Protect Shvarts’ right to make her own myth

A confession: I have enjoyed Aliza Shvarts’ project.

However, my enjoyment is dependent on whether or not she actually carried out the nine-month process that she has described. At the time of this writing, this remains uncertain. There are good reasons to believe that she did not: the obvious dangers to health that the Art Department would have had to approve, the University’s claim that her public statements are simply a continuation of her performance and Shvarts’ own discussion in her column last Friday about the spheres in which her artwork exists.

The public responses to this project have largely assumed that Shvarts did indeed, in her words, “induce miscarriages.” On those grounds, the project has been mostly condemned.

I hope, and believe, that Shvarts didn’t simply intend to “generate conversation.” Her column indicated that she is not simply a provocateur. She doesn’t abrogate her intellectual responsibility to take a stance on the taboo that she has broached. At the least we should consider seriously her own explanation.

Shvarts is trying to make a point about sexual semiotics. It is a difficult point to make. And it is not a stance on abortion or reproductive rights that some people wish she had taken. I see no reason to demand solidarity between those making art with those trying to influence public policy.

I ask, does Shvarts’ project trivialize the real pain experienced by women undergoing miscarriages or abortions? She has certainly eviscerated her own private sphere, and I doubt that disgust is separable from an appreciation of that. Much of the hostility toward her project seems based on a perception that she is ignoring spiritual and emotional suffering. But I take her at her word that she wants to represent something else. We shouldn’t expect all art to speak to a single experience.

Nevertheless, it matters tremendously whether or not Shvarts did what she claims to have done. This is the heart of the question of whether proper bounds exist for art and for freedom of expression. Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’09 was right to rebuke Dean Salovey’s recent public statements: whatever the publicity damage, this university is precisely the place to enact the fullest extent of free expression. Yet the Woodward Report is not quite right in asserting that students need “unfettered freedom” to be able to “challenge the unchallengeable.” With good reason, there are legal fetters to our expressive freedom: we are not free to challenge by means of violence. Similarly, there should be moral fetters restricting our art.

Artistic sensibility can be divorced from a sense of moral significance. When we say that an event has been “aestheticized,” we often mean to critique its depiction by ignoring the event’s moral cosequences. Artists should not make us aware of the potential beauty of violence by enacting that violence. They should not be given license to commit murder in order to show us that the barrel of a smoking gun can be intriguing, or that a hole in someone’s chest might excite us. People like Quentin Tarantino have made careers out of aestheticizing such violence.

But it is one thing to depict violence. It is another to commit it. There is something at stake when someone fertilizes eggs and then purges them from her body in an exercise of artistic freedom. Why commit violence to divorce form from function?

I don’t find menstrual fluid beautiful. I don’t find the idea of Shvarts’ monthly enactments beautiful. And I don’t find the ideological distinction between calling something a miscarriage or an abortion particularly intriguing. But if this process was indeed a myth, then Shvarts’ orchestration of the public response to her project is brilliant and beautiful. All of us would have responded to a series of events that did not in fact take place. This is the beauty of parody and reminds us that our self-serious, self-righteous public discourse is sometimes simply delusional.

I would consider the following statement a triumph of Shvarts’ project: We don’t know what exactly is smeared in the lining of her cube, but we will go and gawk and try to label it: menstrual blood/miscarried matter/aborted life. The admission of the gawking and the use of the slash-marks constitute her success.

But the self-seriousness of this artistic approach deserves criticism as well. The world is open to a textual perspective: Everything can be seen as a narrative and significance is less fixed than everyone presumes. But Shvarts’ heavy leaning on theoretical jargon (locus of ontology, act of readership, intervention into our normative understanding) betrays the cost of this perspective. Language must communicate, and clear communication necessitates that some things won’t be signified. That is, there’s a good reason that most people won’t follow Shvarts in claiming that “it is a myth that ovaries and a uterus are ‘meant’ to birth a child.” But Shvarts should still be free to create a myth that rejects that meaning.

Spencer Gray is a junior in Trumbull College.


  • Yale08

    Say it with me now: LYING IS NOT ART.

    With all this talk about academic freedom, we've forgotten that there's also such a thing as academic integrity.

  • A.C.

    Wait…I'm pretty sure most art is precisely "lying".

    Isn't an armless statue or a Picasso painting just a lie about the human body? Isn't narrative fiction just really good written lies? Or song lyrics? Shvarts's lie just made people really, really uncomfortable, and that (as Gray writes) is what made it so brilliant.

  • Anonymous

    No, art is not lying. Art is REPRESENTATIONAL. There is a distinction between the art piece and whatever the artist wants to say. Picasso never said those were actual disfigured bodies in his paintings nor Praxiteles insist that yup, that was Venus right before your very eyes.
    The great mistake of "conceptual art" has been to assume that the message is more important than the piece of art.
    It thus becomes nothing more than social commentary parasitically donning the mantle of "Art" so you pay attention to an otherwise insufferable bore.
    In the case of Ms Schvartz, the value of her piece depended on a lot of bombast surrounding not an unpleasant truth, but a foul lie. She wanted the University to perpetrate a lie for the sake of "Art" and "Discussion", and the University understandably refused. The University is, after all, dedicated to the pursuit of truth.

  • Professor

    Art can be whatever it wants to be.

    The question is: does all art deserve academic credit at one of the nation's most prestigious Universities?

    Supposedly, Yale holds itself to higher standards than the University of Phoenix.

    Granting a degree to this charlatan - who has not performed any true academic work or achieved any new knowledge with this senior project - would undermine centuries of established protocol at the University.

    If this is acceptable as credit-worthy academic work, then what about someone attempting 'controversial' art that is racist? sexist? anti-semitic? homophobic?

    If everything is considered acceptable - nothing can be considered of value. And the institution will fail.

    If the University allows Miss Shvarts to graduate, it will send a signal to all students that it doesn't care about academic study, work ethic and true scientific inquiry. This may be the most intellectually lazy effort ever to come out of Yale.

    What have we learned?
    1) Abortion is controversial
    2) Art is anything the artist wants
    3) People get upset at controversial art
    4) The internet allows people to share their opinions faster than other media
    5) College newspapers print stories as fact without doing real research

    Roe vs. Wade created #1.
    The dung-laden Virgin Mary exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum taught us 2-3. Huffington Post, Daily Kos and Little Green Footballs exemplify number 4. Number 5 is a given.

    There is nothing to be learned from this. BAD ART. BAD ACADEMIC WORK. The girl should FAIL. See you in the fall Aliza.

  • A.C.


    So, from your comment, I assume you support the project if she did, in fact, inseminate herself?

    Also, your differentiation between "lying" and "representing" is mostly semantics. And the fact that, in some art, the message supersedes the actual piece sounds like a good thing to me. Or are you saying that we should hold the piece of paint or plaster in higher regard than the thought-provoking discussion it might arouse?

  • Camille

    "I don’t find menstrual fluid beautiful."

    Too bad. It exists as a part of women's bodies. It's not there for your enjoyment, critique, acceptance or rejection. If you still think your opinion of her body & its functioning MATTERS, you've missed a crucial part of the piece.

  • Anonymous

    I will give you a piece of advice that one of my supervising surgeons in residency training (where lives, not words, are on the line) gave me: "When you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me".
    You assumption made an ass out of you for being flat out wrong, and me for creating the impression that I would support Ms. Schvartz's project, which is, as Professor(#4) succintly put it: BAD ART. BAD ACADEMIC WORK.
    No, the difference between lying and representing is not semantics, that's why you go to a University, to learn the meaning of words and how to use them, as you well said, "precisely". Alternately, you may elect to consult a dictionary. Otherwise, dialogue and discussion become meaningless, since ultimately, all words are related in some way semantically, and you can take anything to mean whatever.
    But since we're on the subject of what the relationship between lying and representing is, it more appropriate to link the word "lying" to "MISrepresenting" than to "representing". Unless, of course, you are the
    Queen of Hearts and we're in Alice's Wonderland, where lying, representing, and misrepresenting are all the same because you declare them to be SEMANTICS!
    As to "the fact that, in some art, the message supersedes the actual piece sounds like a good thing to me."…
    No, I am not saying we should hold any piece of paint or plaster in higher regard. But some well constructed pieces of paint or plaster supersede the message. It is not that we hold it higher regard, rather IT HOLDS US, many generations of humans, in thrall long after the original message is lost.
    Whatever the message that surrounded the creation of the paintings at the caves of Lascaux is long vanished, yet the art stands there, tens of thousands of years later, still filling us with awe.
    The "some art" you refer to where the message supersedes the actual piece is nothing but a stage prop to "arouse thought provoking discussion". It is propaganda (propagate the agenda). But once the message becomes outdated…Think of past examples such as "Reefer Madness", or Russian post WW2 movies.
    ART speaks for itself.