In a recent conversation I had about feminism, I was reminded of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” which my Art History professor had discussed last year. In Chicago’s video tour, she explains her creative choices, the reasons behind some of which disappointed me greatly. Chicago describes from 4:07 to 4:35 that “as you look at the first six place settings on the table and the names grouped around them on the Heritage Floor, you can see the development and decline of goddess worshiping societies, which were the earliest civilization from the primordial goddess down the table to Kali. I tried to show how the originally positive image of feminine power gradually changed to a negative concept as men became dominant.”With this comment, Chicago marks Kali as the most negative of goddess representations. Here, Chicago demonstrates a clear ignorance of Kali’s nature, and moreover, a disrespect of the Hindu community. To say that Kali is “negative” is wholly inaccurate; yes, Kali seems to be negative from a singular, Western view. With protruding tongue, skull garland, and a skirt of severed arms, Kali’s image is horrific. Yet, those who understand Kali know that her violence is a force of creative destruction. She destroys the ego and the inertia that bars us from positive change. She is divine feminine energy, pure and protective. Chicago’s exhibit is a clear exploitation, evident by the fact that there are many peaceful goddesses in Hinduism to whom Chicago could have given a place setting. Yet, she chose Kali. It seems obvious to me that Chicago cared more about demonstrating her point than accurately representing lore. Moreover, by claiming that a violent goddess is “negative,” Chicago is implicitly claiming that non-violent goddesses are “positive,” and this is counterproductive to feminism.
The Brooklyn Museum’s descriptions of Kali in the context of the exhibit are accurate, however. The explanations of the place setting’s symbolism even suggest a thorough knowledge of Kali. So, I have to wonder if many of the uncredited volunteers are really responsible for the construction of this place setting. Ultimately, however, Chicago’s interpretation of Kali and goddess history is just one aspect in which “The Dinner Party” disappoints.