Are Women’s Bodies Consumable?

Reference Number: DR6801 – 115141319

Reference Number: DR6801 – 115141319

This essay was written for assessment in the Food and Creative Practice module of the Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture. It was submitted on 25th May, 2020.

Question: “Upon being presented with a relic of (Orlan’s body fat removed during liposuction) by Orlan herself, Madonna commented publicly, ‘It looks like caviar.’ Augsburg 1998: 313).
Are women’s bodies consumable? Argue your case using any two examples of creative practice covered in this course.”

To answer this question, the three examples I chose were Angela Carter’s The Kitchen Child, ORLAN’s portfolio of “Carnal Art”, and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. You can listed to Helen Simpson reading The Kitchen Child HERE. Learn about ORLAN’s provocative art HERE. Read a little about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party HERE.

The Kitchen Child is a short story, Carnal Art is performance art upon or using the body, The Dinner Party is a large scale installation.

If we consider the female body as mother: the placenta that feeds the embryo and the breasts that supply the baby with vital mothers’ milk, the short answer to this question is: yes, women’s bodies are, literally, consumable. But not all females are mothers, not all women are female, and not all female women are regarded as autonomous human beings. The female body has been a site of worship, servility and autonomy each demanding a return. How this consumption occurs, the context of it and where it sits on a spectrum of acceptability is the philosophical space where debate and beliefs reside. When ORLAN gifted to Madonna a reliquary of her liposuctioned thigh fat, it represented a debate between two artists of two sides of a similar coin: each controlling the subjective image presented to the wider world; the acceptance and consumption of that image. ORLAN’s exploration of Carnal Art, art that is made upon the body rather than by the body, (Jeffries, 2009), consistently sought to subvert what is regarded as acceptable standards of female beauty, a masculine standard accepted by a society or culture, inherently requiring the subject to submit and suffer to attain it. Most famous for her series of nine plastic surgeries entitled “The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan,” ORLAN set about challenging not the act of plastic surgery itself but its codes and what it ultimately creates, (Jeffries, 2009). Her body modifications sought to make her unbeautiful by conservative standards, but by doing so ORLAN questioned what is the nature of human identity: “This is my body, This is my software” ORLAN proclaims – my body, my image, many identities, (Jeffries, 2009). The reliquaries, of which Madonna was a recipient, subvert the subversion: ORLAN’s Carnal Art subverts the consumption of the female image by her intentional uglification, (Augsburg, 1998); visually unappealing and suppressing her desireability by others. But that her body is her art means her creations cannot exist without consumption of her body in the physical and metaphysical sense: a contemplative gaze, a robust debate on the motivations for her work, selling reliquaries of her body in the gallery shop: blood-soaked gauze, cells encased in resin, etc.

ORLAN’s Carnal Art offers up conflicting, challenging, subversive and uncomfortable arguments simultaneously for and against the female body as a site of consumption. It neither confirms nor denies. This essay looks at consumption of the female body through two expressions of feminist creative performance: “The Kitchen Child” a short story written by Angela Carter in 1985, and “The Dinner Party” a large scale art installation created by Judy Chicago in 1979. I will show how these works, although different in form and approach, speak to the same message: using the female body to control the second-wave feminist narrative on consumption.

Feminism seeks to emancipate women from domains seen as traditionally female: wife, mother; kitchen, bedroom; beauty and acquiescence – a wife in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom; gender, sex and their associated parallels inseparable. The works of Chicago and Carter, born out of second-wave feminism, approach the argument differently. Chicago’s dinner party places the achievements of notable women throughout Western history firmly in a domestic setting: the dinner table, but physically they are absent. This has leveraged criticisms of anachronism, (Atack, 2019), as well as lacking representation of women of different races, cultures and religions, (Allen, 2018, Snider, 2018): the white woman replacing the white man, with the one, almost sore-thumb-like, exception of Sojourner Truth whose place setting is treated differently, opening up further criticism that Chicago cannot imagine “black women having vaginas,” (Walker, 1979 cited by Snider, 2018). Chicago defends her position stating The Dinner Party is a metaphor for women to be free – that female emancipation and the female experience foregrounds wider human experiences of race, religion and background that demands freedom, (Chicago, 2013). Chicago ends up not so much as freeing her 1038 women from their gender-defined roles as placing them firmly in it, and then calling it empowerment, (Kuby, 1981).

Carter grappled the issue of gender and sex head on openly asking, and working into her writing, the supposition: “Is gender an essential or performative state?” (Lambrix, 2012). Do women have an essentialist need to be a mother, cook, wife, sexual adventurer or do we perform those acts as part of the gender roles assigned to us by the wider society, willingly or not? Our protagonist in The Kitchen Child finds herself in the most female of all spaces: the kitchen. As a cook, she performs her daily tasks of making the sandwiches for the annual grouse shoot and creates her annual culinary opus of Lobster Souffle. The sexual act, (is it rape?), is just that – unromantic, not intimate, but an almost animalistic performance of copulation. The careful execution of the Souffle is also performance, the love and intimacy missing from the carnal act is asserted in the preparation of the souffle, and the child born of it. The dish is never eaten, of course, given to the chickens instead, as though to eat it would cannibalise the rape.

This sideways difference of approach is further amplified in considering Chicago and Carter’s perspective of the point and power of the art they created, and, even more fundamentally, the basis of the feminist movement. In discussing a banner lining the entrance to The Dinner Party that states “like to like in all things”, Chicago said her intention was for the art to “recognise the sameness that exists between us and transcending the differences that separate us,” (Chicago, 2013). Whilst powerful and laden with egalitarian sentiment, it is almost forgiving in tone – absolving patriarchy and masculinity for their part in reducing and suppressing the power and influence of the women Chicago celebrates. As I shall show later, Chicago’s overuse of vaginal iconography in The Dinner Party opens her up to criticism of patriarchal complicity, the “phallic order that both produces and reproduces oppressive images of women,” (Augsburg, 1998). During the two years Carter lived in Tokyo, (1969-71), she became “radicalised as a feminist,” (Acocella, 2017) and realised that “feminism is a male construct,” (Of Women and Wolves, 2018). Carter saw no justifiable obstacle between women and men, “She wanted women to seize what they needed – power, freedom, sex – and saw no fundamental difference between the sexes that could prevent that,” (Acocella, 2017). This was no gentle absolution by Carter, but her stepping into an absolute right to live as a free woman, in complete control, with no capitulation to sex or gender. Our protagonist in The Kitchen Child entertains no sorrowful lament for her lot in life, instead the focus is on the kitchen community, her skills with food, her care as a mother, proficiency as a teacher and, eventually, a Carter trademark fairy tale ending, marrying the duc: “Her abilities are depicted as a means of self-empowerment,” (Gruss, 2009) There is a glaring difference between The Kitchen Child and The Dinner Party: the former is a fictional world where the story is alive with people and colourful characters, the noise and clamour of the kitchen, the grouse shoots and the ludicrous habits of wealthy employers. The latter is about real people, who existed, created and achieved very real things, but, despite the grand scale of The Dinner Party, (it took five years and 400 souls to create it, and measures 14.63m on each side, not including the panels and banners), it is clinical, staid – despite its lavishness, and empty, causing critics to ask if there is even a place at the table for women? Where are our changemakers? (Snider, 2018).

The Dinner Party isn’t the only work of art to utilise plates to celebrate the achievements of women. The “Famous Women Dinner Service” commissioned by Kenneth Clarke in 1932 features 50 notable women of history created by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. The set was lost for decades, finally rediscovered complete and intact in an attic in 2015 and acquired by the Charleston Museum in 2018. “Grant and Bell created a bold feminist statement, featuring 12 dancers and actresses, 12 writers, 12 beauties, and 12 queens, each surrounded by bold patterned borders … All of the women depicted did something interesting and powerful, and often were quite scandalous,” (Cascone, 2018). Unlike Chicago’s plates, this service is widely believed to have been used, and Chicago unaware of the collection when she conceived The Dinner Party. However, the Famous Women Dinner Service is more practical, arguably more engaging, and also, for a piece created in pre-war Britain, far more outward-looking than Chicago’s including as it does “an African, a Native American, a Japanese poet; it was a diverse group of remarkable women,” (Cascone, 2018). There is also a distinct lack of the “vaginal iconography” (Rose, 1974 cited by Augsburg, 1998), that Chicago indulges in: from the vulvic reliefs and patterns on the plates, the chalices, the table and Heritage Floor’s equilateral triangle formation and the repetitive use of the number 13, symbol of the divine feminine. One can imagine eating from the Famous Women Dinner Service and contemplating the women revealed underneath and their achievements sparking conversation and debate around the dinner table. Such communion would be impossible with Chicago’s plates; even if food could be placed upon them a diner’s sole focus is forced upon the vagina.

This divergence of feminist art and the feminist ideal between Chicago and Carter is further illustrated by their perception of why art exists. ORLAN said “The body is political” (ORLAN, 2014), and that she strives “to break barriers between sexes and genders, generations and artistic practices,” (Jeffries, 2009). ORLAN does not shy from asserting her work as political, that it should, at the very least, create debate – even if that is to question what she creates is even art, (Rose, 1993 cited by Faber 2002), a criticism also levelled at Chicago’s Dinner Party, (Kramer, 1980). But where Carter boldly states “All art is political. You can’t walk down the street without making a political statement,” and “the point is to change the world, not have fantasies about it,” (Of Wolves and Women, 2018) Chicago is less willing to rock the boat stating, “I don’t believe art can change the world. I think it can educate, inspire and empower people to act” (Chicago, 2019).

Carter and Chicago use food, feminism and consumption in different ways to champion female empowerment. Instead of using the site of the kitchen as a place of drudgery or indentured servitude Carter reimagines it as an unconventional community, where being a single mum isn’t frowned upon but celebrated and positively embraces the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. “Carter manages to create a whole world entangled in kitchen culture, from religion, to society, education and expertise. Believing that we use food as a way of establishing relationships and social positions, Carter chooses to demythologize what some believe to be the real real by questioning [foods] supposed transcendence,” (Josré Pires, 2012). Carter focuses on the intelligence and intellectualism of women as the site of their power. Meanwhile, Chicago’s dinner table is devoid of life and food, the plates full up with depictions of intimate female genitalia. The Dinner Party encourages spectators to consume the female body: to stand long and gaze upon 39 artistically designed vulvas – or ‘nascent butterflies’ as Chicago refers to them, (Kuby, 1981), maybe to imagine eating from them, consuming the female body itself. The Dinner Party unequivocally links female form to consumption rather than their achievements, “a way of reclaiming the fact that women were degraded for their bodies, that being called a cunt was a terrible slur… Judy wanted to add power to what it meant to have a vagina,” (Cascone, 2017). Spectators would be forgiven for not noticing the 999 women on the Heritage Floor, partially hidden by each wing of the enormous table. Chicago refers to these women as being the “foundation” of the piece, (Chicago, 2018) critics feel this is a cop-out, (Allen, 2018). Panels acknowledge the 400 women who participated in creating The Dinner Party, however these panels have since been removed from the permanent exhibition at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art. The irony is not lost.

The idea of the female body as a site of consumption is a second and third wave feminist ideology: a vessel, place of shelter, provider of nourishment and nurture; that women give much and much is taken in the physical and metaphysical sense, sexual and spiritual. Where Chicago asks of The Dinner Party: where are the women?, who cooked and cleaned up at the Last Supper?, from which Chicago drew the quasi-religious inspiration for the gathering together of women in an act of female-centric communion, Carter celebrates the kitchen as a place of communion, cookery as empowerment and women as powerful and sensual beings, reminding us of the visceral nature of food: “Nothing destroys the palate like poverty; food as a sensuous experience is not the same thing as food which serves merely to alleviate hunger,” (JosrésPires, 2012). More parallels exist between ORLAN’s Carnal Art and Carter’s writing than Chicago’s work, despite the obvious carnal nature of the art both create. Differences show up in greater relief when examining each artists beliefs and message underscoring their art. Carter wishes to “challenge the reader to examine their fundamental beliefs surrounding gender,” (Lambrix, 2012); ORLAN wishes to “break barriers between sexes and genders,” (Jeffries, 2009), whereas Chicago wishes to emphasise the differences between men and women and then to acknowledge sameness and differences to create equality, symbolised by the equilateral triangles that form the foundation of the work. All invite consumption of the divine feminine through their art, but only one actively associates it to the very act of consumption itself. By repeatedly claiming that ORLAN has become a work of art, and therefore “considers herself to be both subject and object,” (Augsburg, 1998), the artist consents to the inevitability of consumption that follows her creations. Carter subverts consumption into a positive female experience in The Kitchen Child, “the cook’s sexuality is inseparable from her gastronomic function, her bulk and humour testifying to the quality of her cooking and lusty approach to life,” (Sceats, 2003). Augsburg, 1998, states: “The political struggle for women to become recognised as autonomous subjects has been complicated by the growing theoretical realisation that ‘subjectification entails subjection.” Chicago’s overly literate representation of the female body foists subjection, (consumption), upon the subjects, (females), that comprise her art. In push back to the naysayers who told Chicago she couldn’t be a woman and an artist and in creating “an imaginative picture of women’s long struggle for freedom and dignity,” (Atack, 2019), The Dinner Party consumes those who it seeks to celebrate, without consent, suppressing their autonomy and ultimately failing in the artworks’ metaphor of women’s desire to be free.

Word Count: 2350


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Sceats, S., “Food Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women’s Fiction”, p 26.

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