Brand building through storytelling

Not your average dinner party

We have just spent four days in New York, where we darted through the pre-Christmas crowds catching up with what’s new—or newish, to be perfectly honest. Let’s face it, if you’re really on top of the trends, you didn’t wait until now to samplesous vide cookery, an up-market twist on old-fashioned boil-in-a-bag, in which the little sac with its organic contents is tenderly coddled at just the right low temperature by a chef who brings food geeks to their knees. Frankly, I’d rather tuck into a crispy half-chicken with a side of frites, but I’m just a tourist from Toronto.

Anyway, we had some catching up to do. The lush new Rembrandt show at the Met, the glittery new Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue, the provocative new Tom Stoppard play Rock ‘n’ Roll...oh, the places we went. We even dropped in at the Museum of Sex to learn what’s new with fetishism (you wouldn’t believe what some people are doing with balloons).

ChicagoBut for me the highlight of our trip dated back to the 70s, when fondue was in vogue the first time around and the cutting edge in home technology was an answering machine. It was in 1979 that a feminist artist named Judy Chicago first unveiled “The Dinner Party,” a stunningly ambitious monument to women’s heroism through the ages. I’d always hoped to see “The Dinner Party” but the time was never right—and besides, the work has spent much of its lifetime in storage.

Now it has a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum, within a strolling distance of the hotel where Paul and I were dodging ruinous Manhattan rates. Anyone who follows the New York art scene has surely known this for ages. I didn’t know until last week. I could almost believe that “The Dinner Party” had been waiting all those years for my visit one unseasonally cold morning in December.

When “The Dinner Party” was new, I had recently joined the horde of ambitious young women who were “taking the workplace by storm,” as trend-conscious journalists put it back then. I wore a half-price designer suit (my puny paycheck confined me to the bargain racks) and after work I scurried home to get dinner on the table before all three of us fell asleep. It must have been in the Sunday New York Times, which I considered the arbiter of newness, that I first read about this upstart Judy Chicago and her boundary-breaking work. The Times critic (a man) denounced it as “kitsch,” thereby confirming my thrilling, inarticulate sense that Judy Chicago was leading a charge for me and my kind.

DinnerParty M 2Who but an artistic Joan of Arc could envision such a project? I tried to picture it: a triangular table, each side 48 feet long. Thirty-nine places honouring goddesses (Ishtar), stateswomen (Elizabeth I), activists (Susan B. Anthony) and creators (Emily Dickinson). At each place the name of a heroine emblazoned on a cloth, with a golden goblet and a porcelain plate individually decorated with a vulva motif (no wonder that critic had the heebie-jeebies). On the floor, 999 other names painted in gold. The entire undertaking required a crew of women artists: weavers, seamstresses, china painters, needleworkers. They would not have come together without Judy Chicago, who aimed to give women what history had denied them: public recognition on an epic scale. After all, men had their busts crowned with laurel wreaths, their oversized statues of conquering heroes on horseback. About time someone shone the spotlight on women!

“The Dinner Party” is now pushing 30—the age once derided as the gateway to fogeydom. “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” some of us proclaimed in the 60s. On the way to the Brooklyn Museum, I couldn’t help but wonder if Chicago’s boundary-breaking statement would hold up in the twenty-first century. Was it just another fevered moment in the history of feminism, like consciousness-raising groups and Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman?”

I needn’t have worried. “The Dinner Party” held me in awe.

There’s nothing cozy about this work, despite its title. Only the truly exalted are welcome to sit at Judy Chicago’s table, which commands the eye like an altar in a temple. The plates have the deliberately remote grandeur of medieval coats of arms, with enormous flaring vulvas replacing the traditional towers and rearing lions. Who knew there were so many ways to paint the core of a woman-as petals, flames, leaves or waves of lace? Such plates should never be sullied with food. Nerve, spirit, imagination…this is the meal. A lesser artist might have tried to depict the women, but Judy Chicago chose to conjure their essence by depicting only their attributes.

The walls were black, the white lights high overhead, like stars on the dome of a planetarium. I made two slow, quiet circuits around the triangular table, overwhelmed at the sheer scope of the piece, its details too precise and numerous to take in on a single visit. Then I walked into the sunlight as if powered by something greater than myself.

If anything, this landmark piece is more relevant than ever. In 1979 we could tell ourselves the brave new world of equality was just around the next office (the one with the man-size desk and floor-to-ceiling windows). Now we’re informed (by the Toronto Dominion Bank, no less) that women’s status and paycheques will finally equal men’s in—get ready for it—30 years.

This morning while sipping my coffee, I opened my daily paper to find a photo of a 16-year-old girl, Aqsa Parvez, on the front page. She could be any teenage girl, with her iPod tucked in her pocket and her jauntily perched baseball cap, which is purple to match her nail polish. But she’s not just any teen. She’s been slain. Her father, the most extreme sort of Muslim, has been charged with killing her after a family battle over her refusal to wear a hijab. Where Aqsa Parvez came from, it’s apparently not okay for a woman to express her own power and spirit. I study Aqsa’s photo—the guarded eyes, the outthrust hips—and think of the adventures she’ll never have.

I wish she could have seen “The Dinner Party.” The good news is that you can. Better yet, you can take a young woman. When every woman grows up proud to be female, claiming her own strength without fear of causing offense, then we won’t need reports on gender equity. Then we will finally be equals at the table.

Posted by Rona

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