Feast on feminist art and food politics! The first course of this Popaganda episode savors artist Judy Chicago's influential work The Dinner Party with author Jane Gerhard, then gets a taste of modern feminist art with Cliteracy artist Sophia Wallace. Then we mix things up and head to Colombia for a story from a Passover meal among refugees, toss in a discussion about Gwenyth Paltrow's cookbook, and dish on food memories and the perfect dinner party with beloved vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz.
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BITCH MEDIA POPAGANDA PODCAST
THE DINNER PARTY EPISODE
Air Date: 5/16/13
SARAH MIRK: This is Sarah Mirk and this is Popaganda, Bitch Media's feminist response to pop culture podcast.
Thanks to our sponsor, She Bop, a women-owned sex toy boutique that specializes in body safe products and education. Check them out at sheboptheshop.com.
In the Brooklyn art museum, you enter a room that's dimly lit. In front of you is a giant triangular table that spreads out to reveal 39 place settings. You inch closer to the table and realize the plates look like something interesting: vaginas. This episode of Popaganda takes a look at this installation, arguably the most famous work of feminist art in America: Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, which a group of artists made in the 1970s and now lives permanently in Brooklyn. Then we'll talk about feminist art being made today with artist Sophia Wallace. Then, because all this talk about dinner makes us hungry, we'll talk about actual dinner and call up everyone's favorite vegan chef, Isa Chandra Moskowitz.
To start the show, Bitch's Andi Ziesler talks with Jane Gerhard, author of new book The Dinner Party, a retrospective look at Judy Chicago's work.
ANDI ZIESLER: The Dinner Party is an iconic piece, but it's also just a monumental piece. Can you walk us through what it's like to see The Dinner Party in person for the first time?
JANE GERHARD: You start The Dinner Party tour by going through six banners in the entry and they're densely woven, very vividly colored. Chicago wrote a poem about what history might be like without patriarchy, the call of women to come see something sacred. You enter the exhibit itself and it's staged religiously, you walk through to a large triangle made up of tables. The illumination comes up from the floor, it's a darkish room. You walk toward the tables and what you see are 39 porcelain plates, each of which is in honor of an astounding women, some of whom are goddesses. Each plate is carved, some of them have a shimmery surface. As you go through the dinner party, each plate gets more complex. Each plate sits on an elaborate runner, which covers the whole table around the plate and each of those needlepoint runners that has been done in the stitch of that woman's historical era. For example, the first plate, the primordial plate, has shells and hide stitched in. The whole table rests on a floor made of 28,000 tiles that contain the names of 999 other women, who either support or flow from the women who sit at the table. So for example, Sojourner Truth, who sits at the table, women involved in the Harlem Renaissance stream under her. You get an experience that's multi-layered, everywhere you look, there's something else to look at, each of these details says something about women's lives, women's history, or women's absence from history.
ANDI: A lot of the book is about cultural feminism, that is feminist thought and theory that is transmitted through art and books and theater. The theme of the book is about how cultural feminism came under attack from critics in the late 1970s and 1980s. Can you talk a bit about why this is?
JANE: Chicago starts to invent the idea of the dinner party in 1972, 1973 and starts to work on it in earnest in 1974 and it takes her until 1979 to finish it. Feminism undergoes a lot of change in that five-year period. When she was working on the dinner party, she was very intent on inserting women into the history of western civilization. So she was thinking about women who had great accomplishments, who were queens, who were priestesses, who were great artists but had never been put into the historical record. There are a couple biases that builds in right from the get-go. One is that accomplished women tend to be thoroughly white, upper class women. The other is that she made the decision to represent each woman with essentially a vulva-style plate on the table. This is all about women's essential difference, no matter where you are in time and culture, you always have a vagina! This is what marks us as women, according to Chicago in the mid-1970s. That style of feminism that starts with a category woman in a pretty unproblematic way and is not attentive to multiculturalism or the global south is really not an acceptable ambassador for feminism in the 1980, right when it's coming out to make a tour. A lot of feminists really have a problem with it, so they don't embrace it in a way that Chicago thought they would.
ANDI: If you had to distill the legacy of The Dinner Party, to both feminism and art, what would it be?
JANE: I think it's really as a piece of history, it's a monument to '70s feminism, with its strength, and its brilliance, and its flaws. The fact that this piece has been canonized, along with Chicago's critique of the art establishment—it's very hard for women in 1970 and in 2010 to get their work shown, to get the financial support, to get the renumeration of male artists—some of that critique stays with it, so that newcomers seeing it now would also learn about how long and how chronic a struggle it has been for women to get the same resources in the arts that men enjoy. What about the dinner party might still offend in terms of what is fine art? A lot of needlework, porcelain, in some ways it doesn't qualify as fine art, It also continues to be provocative on that front, like: Is this art, or is it a great political project? It is one of the few pieces that make it into art historical surveys. Whether you love it or hate it, we all have to contend with it.
ANDI: Great point. Your book The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism is out in June from University of Georgia Press.
SARAH MIRK: Now we're going to move from talking about the Dinner Party to similar work that one artist is making today. This spring in New York, artist Sophia Wallace created an immersive art installation called Cliteracy. The installation is a wall of words, dozens of what Sophia calls “natural laws,” that are all statements about clitorises. Natural law #4: “The clitoris is not a BUTTON IT IS AN ICEBERG.” Natural law #34: “Our demands are SIMPLE real orgasms FOR ALL.” Bitch Magazine editor Kjerstin Johnson got the chance to talk with Sophia Wallace.
KJERSTIN JOHNSON: I was wondering if you could describe what Cliteracy is if you had no visuals to use.
SOPHIA WALLACE: Cliteracy, 100 Natural Laws, is a large-scale text-based installation. It's minimalist, on white wood, with gold text, 100 laws written in text, and a six-foot neon piece that says “Cliteracy.” The work is a new language for thinking about bodies, human rights, and sexuality. The work takes female genitals and treats them as a primary subject and talks about a lot of taboos that we take for granted, to point out their lack of logic and make fun of them, because they're funny. It's similar to the clitoris in that it's really expansive and complex and can't be taken in all at once, can't be seen all at once, but feels incredible and has so much that it can do. I was lead to this project not completely consensually, but from whatever creative voice was in my body decided this was what I was going to work on and just haunted. I was totally frustrated with the hubris of representations of sex, that you never, ever see a man reach down and touch a woman's clit while he's putting his penis inside of her. I just couldn't believe that pornography, in art, we just never see this ever and I was horrified by this and couldn't understand why no one was calling bullshit. Being a lesbian and having my sexual experience already on the outside, already otherized, I felt like I had nothing to lose. Because my work is dealing with visual culture and how power is represented in the visual realm, I felt I needed to deal with this. It was really just my shock and disbelief that in 2013, we still don't see a man reach down and touch a woman's clit. I just don't understand.
KJERSTIN: Your background is in photography, why did you decide to build this work around text?
SOPHIA WALLACE It was really important to me that I didn't use photographs. The female body is so exposed, we're in this over-saturated environment where you can't escape seeing sexual images of female bodies. I knew that I wasn't going to use any literal depiction of the female body because that wouldn't address the subject matter. Over-visualization gives a false sense of knowing, when really we're just learning about these things in the past 10 years. So there's a paradox that the work is confronting—on the one hand, this saturation with the sexualized female and on the other hand, an environment where we don't know the scale and complexity of the clit, that 60-80 percent of women are not having orgasms though they're having sex regularly, where women are having painful intercourse, where young women are getting pregnant and not having orgasms. It's tragedy, and everything gets blamed on them. I really needed to attack this problem in a way that was abstract and complex. Text was the perfect way to do that.
KJERSTIN: The theme of this podcast is The Dinner Party, so how do you see your work, which does deal with female genitalia, where are you in that tradition?
SOPHIA WALLACE; I'm so grateful for the work of Judy Chicago, Carolee Schnemann, Valie Export, artists who were who were dealing with female genitals and confronting the shame and double standard and attack on female genitals. Incredibly grateful for that. I think this is firmly rooted in the present and it's a new way of dealing with the subject matter. It's a fresh perspective. It's bold, and embodied and sexy, and encouraging clit swag and not even asking, demanding to be dealt with in a new way. I consciously don't use my own body or the bodies of other women in this work, that's a really important conceptual choice and I respect the other choice, but it's important for me to work this way.
SARAH MIRK: Now we're going to move away from talking about art that represents women coming together and talk about women actually coming together, for an important meal. Bitch reader and audio reporter Jessye Weinstein created this next segment about a seder among refugees living in Bogota. Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people—local refugees—in the world. 80% are women and children. Jesse calls this piece “As the Waters Part: A Passover Story from Colombia.”
[singing in Spanish]
JESSYE WEINSTEIN: Everyone 'neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid. And in deplouchers turn their swords, nations shall learn war no more. These are the words that sang our seder into life. Passover retells the story of the Exodus, the story of the Jewish people's struggle from slavery to liberation. During the Seder dinner, we are told that we are not merely telling a story of the past but are challenged to actually relive the memory. For many years my mouth has told the story, and yet it was not until this passover that it was actually relived with those sitting around the table with me.
The Seder table was the most beautiful I had ever seen it. Paper bags had been cut out and shaped into a tablecloth. The centerpiece was a cut out paper flower exploding with color and life. Life is something that the Afro-Colombian women have had to create out of many materials on hand, as they have all had to start from scratch. Violence and displacement mark their memories. The Exodus story begins here: with pain, and with displacement.
REFUGEE [translation from Spanish]: I am displaced from Buena Ventura. I have been living here in Bogota since November 29th, when I was violently raped, disgraced, and beaten by members of an illegal armed group. My daughters and I had to leave quickly, without clothing apart from what we were wearing. At this time, I feel slightly lost, because I have not been able to reorient myself. I have not been able to find myself in this place. Everything was taken from me - my life, my freedom. Now I am experiencing very severe problems. I know that I need counseling because I am unbalanced. I can't sleep. For us, it is very hard to survive here. My entire known world was my city, which I had never left. Here I am far from my family, my community. I don't know what to do. Only God knows the strength that has been required to stay on my feet, to try to live and forge a path forwards. I have always been a strong woman and I know many things. I am a woman who knows how to work. I have always been an independent woman, a fighter. I struggled greatly to found my own school. I worked nights, worked hard, doing all sorts of different things to be able to start up my own business. God and the people who have stood by my side have helped me to get ahead, and from this I hope to be able to reconstruct a life.
WEINSTEIN: The woman sharing her story sat rocking her baby on her lap. Her older daughter, eyes downcast, stood behind her. The chains of despair weighed heavily upon these women. Then Deda stood up. Deda had organized the Seder. A community organizer and artist in Bogota, she still carries her forced displacement from the rural Colombian coast and the murder of her family fresh in her memory. Asking the family to stand as well, she then turned to the rest of us. “We are going to send all of our good energy to this family,” she said. With palms outstretched, our collective prayers began to flow.
Hope. Strength. Love. And with these prayers, the waters began to part. In the old testament it is Miriam, Moses' sister, who leads the women in song as the long waters part for the walk to freedom, making women's voices the first to truly mark the moment of liberation. This night around the Seder table, it was likewise the voices of women that created the foundations for that long walk. We used our collective prayers to call for something different than the violence caused by economic and military policies emanating from both our countries and financed by my government at home in the United States. We were calling for peace, for love, for life.
The beat of the bombo brought our voices together once more to conclude the Seder. The bombo is a special drum from the Afro-descendent tradition that was sounded to signal to the community that someone was about to escape from slavery to freedom. Tonight, the rhythm it marked had much the same meaning. All the emotions of the night poured into song as our voices united in the chorus. Because life is love, life is song, may we live life.
SARAH MIRK: That piece was put together by the Witness for Peace Colombia Team in close collaboration with Daira Quiñones and other women organizers in Bogota, and edited by Alice Ollstein. The music in the piece was from Afro-Colombian music and dance group Son Sin Fonteras who will be touring the U.S. in October. For more information on tour dates or to set up a venue, email Colombia[at]witness for peace.org.
SARAH MIRK: If you've ever eaten a delicious vegan cupcake or an unbelievably tasty dairy-free cookie, you likely have chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz to thank. Her cooking series Post Punk Kitchen and her great bestselling cookbooks have made vegan cooking—and general political discussions around food—really mainstream over the past decade. I called up Moskowtiz at her home in Omaha.
MOSKOWITZ: My name's Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I just finished this cookbook called “Isa does it” which is easy vegan recipes for week nights.
SARAH MIRK: I wanted to talk to you about dinner, and what dinner means. I want to talk to you about how you think dinner has changed since you were a kid, what you remember about dinner growing up, how what we eat and what we say about what we eat has changed.
MOSKOWITZ: For myself personally, its just become an entirely different thing. As a kid I mostly ate at my friends houses and it wasn't really an important part of my life other than 'where am I gonna eat dinner tonight.' I think in general people in the 70s and 80s were very much about convenience. Food politics weren't exactly a thing at that point, it was just 'let's get dinner on the table by any means necessary', whether that be a microwave dinner or a bucket of fried chicken. That's a sweeping generalization but I think that was the mindset.
SARAH MIRK: What do you remember about the food you ate, specifically? Do you remember what food you would eat at friends' houses, would they have family dinners and you were sort of tagging along?
MOSKOWITZ: Well I was super lucky, 'cuz I grew up in Brooklyn and I had a vast array of foods to choose from. My friends' mothers, who were either immigrants or second generation, were a lot more into cooking than I think mainstream rural America was. So I'd go to my Italian friend's house and eat Italian food, go to my Puerto Rican friend's house and eat Puerto Rican food, that was the kind of food I was eating. And that's influenced how I cook now, because I pull from cuisines from all over the world to come up with my own recipes. Luckily I was exposed to all of these as a child.
SARAH MIRK: Can you think of some foods you ate for dinner growing up in those friends houses that you've since adapted or used for your own work?
MOSKOWITZ: My friend's dad used to make this amazing Chana Masala, that's pretty much the Chana Masala I make today. The Italian flavors very much came from my friend Denise's house, I guess I was probably at her house more than anyone else. When I think about meatballs, I think about her mom's meatballs, coming up with my own vegan version with lentils I kind of aimed for that. Another friend's grandmother was always cooking for us and she was Jewish, so a lot of my Jewish palette comes from that. For me Jewish cuisine has this intriguing blandness, which sounds like an oxymoron, these very subtle flavors that are also interesting.
SARAH MIRK: How do you feel like people's approach to dinner now differs from those dinners you remember growing up?
MOSKOWITZ: I think people are just more into cooking than they were. People like doing it, people kinda want to be in the kitchen or at least want to want to be in the kitchen and are excited by all the new options, and are wanting to cook a little more fresh and healthy. On the other hand, people are looking for ways to just make it as convenient as possible.
SARAH MIRK: Do you have dinner parties yourself in Omaha?
MOSKOWITZ: I do.
SARAH MIRK: When you're preparing for a dinner party, what are you thinking about, are you worried about people's allergies or do you get bogged down in what drinks to make or is it really fun and loose?
MOSKOWITZ: It depends on the crowd but mostly it's fun, sometimes I'll do a theme, maybe I'll do Jamaican food, or maybe I'll be cooking for a holiday and do Passover, maybe I'm having a True Blood viewing party and it'll be like, Cheese sandwiches.
SARAH MIRK: What was the last food you made at a dinner party that went over really well, that everyone ate all of?
MOSKOWITZ: Well I do this writing group so that's kind of a dinner party, this last week I made deviled potatoes with Spinach pie dip, and almond pound cakes with strawberries and cream.
SARAH MIRK: If you could have your fantasy dinner party and you could invite anyone alive or dead, who would you invite and what would you serve?
MOSKOWITZ: Well I've thought about this a lot, and I decided I would have people that are alive. I went with Nigela Lawson, Sarah Silverman… I decided there's only 5 people allowed, I tried to make it as realistic as possible.
SARAH MIRK: And five is the perfect number for a dinner party?
SARAH MIRK: Why?
MOSKOWITZ: Because I only have six chairs.
SARAH MIRK: So you can't have more people than chairs.
MOSKOWITZ: Well you can if you're all gonna be sitting on the couch, but I felt like Nigela's not gonna sit on the couch I can't do that. Sarah Silverman totally would. So I've got Nigela, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Peter Dinklage and Michelle Obama. That's my dream dinner party.
SARAH MIRK: Of all those people, who would you be the most nervous to cook for?
MOSKOWITZ: None of them, that's why I picked them. Because I had other people in there, I had Simon Cowell and Hillary Clinton, they both got cut. I'd feel really nervous cooking for both of them. I feel like Nigela even though she's a chef she just loves food, and I feel like she'd like what I made. Everybody else I just think would be fine. I looked up if people had allergies and I didn't see any allergies, so that helps too.
SARAH MIRK: What would you cook for all these people at your fantasy dinner party?
MOSKOWITZ: Okay maybe I didn't get that far. I'd probably cook stuff that was familiar, but I wouldn't wanna do Seitan or anything like that. I'd wanna do stuff that was really naturally vegan, I don't know exactly what I'd cook but I'd probably stick to things like lentils and chickpeas and well-prepared veggies. Things that were interesting and familiar but in unexpected ways. If I made meatballs for them I'd do like lentil meatballs, maybe a super creamy pesto. I feel like people that aren't vegan are always really impressed that you can get creaminess in vegan food, so using cashew cream, or Alfredo, or like a Swedish meatballs thing with cashews I think that would be really impressive. Maybe that's something they've eaten a lot of but it'd be exciting to use the different ingredients.
SARAH MIRK: One thing I really like about your book “Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World” is you say, people think of vegan food and they think of it as this boring, other thing. The way to a person's heart is through a delicious cupcake, and it seems like that's what you're going for with this dinner party, we're gonna eat food you already know and love but it's gonna be healthy and a different take.
MOSKOWITZ: Honestly, vegan cupcakes, they're not more healthy. I try not to bullshit people about how healthy it is. A vegan cupcake doesn't have cholesterol, but it's still a cupcake. And I don't think you should be thinking healthy with cupcakes, some things are just decadent fun. But I guess for the dinner party I'd just be thinking 'oh this is really fresh', and this is what we can do with vegetables. That's really exciting to me. The health is just a side-effect of it. I definitely think it's important to eat healthy, I'm vegan for ethical reasons not health reasons I guess, so to me I just wanna make sure people know that vegan food is delicious.
SARAH MIRK: For Thanksgiving this year, I had a complicated table. There was a meat-free section, a dairy-free section, a sugar free section, a gluten free section, and a section that was pretty much just beans. … Bitch Art Director Kristin Rogers Brown and Creative Director Andi Ziesler talk about the trend of crafting restrictive diets and how it feels to become one of those people who has to constantly talk about what you do and don't eat.
ANDI ZEISLER: And now we've got Gwenyth Paltrow, the self-styled food and lifestyle expert, her new book is called “It's All Good” and she was inspired to write it after having a migraine and a panic attack at the same time. She thought she was dying and she was inspired to swear off most food. The recipes in her book include no dairy, no meat, no gluten, no soy, no sugar, no shellfish, no deep water fish, no bell peppers, no corn, no wheat, no eggplant, no potatoes, no caffeine or alcohol. As we've been joking, we have no idea why it's called “It's All Good” because clearly the whole point of this cookbook is that it is not all good at all. So both of us have food and ingredients that we don't consume. Kristin you recently gave up some foods in service to stopping your migraines.
KRISTIN ROGERS BROWN: I was horrified, quite honestly, to discover that I had so much in common with a book called “It's All Good”, regardless of the fact that it is written by Gwenyth Paltrow. Digging a little deeper into it I think it raised some issues, how we talk about food intolerances and choices in a really serious way.
ANDI: I stopped drinking soda last year for a variety of reasons but largely because I didn't like the way it made me feel. I can't drink red wine or too much coffee because they make me think that I'm going nuts and wanna jump out of my skin. So there's very real consequences and physical reactions to food. What I think we're interested in talking about is whether there's a line between judicious restriction on the one hand and full-on Paltrow-vian martyrdom on the other. I think there's a real gendered aspect to that too, because for a lot of women food choices are similar to other lifestyle choices like childbirth. There's this idea that someone else's choice is automatically a referendum on other women's choices, and so there's this idea that we're being judged.
KRISTIN: I think it starts really early. Now that I'm deciding whether or not I'm gonna eat these things I'm having sort of flashbacks to being in college when I decided to stop eating meat. And I remember saying to people half-joking, “it's not because I think cows are cute”, doing sort of a comedy routine about it so that people would still like me and not start into this attack mode. I'm from Chicago and to not eat meat and be from Chicago, physically attacking someone was the reaction that comes back. What I'm feeling when I do this again is a flashback panic, it's a very different culture when you say you're not gonna eat this thing that someone grew and worked on for you. And I wonder about that back and forth play between personally insulting someone else when it's something that you're doing to your body because it feels better for you.
ANDI: I think there is something to trying different eating plans and seeing what works and seeing how you feel. I think the real question I have is whether we would be more tolerant of these things if it weren't for people like Gwenyth Paltrow who are really trying to make a buck off of dictating to other people what their lifestyle should be. Is she making it harder for people who have legitimate food sensitivities and allergies to be out about it? Are they like “Oh, god, you're just like a Paltrow.”
KRISTIN: I joked, when I posted about this, about hiding Martha Stewart magazines under my bed like porn. I feel the same way about my various stages of vegetarian eating, whether I was vegan or vegetarian, that I sort of hid it, and mine was less about the star power sort of control freak diet and more about not wanting to be seen like a flaky hippie that was experimenting with something. Not that there's anything wrong with that!
ANDI: We always have to say that, what if there is something wrong with it, what if there is?
KRISTIN: I'm annoyed by both sides, by the person who's trying to make a buck off it, and by the person who's wearing it on their sleeve from the other side of things too. I would like to stop being so self-conscious about all of it and, like you said, just do it because it doesn't make me feel crazy.
SARAH MIRK: This show about dinner parties took us all over the place—from New York, to Omaha, to Colombia, to Gwenyth Paltrow's kitchen. We covered art, and clitorises, chickpeas, and Jewish cooking. If you learned something new, please support our work creating and sustaining feminist media—we're a donor-supported nonprofit, so make a donation at bitchmedia.org.
Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Worker. Our producer is Sarah Molner at Pagatim Studios in Portland, OR and our intern Hannah Forman helped put this show together. Our fabulous sponsor is she bop at sheboptheshop.com, and you can read feminist responses to pop culture every day at bitchmedia.org.