Picture a square with a triangle in it. The triangle is so large that its tips touch the square on every side (except one, where the tip comes close). That is the aerial view of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where one giant sculpture featuring dozens of vulvas—The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago—hogs the space. All the other artworks by all the other artists in the Sackler Center are pushed to the physical margins, out into cramped galleries between the triangle's edges and the square's border. The Dinner Party at the Sackler Center, there since the center opened in 2007, is the kind of spatially and ideologically overweening monument that, if it were shaped differently, would have to be called priapistic. Sackler Center's concentric-style design by Polshek Partnership Architects, with its vaginal open center inside the triangle, is meant to invert the typically male-centric power logic of the monument. Yet the longer this piece dominates this space, it's just as easy to see the inversion becoming a mirror. It's like the old saying: The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy. Here, the one woman just steals the real estate from the many.
This critique of the architecture of the Sackler Center is a fairly obvious one, and I'm sure I'm not the first to make it. Since The Dinner Party first appeared in San Francisco in 1979, a similar critique has been applied to it, too—that its elevation of women's importance in the world is mooted by its reduction of women to certain, vaginal forms, and where's the gender-volution in that? I'm not willing to go that far; The Dinner Party was a fearlessly proud homage to women's bodies and occupies a key role in the history of feminist art. But the only American center for feminist art in a major general-interest museum demands a more flexible floor plan.
Something else convinced me that this monument is becoming a monster: a conversation last month at the Sackler Center with 24 art writers from around the world. Benefactor and namesake Elizabeth Sackler compared The Dinner Party to the Mona Lisa—this is supposed to be a good thing?—and boasted that a third of all the visitors to the Brooklyn Museum say they've come strictly for The Dinner Party. Maybe those visitors are also noticing the artists in the shadows—Patricia Cronin's watercolor archive of the lost works of 19th-century sculptor Harriet Hosmer, shoved onto a small wall, or the handful of youngish artists in Reflections on the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video—but The Dinner Party is the face of feminist art at the Sackler. A 30-year-old vulva is the face of feminist art.
Kriston Capps, a writer based in Washington, D.C., asked Sackler and center curator Catherine J. Morris, our speakers, what it meant to center on a fixed monument in such an evolving field as feminist art. They dodged the question. When I followed up, Sackler immediately snapped: "Would you rather it not be here?" Critique—the lifeblood of feminist thought: bitching, pun intended—was not welcome. If I was not there to worship the monument, I could kindly shut the fuck up. Neither Sackler nor Morris responded substantively to the question. They did not describe any public or private programs or conversations they've had, or are thinking about having, about the issues involved in the display that Morris aptly described as "the center of the center."
Also: Leanne Haase Goebel, a writer from Colorado, asked Sackler and Morris to define feminism, since the writers in the room had come from such different backgrounds: Muslim, Judeo-Christian, atheist, Hindu, Texan. (This sea of productive dissimilarity was the lineup of the NEA's International Arts Journalism Institute in the Visual Arts.)
Sackler and Morris appeared unprepared for the question. One more time: Sackler and Morris appeared unprepared for the question. They stammered for a few seconds and left no clear impression of how they define feminism. They refused to take up the mantle they were already wearing. They also seemed to think this was not a problem.
Who is going to articulate the meaning of feminism when feminist leaders can't, won't, or don't? Twenty-four writers from around the world were listening.
Defining feminism is not rocket science, and it's not only feasible but imperative. The best definition I know—let's just learn it already—comes courtesy of Peggy Phelan, reiterated by Cornelia Butler in the catalog to the exhibition WACK!: Feminism is the awareness that gender is one of the fundamental ways the world is organized, and that this organization has generally favored men over women. If you believe these two things, you're a feminist.
Welcome. You have plenty of company, especially in today's art world, and now we can finally leave behind the endlessly distracting debate and begin to talk about issues that really need attention—like whether The Dinner Party is becoming a monster. The "feminist revival" (yes, that makes me shudder, too) tent is still up and running since the main events two years ago (the opening of the Sackler Center and the shows WACK! and Global Feminisms). In Los Angeles this summer, Honor Fraser gallery is showing Bitch Is the New Black; in New York at Cheim & Read, it's The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women. (Granted, these are summer shows, not on view when the most attention is paid.)
In Seattle this month we have the underwhelming group show Curious Silence at SOIL, and now at Greg Kucera Gallery comes Women Are Beautiful, a series of photographs of the ways that women construct themselves in public—and how these women look back at Seattle photographer Alice Wheeler. Wheeler titled her exhibition after '60s photographer Garry Winogrand's series of women on the streets, which was largely discredited, unlike Winogrand's photographs of less gendered subjects, as frivolous erotic gawking. Wheeler, whose bright, flashy work also has been underestimated, values Winogrand's Women Are Beautiful as a document of the emergence of visible female sexuality on American streets; her update is a celebration on what women today can get away with in public—but it also has some very dark corners. Violence is never entirely out of view in Wheeler's pictures, which are also like feminism and feminist art: There's much more going on there than first meets the eye.