Published: Aug. 1, 2000 By

[1]   Ever since the showing of The Dinner Party in the late 1970s, exhibits of Judy Chicago’s artwork have repeatedly elicited vehement public debate. Her defenders laud her as a groundbreaking feminist whose methods and works challenge the patriarchal structure of the art world. Her critics accuse her of producing mere agitprop, which places her outside the ranks of truly great artists. Similar controversy has surrounded her latest exhibit, “Trials and Tributes: A Judy Chicago Retrospective,” shown at the Indiana University Art Museum from September 1 through October 31, 1999. On the one hand are those who applaud IU’s decision to showcase Chicago’s work, arguing that she merits a place in history for her contributions to the art world and to feminism. For instance, Kathleen A. Foster, a curator of 19th and 20th Century art at the IU Art Museum, is quoted in the IU student newspaper, saying that Judy Chicago “must be the most famous female artist. Every female artist who has followed her owes her a lot for being an icebreaker and for opening up the subject matter of feminist art. She wanted to bring what women go through into the art” (Bakke, September 1, 1999). Others contend that Chicago’s art is out-of-date, far too political, and undeserving of IU’s endorsement. In an editorial for The Indianapolis Star, for example, Andrea Neal asserts that “Judy Chicago is obviously more exhibitionist than artist. And that raises a question: is this what a great public university should support?” (October 14, 1999). This quotation raises concerns about the status of Chicago’s work as “good” art worthy of institutional and financial backing. It also evinces anxiety about that work’s emphasis on female sexuality, as evidenced by the word “exhibitionist.” Both of these themes not only become central to the public debate about Chicago’s exhibit at IU, but have also surfaced in public discourses throughout Chicago’s career. During congressional debates over the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s, for instance, The Boston Globe remarked that “whatever her place in history, any number of critics contend that Chicago’s work has been more smoke than fire. They say she creates projects that ignite controversy, but fail to inspire or encourage intellectual discussion . . . [Chicago’s work] gets a rise, but is it the right kind of rise?” (Graham, September 24, 1999).

[2]   This question locates the lack of “serious” discussion within Chicago’s art itself; it thus elides the ways in which the media framing of her art inflects that discussion, directing it toward certain issues and deflecting it from others. I am interested in analyzing that direction/deflection, particularly as it relates to debates about the intersection of feminism, postmodernism, and the notion of panic. I will consider the Judy Chicago exhibit at IU as a site of doubly-inflected panic, created both by and about feminism. ThePanic Encyclopedia offers one formulation of panic, connecting it to the “actual dissolution of facts” in the postmodern condition (Kroker, Kroker, and Cook 15). Through a series of short entries on subjects ranging from “Panic Alphabet” to “Panic Zombies,” thePanic Encyclopedia attempts to enact the disjunctive and fragmented knowledge that has supposedly replaced (or at least undermined) metanarratives. ThePanic Encyclopedia then connects these “post-facts” to a particular combination of feelings, “the ecstasy of catastrophe and the anxiety of fear” (Kroker, Kroker, and Cook 15).

[3]   Borrowing from and modifying this conceptualization, I use the term “panic” to signal feelings of social anxiety, which often surface in the public debates around the Judy Chicago exhibit’s blurring of traditional aesthetic categories and in debates about the fraught relationship between postmodernism and feminism. Utilizing this notion of panic helps us understand not only how the retrospective may inspire feminist, critical consciousness, how it may agitate for sociopolitical change, and how it is figured in the popular press, but also how it can offer space for interrogations of the tensions between feminism and postmodernism. The exhibit uses social anxieties about gender, the body, and technology as a way into feminist critique. It simultaneously produces its own anxiety about an all-encompassing patriarchy and essentialist gender identities. Such recourse to metanarratives and naturalized identities has been criticized extensively by feminist scholars who are concerned with differences among women, with the “performativity” of gender, and with the need to challenge white, masculinist, and heterosexist norms. All of which resonate in some significant ways with postmodern insistence on multiplicity, localized knowledge, and the instability of truth. The reconciliation of feminism and postmodernism, however, has been uneasy and incomplete. Some feminist scholars question the political implications of postmodern heterogeneity and what Susan Bordo calls “the dream of being everywhere.” Indeed, as I will argue, the Judy Chicago retrospective risks reifying notions of “true” manhood/womanhood and creating a monolithic view of patriarchy. Nonetheless, I will caution against simply dismissing the retrospective, which would ignore the ways in which it might open a space for feminist discourses about the connections between “mechanisms of fear production” and the “perpetuation of domination” (Massumi, “Preface” viii).

[4]   The public framing of the exhibit, as I alluded to previously, sidesteps these issues for the most part, focusing instead on whether or not Chicago’s work is “great” art and whether or not she herself is a “great” artist. The media discourses paradoxically construct Chicago’s feminism as out-of-date, which locates it safely in the past, and as a present threat, which creates anxieties over the infiltration of feminist politics into the “pure” zones of the art museum and public university. These discourses treat Chicago herself as a panic figure, who not only threatens to blur the boundaries between art and politics, but who also inspires dogmatic, “cultlike” followings. Unlike the Boston Globe reporter cited earlier, I do not mean to imply that there is only one “right kind of rise” which the mainstream media fail to encourage. Rather, I am interested in how the mainstream media, by centering certain issues and marginalizing others, diffuse the potentially progressive anxieties engendered by Chicago’s work. The media also heighten the more problematic panic about the way her work transgresses aesthetic boundaries, in some way closing off the very space for feminist, systemic critique that Chicago’s work might facilitate.

Panic Metanarratives

[5]   Postmodernism is a notoriously slippery concept, without a clear or straightforward definition. Theorists such as Hal Foster and Craig Owens, working primarily within the field of visual arts, link postmodernism to the transgression of traditional aesthetic boundaries, especially those between “high” and “low” art, the elite and the popular. In this respect, both the Chicago retrospective at IU and individual pieces of Chicago’s art manifest postmodern tendencies. Her work incorporates materials, techniques, and themes (like ceramics and needlework) that have been devalued as mere “feminine crafts.” Placing such media within the museum disturbs the supposed naturalness and inevitability of conventional taste hierarchies upheld by the art establishment. Furthermore, by foregrounding subjects like women’s history, female sexuality, and Jewish and gender identity, Chicago’s art can open previously “closed systems” (e.g., the museum) to the “discourse of others” (Foster xi; Owens 166). Both the media and the themes of Chicago’s work insist on a connection between art and “ordinary” life, between aesthetics and feminist political intervention. As we shall see, anxieties about these challenges to conventional boundaries occupy much of the public debate about the IU exhibition, largely eclipsing other questions about the relationship between postmodernism and feminism. I do not mean to imply that the concerns in the press aren’t important or that they are unconnected to feminism; on the contrary, aesthetic hierarchies are often deeply gendered. Nonetheless, the anxieties on display in the press seem to overwhelm consideration of other, equally significant issues, such as the viability of positing a shared female identity and of advancing macrolevel critiques.

[6]   Postmodernism is also often associated with a crisis surrounding the legitimacy of systems of thought which purport to explain a variety of practices and beliefs according to one totalizing principle. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, for instance, offers one of the most well-known explications of the “incredulity toward metanarratives.” With the contemporary proliferation of media and information technologies, we have purportedly developed a skepticism toward the overarching narratives and stable categories of “official” knowledge and have turned instead to more plural and local sites. On the one hand, the Judy Chicago retrospective does challenge the authority of Western metanarratives of mastery and progress, raising disturbing questions about the costs of that progress and about the voices that have been left out of those narratives. In other ways, the exhibit seems the complete opposite of postmodern sensibilities. Despite the declaration of the end of stable knowledge and of universal stories, the Chicago exhibit produces just such a story. It posits patriarchy as an all-encompassing, transcendental system, complimented by an equally universalizing celebration of “natural” womanhood.

[7]   It should be noted that these arguments apply to both the retrospective, which is a particular representation of Chicago and her work, as well as to specific pieces of that work. The retrospective, entitled “Judy Chicago: Trials and Tributes,” began at Florida State University, as the culmination of curator Viki D. Thompson Wylder’s dissertation, and has been travelling throughout the country since early 1999 (IU was the second of seven stops on the exhibition’s tour). According to Wylder, the works included in the retrospective were chosen, with the artist’s input, as representative of major periods of Chicago’s career and as demonstrative of her prolific output. Wylder was concerned with providing “the full range of Judy Chicago’s conceptual/visual arsenal while allowing the audience a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of her overall process” (11). For these reasons, and also to meet logistical constraints of space and funding, the retrospective primarily features Chicago’s works on paper, including many preliminary drawings and studies. These preparatory sketches complicate the notion that art springs, fully formed and perfect in its completeness, from the artist’s mind. They also challenge the privileging of “finished” products removed from the messy context and process of their creation. That said, these preliminaries do not include false starts or blind alleys; they fit together in an almost evolutionary sequence, suggesting a seamless progression that naturally culminates in the finished work. Broken into several different sections, each representing a span of years that covers a specific project or stage of Chicago’s career, the retrospective follows the temporal logic of linear historical progress, which is no doubt typical of retrospectives in general. Overriding all of these stages is a repeated narrative about the repression of womanhood, about the need to reclaim female sexuality, and about the violent exploitation of women, children, and nature under male dominance.

[8]   For example, in Female Rejection Drawing #3 (Peeling Back)(1974), part of the section entitled “Early Feminist Work: 1970-1975,” Chicago begins to utilize the vaginal imagery that would become famous in The Dinner Party (1979). This piece, like many of those in The Dinner Party and The Holocaust Project (1984-1993), juxtaposes the verbal and visual, as Chicago includes a lengthy written discourse underneath the image. Although this does begin to blur the strict division between vision and language that is often linked to modernism, the verbal and the visual in Chicago’s work tend to “underline” rather than “undermine” the “truth value of each” (Owens 178). The text seems to explain in a rather straightforward manner what is “going on” in the image, instead of creating a gap where viewers might begin to question the supposedly direct and transparent correlation between systems of representation and “reality.” Female Rejection Drawing #3 (Peeling Back) depicts the (male) formal structure with which Chicago had previously struggled. This formal structure literally “peels back” to reveal the real, hidden femaleness at the drawing’s core. Such a dichotomy between an authentic, female depth and an inauthentic, male surface reverses the often sexist equation of femininity with aesthetics, “mere” appearances, and cosmetic glamour. However, the piece also stands in stark contrast to postmodern rejections of the idea that representations conceal or distort latent meanings. Jean Baudrillard, for example, offers one of the most well-known formulations of the “hyperreal,” arguing that the real and the imaginary continually collapse into one another to the point where images can seem more real than the real itself. This implosion of reality and appearance contributes to the instability of true knowledge and to suspicion toward metanarratives. Baudrillard describes the “age of simulacra and simulation” as one “in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate true from false, the real from its artificial resurrection” (197).

[9]   The assumption that patriarchy masks an authentic female reality implies that female reality is itself transparent and pregiven, outside the bounds of discourse and ideology. This lack of attention to the mediation of reality stands in contrast to what Jim Collins refers to as “excess,” the recognition that “the ‘real world’ now comes to us always already imaged” (47). The Chicago retrospective contains very few references to or appropriations of mass media images, giving it an almost timeless feel and contributing to the stabilization of its metanarrative and gender identities. When Chicago’s work does “hijack” such images, it tends to incorporate them into the metanarrative, rather than foregrounding their contradictions or using them ironically.

[10]   For instance, many of the pieces in The Holocaust Project(1984-1993) borrow iconic photographs of Nazi soldiers and concentration camps, but these photos are treated as “signifiers for the foundation of events in historical reality” (Wylder 71). A piece entitled Final Study for Arbeit Macht Frei/Work Makes Who Free? (1992) offers a clear example of the way in which photographs are assimilated rather than used to create dissonance. The piece is divided in half: the left side presents photographs of a KKK rally and of African American slaves working in the fields, while the right side presents photographs of a Nazi parade and of prisoners working in a concentration camp. The two sides mirror each other in terms of form. Each of the photographs is cut in a triangle so that they fit together in a larger rectangle. Linking these two halves is a sign modeled after the famous entry gate at Auschwitz, in which the statement “Arbeit Macht Frei” becomes a question “Work Makes Who Free?” In this way, the photos work together to create a unified representation of victims and victimizers, spanning across time and space. They stand for the real, not the hyperreal. On the outside of the center photographs are six smaller paintings, the left three dealing with the brutality of slavery and the right three dealing with the atrocity of the Holocaust. The juxtaposition of two different media (photography and painting), on the one hand, does transgress hierarchies between new and old, low and high (Wylder 19). Still, this juxtaposition is not used to interrogate their contradictions, imbrications, or implications; on the contrary, like the verbal and visual, each medium reinforces the veracity and reality of the other. In the context of other works that I will discuss later, this piece contributes moreover to the exhibit’s metanarrative about the transhistorical, transgeographical reach of patriarchy.

[11]   Along with the fact that the Chicago exhibit seamlessly incorporates its few “quotations” of mass media imagery into a unified whole, it also evinces a yearning for authentic origins. It does so by positing a God(dess) as the guarantor of a female reality that has been repressed under male dominance. For instance, the final color study of The Fall(1987), also part of The Holocaust Project, provides a retelling of history in which violent, patriarchal civilization overtakes ancient matriarchal cultures that worshipped both nature and the goddess. The title itself suggests a gender reversal of the “fall” in traditional Christian theology which blames woman for humankind’s degeneration into sin and for humanity’s expulsion from Eden. In this way, the piece may act as a postmodern allegory as theorized by Craig Owens. In Owens’ formulation, allegory is notable for its “capacity to rescue from historical oblivion that which threatens to disappear” (52-53). This certainly resonates not only with The Fall and with The Dinner Party, which reclaim and rewrite women’s history, but also with the retrospective itself, as it displays the works of a feminist artist not always welcome in institutional settings (for instance, efforts to donate The Dinner Party to the University of the District of Columbia in 1990 failed amidst heavy controversy, relegating The Dinner Partyback into storage) (Mahler, October 12, 1990). The Fall and other works in the exhibit demonstrate what Owens calls the “doubling” of one text by another, that is, “one text is read through another . . . allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them” (54). Although, as I argued earlier, Chicago’s work, unlike that of other feminist artists like Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger, does not often draw on images from the mass media, many pieces do comment on Western myths, historical accounts, and aesthetic conventions. The Fall, for instance, reworks dominant Christian mythology and questions traditional celebrations of the rise of industrial technology. However, it also represents a search for origins, an attempt to reclaim an authentic female-centric past. It thus clashes with Owen’s notion of postmodern allegory, which “does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured: allegory is not hermeneutics” (54). Such nostalgia for a utopian past can be problematic for feminist calls for change, for it “does not offer a solution to existing social problems” (Felski 76).

[12]   The Fall begins on the left with several naked female figures battling male figures who are armed with knives. This scene overlaps with a depiction of a man tilling land behind a pair of oxen; this land is cultivated (and even morphs into the face of a woman), whereas the land associated with the female figures is undeveloped. Above the man farming the land is a drawing of Jesus on the cross. Thus, the first half of The Fall draws a connection between the violent overthrow of women-centered cultures, the taming of nature through agriculture, and the rise of male-centered religion. The middle section of the painting is a reworking of da Vinci’s Ventruvian Man. It is split in half, with the left part depicting a man holding a sword in his outstretched arm, a knight’s helmet obscuring his face. The right half shows the profile of a human face, the brain forming a kind of light bulb which gives off yellow rays. This central symbol links the violence of male warriors (the knight) with the rise of science, technology, and “enlightened” thought. The symbol also acts as a bridge between past and present, as does the wall that starts with the agriculture episode and transforms into a building suggestive of a concentration camp.

[13]   On the right-hand side of the painting, we see a scene evocative of industrialization, with a factory in the background, a male figure holding a clock, and another figure working at a large machine. This tableau overlaps with icons of the Holocaust. A guard with a swastika on his sleeve directs the assembly-line burning of human bodies; overhead, pigs hung up for slaughter turn into human forms. Stretching above the factory/crematorium scene, we see what the plaque informs us is the “Egyptian goddess of spinning,” followed by two women, one wearing the female symbol and the other the Star of David, amidst flames emanating from the crematorium (Wylder 67). Both of these women have devilish horns and are surrounded by symbols of demonic forces and witchcraft, such as a broomstick and a goat. Thus, various examples of oppression and atrocity, namely the destruction of ancient matriarchal culture, the exploitation of nature, the persecution of women as witches, and the Holocaust, are conflated and tied to the same source– patriarchal science and technology. The Fall, importantly, goes beyond suggesting connections between different historical events. The way that these different scenes merge into and out of each other implies an almost inevitable, cause-effect movement from one to another.

[14]   The final study for Four Questions (1992), another piece inThe Holocaust Project, juxtaposes images very differently thanThe Fall, yet still resolves them into a coherent, continuous narrative. Four Questionsconsists of four panels, each of which poses a different ethical question. Each panel is made up of a series of vertical slats, so that looking at it head-on leaves viewers with a disordered visual jumble in which only the textual question itself is intelligible. Shifting positions and approaching each panel from the left side reveals one image while seeing it from the right side reveals that image’s pair. On one level, this structure engages audiences in a more active way than conventional paintings, since viewers must move back and forth between the two sets of images to understand their meaning. The fact that the piece revolves around four questions also encourages audiences to feel as if they are participating in arriving at the answers. Once viewers “figure it out,” there is a sense of revelation, of discovering the truth, which counteracts any sense of dissonance the piece may at first evoke.

[15]   The first panel, when seen from the left, depicts an emaciated man in the striped uniform of a concentration camp prisoner; as viewers move to the right, that image transforms into a monkey strapped to a table. Both figures are undergoing some type of experimentation, prompting the question, “Where Should the Line Be Drawn?” The second panel, which asks “When Do the Ends Justify the Means?,” juxtaposes a Nazi missile poised above a mound of corpses and a U.S. astronaut planting a flag on the moon. The third panel joins a picture of a Nazi doctor euthanizing a sick prisoner and one of a Western doctor keeping a patient alive despite the latter’s obvious pain; this panel’s question is “What Determines a Quality Life?” Finally, the fourth panel asks “Who Controls Human Destiny?” and connects two scenes involving reproductive technologies: the first shows a Nazi doctor literally snatching a woman’s womb from her body, and the second shows a middle-class, white couple holding a newborn baby while a stricken black woman looks on in the background.

[16]   Each of these panels creates an analogy between a (Nazi) practice that is generally condemned as regressive and a (Western) practice that is generally accepted, or at least seen as advancing science and medicine. These analogies hopefully prompt audiences to consider how even the “good guys,” including audience members themselves, can be complicit with domination and exploitation. Like the historical narrative constructed by The Fall, the juxtapositions of Four Questions strongly suggest a cause-effect linearity, in which the acquisition of Nazi technology by the West leads to continued oppression. The questions themselves bridge the images, highlighting their similarities, so that Nazi atrocities and Western medicine and technology become commensurate. There may be important connections between the Nazi’s forced sterilization of ethnically “impure” women and the current (ab)use of women of color as surrogate mothers in the west. Unfortunately, Four Questions does not encourage us to consider either the different historical contexts in which these practices occur or the ways in which they diverge. This risks promoting an overly reductive technophobia, obliterating all distinctions between the Third Reich and liberal democracy and positioning all non-Anglo women as a generic victimized Other.

[17]   All of the pieces I have discussed so far use fears about the repression of authentic femininity, about the destructiveness of science and technology, and about the potential for oppression, exploitation, and abuse as a way into systemic critique. They insist that we face the dark underbelly of Western historical progress and scientific advancement, as well as our own complicity in human suffering and the domination of nature. Through its transvaluation of stereotypical masculinity and femininity, the exhibit can counteract the degradation of qualities and activities conventionally associated with women (Benhabib 23). For example, Chicago often makes a point of using traditionally female-identified materials, such as smocking and embroidery, in her works. By bringing such media into the art museum, Chicago challenges the rigid boundaries between high and low (folk) art and their attendant gendered/classed connotations. Furthermore, by drawing connections among various instances of oppression, the macro-analysis offered by the exhibit can help constitute what Rita Felski calls “an oppositional feminist community” (154). While the Chicago retrospective’s totalizing story of patriarchy may be an overstatement in some important respects, it can also serve as a site of feminist interrogation and consciousness raising. Those functions take on added significance when we consider the time periods in which some of her works were first shown. The Dinner Party, for instance, opened during the height of “second wave” feminism in the United States and, at that time, represented an exciting and much-needed artistic recovery of women’s history.

[18]   Peg Brand, who team-taught a class with Chicago at IU and who was largely responsible for her presence at the university, maintains in her Bloomington Herald-Times guest column that even today “students, including adolescent young women—some plagued with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy—have been viewing the show in record numbers. They claim a sense of identification with and empowerment from the work” (October 15, 1999). Though this is not the only true or necessary reaction to the retrospective, it does remind us that to dismiss Chicago’s work out-of-hand because of its totalizing impulses is to ignore its political possibilities (and, as I will argue later, to come uncomfortably close to discourses in the mass media that label her a “has-been” and thus conveniently contain her feminism in the past). Given Brand’s testimony, the retrospective does seem to encourage female agency, what bell hooks calls “ruptures, surfaces, contextuality” that “create gaps that make space for oppositional practices” (31). At the same time, we should not take this agency for granted. It is not inherent in the artwork, but emerges from audiences’ interactions with that artwork and with the discourses surrounding it. Rather than uncritically celebrating the exhibit, we can treat it as a way into debates about the relationship between feminism and postmodernism, about how we can engage in large-scale critique while still attending to differences and to our own potential complicity with hegemonic patterns.

Stable Knowledge and the Fear of Essentialist Gender Identities

[19]   Central to the retrospective’s metanarrative is the construction of essentialized gender identities, and central to the creation of the gaps advocated by hooks is our ability to read those identities against other feminist formulations, teasing out both their promises and pitfalls. These identities, like the metanarrative that informs them, critique the fear and domination produced under patriarchy. They engender their own anxieties as well– anxieties about the reclamation of female sexuality, about the inevitability of male violence and dominance, about essentialism itself. The first of these anxieties becomes central to the institutional framing of the retrospective, while the latter two largely drop out of the public discourses surrounding the exhibit. Before I analyze these public debates in detail, however, I turn to the ways in which Chicago’s work constructs the gendered identities in question and the ways in which those constructions intersect with other feminist notions of identity.

[20]   Images of the gendered body, both masculine and feminine, are central to the production of gendered identities in Chicago’s work, to the critique that she levels against patriarchal violence, aggression, and oppression of women, and to her attempts to recover a powerful, life-giving femininity. In both The Powerplay Series (1983-1986), which focuses on masculinity, and The Birth Project (1980-1985), which focuses on femininity, the gendered body becomes a site of stable knowledge. The body stands as an irrefutable testament to the material reality of oppression and to all that has been repressed or distorted under patriarchy. It becomes a vehicle for truth and, more specifically, for a truth that runs counter to the “official” story of patriarchy. Chicago’s work turns to the body for proof of what the Establishment both denies and has a vested interest in repressing. Following this logic, the female body signals the possibilities of female-centered resistance and the existence of an alternative to patriarchal dominance. I use the singular form of “body” advisedly, for the images in these two sections present a homogenized ideal rather than a heterogeneous field. By positioning the body as a site of truth, these images dichotomize and naturalize gender identities: masculinity becomes inseparable from violence and technological domination, while femininity becomes inseparable from nurturing and nature.

[21]   For example, The Powerplay Series features several images of man melding with machine, which play on fears about the relationship among technology, the body, and violent domination. In the study for Driving the World to Destruction (1985), a male figure grasps an impressionistic drawing of a steering wheel, an expression of maniacal glee on his face. His body bulges with exaggerated musculature as he leans forward, hunched over the wheel and seemingly “drunk” or mad with power. This painting gives the impression of patriarchy run amok, enabled by a machine. Similarly, Study 2: In the Shadow of the Handgun(1983) depicts a masculine figure, again heavily muscled, with his arm outstretched, his index finger morphing into a gun that spews red and black death. Both of these images localize patriarchy in the male body, implying that violent domination is a natural extension of masculine identity and creating fear that, as such, it is inevitable.

[22]   The flipside, the necessary complement, of this conflation of masculinity, technology, and patriarchy is the positing of a feminine alternative or corrective. Chicago’s art gives material form to this alternative in images of the life-giving, nurturing female body. The Birth Project in particular is replete with goddess imagery and the trope of woman’s body as creator and nourisher. The figures in many of these pieces rework the conventional female nude of Western art, which has been linked, perhaps most famously by John Berger, to male domination. Chicago’s work presents naked female bodies as a source of strength, empowerment, and creative energy, what Wylder calls “an attitude of realized self-power, a knowledge of the connection of the self with the environment in which the self exists” (23). Like The Fall,The Creation (1982), part of The Birth Project, connects womanhood and nature through a retelling of an origin story, in this case the Genesis myth. The Creation, however, centers the reproductive female body rather than the rise of industry and science, offering a visual analogy between the birth process of the universe and the birthing/labor experience of women. It begins on the far left with circles of color amidst darkness and formlessness; as viewers move to the right, the colors gradually resolve into a female body, which literally becomes the mountains and valleys of the Earth. The story ends on the far right with an impressionistic figure of a woman suckling a baby. Earth Birth reinforces this close connection between the female body and nature; it shows a female figure spewing forth the land and sea, her body blending into the undulating waves and curves of nature.

[23]   The notion of woman as a healing force, although most prominent in The Birth Project, also surfaces in The Holocaust Project (1984-1993). For instance, Rainbow Shabbat (1992) depicts a Jewish ceremony attended by a multicultural, multiethnic group of people. Arms linking them together, all of their faces are turned towards the woman, who is blessing a set of candles. Coming at the very end of The Holocaust Project, this piece offers a vision of global harmony and redemption made possible by the benediction of the woman. These works, when juxtaposed to The Powerplay Series and other parts of The Holocaust Project, suggest a yearning for wholeness, unity, and healing to counteract the technological violence and alienation of male dominance. This healing is, moreover, possible only through the reclamation of the female body and its powers of reproduction.

[24]   Chicago’s art thus rests on a dichotomy between technology and nature, a dichotomy which becomes both gendered and naturalized through the body. As I have argued, this theme runs throughout the retrospective, from works like The Fall and Four Questions to pieces in The Powerplay Series and in The Birth Project. It is also reinforced by Chicago’s emphasis on hand-made media like ceramics and needlework. On the one hand, Chicago’s insistence on the importance of the body provides a corrective to uninflected celebrations of multiplicity and instability that are often a hallmark of postmodern thought. Such celebrations can lead to what Susan Bordo calls the postmodern “dream of being everywhere:”

Denial of unity and stability of identity is one thing. The epistemological fantasy of becomingmultiplicity—the dream of limitless multiple embodiments, allowing one to dance from place to place and self to self—is another . . . If the body is a metaphor for our locatedness in space and time and thus for the finitude of human perception and knowledge, then the postmodern body is no body at all. (239; emphasis in original)

At the same time, the exhibit in general, along with individual pieces of artwork like The Fall and Four Questions, evince a pervasive distrust of technology, which risks shading into an overly reductive technophobia. The strict separation between femininity and masculinity, nature and technology, healing and oppression risks ignoring the potentially empowering aspects of technology for women.

[25]   Other scholars/artists offer alternate codings of technology as feminine, rather than depicting it as primarily a vehicle for male dominance. For instance, Anne Balsamo addresses the relationship between technology and the body, conceptualizing technology not as alienating, but as “the means of communication and connection with other bodies” (147). This trope of connection is reminiscent of the images of the mother/goddess in Chicago’sBirth Project; however, Balsamo’s piece relies on a combination of the body and technology rather than on the idea of a purely natural body that is evident in Chicago’s work. Sadie Plant also attempts to recover the potential power of the feminine gendering of technology through the metaphor of weaving, a possibility which Chicago’s work does not consider. Even though The Fall does contain references to weaving (which are connected to female power through images of the goddess), these are set in total opposition to the masculine realms of industry and science.

[26]   Although not speaking directly about Chicago’s artwork, Plant also complicates the uninflected association between women and nature present in the Chicago exhibit. She acknowledges that women have traditionally been devalued as both too natural andtoo artificial: “women, he has always said, are tied to the earth and too tangled up with all its messy cycles and flows. And yet on another invisible hand, women are too artificial for man; a matter of glamour, illusion, a trick. Even her foundations are cosmetic:she’s made up” (“Feminisations” 37; emphasis in original). It is precisely this contradiction, Plant argues, that makes women particularly suited for taking advantage of technology. Like the Chicago retrospective, Plant enacts a transvaluation in which what has been previously denigrated as feminine becomes a source of empowerment for women. Chicago’s work grounds that transvaluation in the celebration of women’s true nature, which has been suppressed under patriarchy. Plant, in contrast, locates the connections between women and nature/the artificial in patriarchal constructions themselves (note that she writes, “women, he has always said, are tied to the earth . . .” and “women are too artificial for man . . .”).

[27]   Placing these alternative formulations of women’s relationship to technology in conversation with Chicago’s work not only complicates the latter’s potential for technophobia, but also the former’s tendency to emphasize only technology’s liberatory potential. The Chicago exhibit reminds us about the abuses of technology, dangers which deserve sustained feminist critique, but which tend to fade into the background in accounts that celebrate technology’s (and especially cyberspace’s) potential for multiplicity and connectivity. As Donna Haraway notes, “the political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point” (196).

[28]   A disavowal of technology in the Chicago retrospective is central to the well-defined, stable boundaries between masculinity and femininity that her works naturalize through images of the body. The use of the body in Chicago’s works suggests static, timeless (transcendent), and mutually exclusive gender identities. Judith Butler, for one, has challenged the fixity and presumed naturalness of gender identities, positing instead a notion of gender as performative. Masculinity and femininity become a “stylized repetition of acts,” constituting the identity that they seem merely to express and creating the appearance of naturalness (Gender Trouble 140). She argues that any construction of female subjectivity is based on normative exclusions, which then give that subjectivity its appearance of unity and integrity. Therefore, we need to treat the category of women as a site of political struggle rather than as a pregiven necessity for that struggle (“Contingent Foundations” 50-51). Not only do coherent gender identities exclude, but they also act as “regulatory fictions,” policing sexuality and upholding heterosexuality as the only acceptable norm (“Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory” 339). On this view, the Chicago exhibit, by essentializing and naturalizing gender identities, not only masks the potential mutability of masculinity and femininity, but actually colludes with a patriarchal, heterosexist order.

[29]   Other feminist scholars have called Butler’s concept of performativity into question, particularly in regards to its political viability. Seyla Benhabib, for instance, is concerned that Butler jettisons notions of agency and selfhood along with the ontological aspect of identity. She asks, “if we are no more than the sum total of the gendered expressions we perform, is there ever any chance to stop the performance for a while, to pull the curtain down, and let it rise only if one can have a say in the production of the play itself?” (21). Similarly, Rita Felski maintains that the assertion of female selfhood remains a significant endeavor for feminist literature, in that it encourages political action and the empowerment of women whose selfhood has traditionally been negated. She argues that “intellectuals trained in reflexivity and articulate self-analysis can undervalue the novelty of self-expression for members of subordinate groups, for whom it is not a tired literary convention, but a powerful political discovery” (78). Though this suggests a troublesome split between us (sophisticated intellectuals) and them (naïve ordinary women), it does emphasize that not all women are the same and that dismissing work like the Chicago exhibit may disregard its complex political functions.

[30]   Because Chicago’s art presents the body as a site of truth about patriarchal repression, these images allow her to critique the connections among masculinity, violence, and technological abuses, as well as to offer an alternative based on femininity, nurturing, and unity, even as she naturalizes them. Her retrospective works to counteract anxieties about the female body and female sexuality, while shoring up anxieties about the stability of male dominance and female oppression. This seeming paradox suggests that panic in the “postmodern scene” may result not only from the belief that knowledge is uncertain, but also from the belief that knowledge is all too certain. It also throws into question the political viability of unequivocal celebrations of destabilized knowledge and multiple identities, opening up a space for debates over the relationship between feminism and postmodernism.

Diffusion and Creation of Anxiety: Public Framing of the Exhibit

[31]   Unfortunately, these issues tend to be either marginalized or displaced completely within the public discourses surrounding the exhibit. Instead, the debates in the news media over the Chicago retrospective center around the status of her work as “good” art that should (or should not) be funded by a public university. Several themes predominate the news coverage, including labeling Chicago a has-been, positioning her as a cult figure, denouncing her work for being overtly sexual, and criticizing her work for its poor artistic technique. Such debates are not unique to this particular exhibit or to this particular university; similar tropes appear in news stories throughout Chicago’s career, for instance when The Birth Projectopened in 1985, when she decided to giftThe Dinner Party to the University of the District of Columbia in 1990, and when The Holocaust Project opened in 1995. Overall, these public discourses work to diffuse anxieties generated by Chicago’s systemic critique and to create anxieties about her worth as a feminist artist.

[32]   By locating her most significant achievements in the past, discussions in the news media construct her feminism as already done and no longer needed. The use of the word “retrospective” to designate the exhibit is telling in this respect, especially when read against some of the media coverage. For instance, Lydia B. Finkelstein notes in the Bloomington Herald-Times that “the art press have failed to cover her recent projects . . . But everyone who followed the various political movements and cultural wars that began in the 1970s knew about The Dinner Party” (October 17,1999). The article goes on to acknowledge that The Dinner Party is “an example of contemporary folk art that history will note as depicting an important political movement in the 20th century,” but that Chicago’s subsequent work is “wooden and cartoonish” and “crude to the point of naivete” (September 19, 1999). In this way, The Dinner Party stands not only as Chicago’s only worthy piece, but also as a piece that belongs to the past, relevant only during the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

[33]   There are those who argue that Chicago’s work is still pertinent to the struggle against patriarchy in the art world and elsewhere. Professor Peg Brand emerged as Chicago’s most visible advocate at IU, arguing that “often the question, ‘Is it good art?’ is really a mask for other questions or biases . . . I have been asked, ‘Why here, why Judy, why now?’ She has made an incredible impact on the world and most notably on women” (qtd. in Neal A18; emphasis added). Aside from the fact that even this places Chicago’s contribution in the past, Brand herself becomes suspect as both a faculty member of Gender Studies and as the wife of IU President Myles Brand. Finkelstein, for example, notes that the IU Art Museum has broken its own rule against solo exhibits for faculty by showing the Chicago exhibit. This is taken as evidence that the museum “seems to be at the mercy of powerful egos and constituencies who have underestimated its cultural integrity and importance to the people of Indiana” (October 10, 1999). Kathleen A. Foster, a curator at the IU Art Museum and one of the organizers of the Chicago exhibit, clarifies the museum’s policy regarding faculty exhibitions, saying that the museum does in fact hold faculty retrospectives, which require considerable and often difficult fundraising efforts. The museum rarely has solo shows of living artists because another gallery on campus tends to handle contemporary art and because the museum itself spends considerable time mounting its biannual faculty surveys and annual MFA shows (Adelheid M. Gealt, the Director of the IU Art Museum, echoes both of these points about faculty exhibitions/ retrospectives in a letter to the editor of the Bloomington Herald-Times on October 24, 1999). Foster acknowledges that the Chicago exhibit is somewhat of an exception to this guideline (which is not, she argues, a “fixed policy”). The exhibit was made possible, according to Foster, by Chicago’s national name recognition and the fact that the retrospective’s tour was concomitant with Chicago’s teaching appointment at IU in the fall of 1999.

[34]   Questions about the decision to bring the Chicago retrospective to IU constitute a significant thread in the public discourse. Andrea Neal, in an editorial in The Indianapolis Star, contrasts “gender scholars” like Peg Brand to “those with classical taste, who question Indiana University’s judgment in promoting a mediocre, in-your-face feminist has-been” (October 14, 1999). The latter, “those with classical taste,” then become associated with the Fine Arts department, who were, according to Neal, left out of the decision to bring Chicago to IU and are now “hopping mad” about her presence. Kathleen Foster admits that the decision to schedule the retrospective ultimately rested in the hands of the Gender Studies and Philosophy departments and the museum, but she also states that it was made in close consultation with a planning committee made up of faculty from several different programs and departments, including faculty members from the School of Fine Arts. She further notes that the museum has a history of working with individual departments on campus, such as India Studies, Folklore, and Classical Studies, and that the museum only sometimes confers with Fine Arts faculty about a prospective exhibit, and then does so informally.

[35]   Nonetheless, Neal treats the Fine Arts faculty as monolithic, arguing that whereas they would have chosen an exhibit based on its artistic merit, the “gender scholars” were not only ignorant about Chicago’s (lack of) talent, but also put politics above such considerations. The dichotomy between those with “classical taste” and those who support Chicago’s work resonates with a dichotomy between high art and folk art. Dubbing Chicago “the visual arts’ version of Helen Reddy” not only implies that her work is inferior to high art, but also calls into question its installment in a museum (Neal A18). The Helen Reddy analogy reinforces the containment of Chicago’s work in the past, suggesting a highly politicized feminist activism more suited to rousing the troops in the 1970s than encouraging serious reflection on timeless art. Those who support the Chicago retrospective are thus seen as elites abusing their power and going against the interests and wishes of the people. Ironically, the critics of the exhibit tend to argue both sides of the high culture/low culture divide, positioning themselves as simultaneously elitists and populists. They insist that Chicago’s art is too folksy and thus not “real” art, while still maintaining that the university power elite should not control “the people’s” museum (even though that elite presumably seeks to promote folksy art). What’s more, although several critics suggested that other women artists would have been more appropriate choices for the IU Art Museum to support, none offered specific discussions of these other women’s work or of their relationship to Chicago’s work.

[36]   The dichotomy between high art and folk art, between the Fine Arts faculty and the gender scholars, lines up with another split: that between art and politics. Chicago’s supporters, like Chicago’s art itself, are seen as guilty of turning the museum into “an entertainment center, another political arena for the nation’s cultural wars” (Finkelstein, October 10, 1999). Whereas great art is timeless and universal, “Chicago likes to define issues as important according to her own timeline and priorities and to give ‘right’ answers from her perspective” (Finkelstein, October 10, 1999). This anxiety about the blurring of boundaries between transcendent (objective) standards of beauty and a (subjective) focus on particular power relationships often accompanies feminist work. Patrice McDermott, for instance, argues that:

Dominant American culture operates on a liberal Enlightenment model of knowledge that posits scholars can and should detach the substance of their work from issues of politics and power . . . It is this epistemological disjuncture that makes it easy for popular press representations to ‘mark’ feminist scholarship as a suspect entity whose content and intentions are distorted by its politics. (672-673)

The Chicago exhibit at IU becomes even more suspect because it deals with female sexuality. For instance, a placard guarding the entrance to the exhibit announces: “Please be aware that this exhibit contains explicit sexual imagery.” The placard serves to demarcate space, setting the exhibit off from the rest of the museum as well as from the outside world and marking it as “special.” It creates a boundary zone fringed with anxiety about the dangers lurking beyond the gallery’s doorway and about the potential pleasure viewers might derive from those dangers. Although mildly worded, it operates both as a warning and, more subtly, as a temptation. As B. Ruby Rich argues in her discussion of the anti-porn film Not a Love Story, “the question is whether this outcry [against pornography] becomes itself a handmaiden to titillation . . . The ad campaign [for the movie] reinforces the suspicion, with its prominent surgeon-general-style warning about the ‘graphic subject matter’ that viewers might want to avoid . . . if avoidance is indeed the desired goal” (407).

[37]   The connection between pornography and Chicago’s work surfaces elsewhere in public discourse, most obviously in 1990 when Chicago, searching for a permanent home for The Dinner Party, offered to give the work to the University of the District of Columbia. According to the report in The Los Angeles Timeson the congressional debates over this gift, one representative declared that The Dinner Party “is not art, it’s pornography,” while another “denounced the piece as ‘weird sexual art'” (Mahler, October 12, 1990). The conflation of Chicago’s work with pornography gives a slightly different twist to the dichotomy between high art and folk art manifest in the IU debates. As Carol J. Clover notes, “the debate on pornography is always linked, however covertly, with the debate on high and low culture” (3). Furthermore, the celebration of female sexuality in the Chicago retrospective runs counter to traditional expectations that white, middle-class women will act as guardians of “decent” sexual mores. This role is related to what historians often term the “Cult of True Womanhood,” which stressed the cultivation of “the virtues of domesticity, piety, purity, and submissiveness” (Kerber and De Hart 142). By breaking this taboo, Chicago becomes vulnerable to censure, much like those feminists who take an anti-censorship stance about pornography.

[38]   The distinctions between art and pornography, art and politics, and high and low culture take on added significance in the news media and in public policy decisions when public funds are involved. The congressional debates mentioned above focused heavily on the National Endowment for the Arts, which had supported The Dinner Party in the late 70s, as well as on the discontinuation of federal funds to the University of the District of Columbia should they accept Chicago’s gift. In Bloomington, a central point of contention involves Chicago’s salary as a faculty member and the cost of the public relations campaign funded by IU. Lydia Finkelstein in the Bloomington Herald-Times notes that “despite the university administration’s budget cutbacks . . . an expensive four-color promotional brochure; visiting paid lecturers; and gallery talks promoting the work of Chicago, whose merit as an artist has been questioned seriously for years by even the most biased art press, have all taken place” (October 10, 1999). Peg Brand fires back, contending that “the costs of the Chicago exhibition . . . were paid for by private donations . . . No students or faculty members were deprived of funding because of her residency on campus” (October 15, 1999). Kathleen Foster, the curator of the exhibit at IU, states that the exhibit was funded by both public and private sources, including a law firm in Indianapolis, several alumni supporters, the university President’s office, and the Art Museum’s budget, “mostly in the shape of our time and effort.” She notes that since the museum has no money earmarked specifically for exhibitions, all of the shows, including the Chicago retrospective, require extensive fundraising, which was facilitated by Chicago’s national renown. Most interesting, for my purposes, is the way that debates over the monetary value of Chicago’s work displace debates over its artistic value, shifting public discourse even further away from the retrospective’s systemic critique and creating an additional layer of panic over the squandering of dollars.

[39]   To support their claims that public money should not be used to support showings of Chicago’s work, many of her critics point to her lack of basic artistic technique. Finkelstein remarks that “how the idea is presented is key to its acceptance; the art process, the medium, the skill of the artist, is paramount. And this is, unfortunately, Chicago’s problem in all of her projects . . . The subtleties and basic craft of art making has eluded her” (September 19, 1999). Such complaints have echoes in media discourses surrounding Chicago’s other efforts as well. For example, in a review of The Holocaust Project in 1995, a Boston Globereviewer decreed, “we can only hope that Judy Chicago’s unfortunate tendency to tackle and trivialize Great Issues has peaked with the Holocaust, and that she will, in future, occupy herself with some more productive activity—learning to draw, say” (Temin, September 22, 1995). I do not mean to suggest that criticisms of Chicago’s artistic technique are invalid, but I am interested in how they privilege form over content. This not only divorces form from content, but also moves public discourse away from the feminist critique offered by the Chicago exhibit and adds to anxieties that public money and the IU Art Museum are supporting bad art.

[40]   Finally, Chicago herself emerges as a panic figure in these discourses, which construct her as a cult leader. The clearest instance of this process occurs in the 1985 Washington Postreview of The Birth Project:

Like a charismatic salesman . . . , Chicago has attracted, goaded, and inspired hundreds of adherents. They claim she’s changed their lives. Somehow she’s persuaded hundreds of women, many of them housewives, to view themselves as artists. Somehow she has forced large segments of the public to consider parts of women’s bodies, and parts of women’s lives, that the public would rather not confront. Chicago’s fans adore her. Her imagery—polemical, insistent, disturbing, and unsubtle—is less successful than her cult. (Richard, May 28, 1985)

This statement evinces a discomfort with the public display of female sexuality similar to those that compared Chicago’s work to pornography (in fact, the writer goes on to claim that “she turns viewers into voyeurs”). The article adds another twist to that trope, however, when it contends that Chicago has drawn other women into her artistic vision and that those women derive pleasure from it.

[41]   It is precisely that pleasure which allows Chicago not only to delude her followers into thinking that they are artists, but also to exploit them. The article continues, “a final, subtler embarrassment is provided by the many gushing needleworkers’ testimonials that accompany this show. Not only did they work for free, making objects now on sale for as much as $56, 275, they also wrote accounts of their experience that read like advertisements. But do they feel misused? Not a bit” (Richard, May 28, 1985). After quoting several of the women who sewed for Chicago, the article concludes “that’s the tone of voice one hears when Scientologists talk about their E-meters” (Richard, May 28, 1985). Chicago’s public acknowledgment of the collaborative nature of much of her work thus seems to create anxieties among guardians of “high art,” since it challenges the vision of artists as autonomous, solitary geniuses. Although it may be important to question Chicago’s use of free labor, this discourse also denies the women workers’ agency, constituting them as dupes tricked by Chicago’s forceful personality. Moreover, it discounts the feminist implications of collaborative work and, by locating the problem solely within Chicago’s personality, ignores larger structural and institutional mechanisms which enable such “exploitation.” The cult metaphor surfaces more subtly in the media framing of the retrospective at IU, mostly through conspiratorial references to Chicago’s “immediate circle of admirers and supporters,” who are portrayed as blind to her faults, and to Chicago herself as a “polemicist-ideologue” (Finkelstein, September 19, 1999). The implication is that Chicago’s status as a “feminist celebre” has overshadowed her lack of artistic merit and that her supporters have confused fame with genuine artistry (Neal October 14, 1999).

[42]   In these public discourses, feminism becomes a subtext, displaced by debates over the aesthetic value of Chicago’s work, the boundaries between politics and art, and the propriety of institutional support for questionable art. These displacements work, on the one hand, to diffuse anxieties induced by the retrospective’s feminist critique. At the same time, they create other anxieties, for instance, about the public display of female sexuality and about the corruption of the art museum and the university by (feminist) politics. The news media thus shift the discourse away from how the Chicago exhibit speaks to contemporary problems within feminism and other movements for social change. As I have argued, the retrospective not only uses social panic as a way into systemic critiques of femininity, masculinity, the body, and technology, but also produces its own “panic” about an all-encompassing patriarchy and essentialist gender identities. These constructions present both promises and pitfalls, opening up a space for discussions about the relationship between postmodernism and feminism and about the possibilities that each might offer the other.

I thank Joan Hawkins, John Lucaites, the graduate students in the Fall 1999 Theory for Troubled Timesseminar, and the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and encouragement.


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