I was shocked and appalled when I opened the News yesterday. After Monday’s call for Peter Salovey to step down for his “hypocrisy,” I expected to find the entire newspaper comprised of guest columns and letters to the editor in defense of that noblest of mustachioed deans.
Although I had planned in this space to pen a column that would simultaneously chastise Rumpus for mocking my fedora, burn all bridges I had left to organizations at Yale and propel myself to international infamy and an interview on CNN, I am willing to leave it all behind to defend one of the greatest academic professionals I have ever known.
One of the features of Yale I adore most is the degree of autonomy that it offers its students. There are no RAs in our dorms, only freshman counselors who are more like older siblings than law enforcers. The fire code is not strictly enforced. The alcohol policy is quite liberal; I still remember the smell of beer overpowering the air as I walked through Old Campus on Friday nights during my freshman year.
Yale even finances student organizations through the UOFC and art projects through the Sudler fund. I have benefited from both during my time at Yale; to be sure, the projects would not have been completed without the official backing.
In fact, for one such film project, Dean Salovey himself took 30 minutes out of his schedule to play a part in the Van Hellsing saga produced by Archaeopteryx Beast Studios. As all of the lead characters wear large fake beards, it seemed necessary to include another person of such distinguished facial hair. On a lark, I asked Dean Salovey to join us, and he said he would be honored. Completely in character, and while wielding a plastic lightsaber, he helped fight off the forces of evil led by Lord Torrentius and Darth Raptor.
Maybe Dean Salovey was too busy being the Coolest Dean on Earth to read over every senior project proposal. Or maybe he believed that he could delegate the role to each department, where hopefully Yale professors would be able to make competent decisions.
Yale plays by the most ancient of all rules: no blood, no foul. There’s plenty of wiggle room for elbows and double dribbles, but when you show up with an art project made of blood, you have violated that rule. No matter what you think about abortion, a cube covered in human blood is generally prohibited (and always obscene).
I admit that I was concerned when the story broke that the University might allow Shvarts’ “art” to go on display. But I am extremely proud of Yale’s actual reaction. Leadership quickly confronted the artist and attempted to ascertain the truth. (Although, apparently the subjectivity of truth is also part of Shvarts’ project — along with moral bankruptcy.)
When Shvarts tried to wiggle her way past, the University held firm. Unless she put in writing that the project was creative fiction, nothing was going on display. Even the professors involved, who knew of the project and allowed it to proceed, have been disciplined.
Thank you Dean Salovey for laying down the law. In the process, the University taught us about the limits of freedom. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once put it, “My freedom to move my fist must be limited by the proximity of your chin.” Shvarts’ project certainly limited my ability to eat my lunch while reading the News last Thursday. When other people must be taken into consideration, unfettered freedom evaporates: For Shvarts to claim her project is art and yet to so utterly alienate her audience is for her to leave art entirely behind.
As a good Eli, Shvarts should comply with the administration’s demands rather than try to be a martyr for art. Salovey’s conditions are not unreasonable; Shvarts’ point could still be made if she admitted the exhibit was fake. If it is real and she has, in fact, been storing blood and tissue for nine months, then it should not be on display — for public health reasons, if nothing else.
Thank you, Dean Salovey, for preventing someone from putting blood in a box and then employing big words to pass it off as art. I am confident that as long as you are in charge, my pride in Yale and its values will remain strong.
Brian C. Thompson is a senior in Branford College. This is his final column for the News.