aesthetically at times (the plates for example), I believe The Dinner Party is an incredible work and a great tribute to women’s history.
How—and Why—’The Dinner Party’ Became the Most Famous Feminist Artwork of All Time, ArtNet, Sarah Cascone
How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Walk Through Walls: A Memoir by Marina Abramovic
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
Currently listening to:
No. 67: How Judy Chicago Pioneered the First Feminist Art Program, The Artsy Podcast
The Fifth Vital Sign, Invisibilia