The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago
One of the big themes of the feminist art movement of the 1970’s was the idea of collaboration. In 1979 Judy Chicago did a collaborative installation called “The Dinner Party”. She worked with a bunch of artist each one making a place setting for a dinner table. Then the settings were placed on a triangular table and viewed as one piece. At the time it was seen as a collaborative installation, one work with many artists. Over time Chicago claimed the piece as her own. I remember being disappointed when I read that she felt, after doing a number of collaborative pieces, that collaboration really didn’t work. She said that there needs to be a leader and that person is the real artist of the piece. She compared the process to how Michelangelo and artists of his time worked. Michelangelo would have one or more artists work on certain parts of his paintings or sculptures, the undercoat, or background or carving the basic form, (the grunt work) and then he would complete the piece.
Collaboration was a political idea and seemed to offer an alternative to the patriarchal systems found throughout society. I loved the idea and desprately wanted to believe in it and here was one of my feminist hero saying it didn’t work. I was disappointed and angry. I thought she just “sold out”. But this attitude most likely had more to do with my own personal authority issues, and although I never did quite sort it out, over time my investment in the idea faded.
But I have experienced collaborative efforts that have worked. Mostly in business’ run by women where, although there was an owner or boss, the hierarchy was vague, the work was evenly divided. Everyone did what they did best and shared the lesser desired jobs, such as cleaning the bathroom
I encountered that kind of collaborative effort today at a meeting with the volunteers for Galley 99. Diane is definitely the ringleader, but you never get the feeling she wants to be in control. She easily hands off work to those who will do it best. And she’s gathered a group of people with diversified skills who, it appears, work well together.
Now we’ve only had a few of meetings, and working with 25 artists can be a challenge, but once again, my belief in collaboration is renewed.