Yale officials prolong circuitous blame game

It is becoming increasingly difficult to determine who to believe in the controversy surrounding Aliza Shvarts’ art project. On the one hand, the projects’ status as “performance art” means that Shvarts might feel justified in constructing and disseminating a fictional narrative with respect to the activities implicated in the project. Indeed, in comparing the first article on the project (“For senior, abortion a medium for art, political discourse,” 4/17) with Shvarts’ column the next day (“Shvarts explains her repeated self-induced miscarriages,” 4/18), it seems that the suggestion of the first article — that Shvarts likely had abortions — was misleading. In her column, Shvarts claims that even she doesn’t know whether she was ever pregnant, leaving the reality of an actual abortion ambiguous at best.

But Shvarts’ column, if it is to be believed, does not make ambiguous the report that she, in fact, artificially inseminated herself and took abortifacient herbs. What is more, it is Shvarts’ artistic method, and not the presence or absence of a child upon which the abortifacient herbs could work, that provokes such controversy.

Now the Yale administration, in contrast to Shvarts’ column, has flat-out denied that Shvarts ever artificially inseminated herself or took abortifacient herbs, leading Chase Olivarius-McAllister to call for the firing of Yale College Dean Peter Salovey (“For hypocritical response, Salovey should resign office,” 4/21). Given the strange character of the circumstance, its embedding in an art form that has deliberately represented fiction as fact in the past and an instinctive incredulity at the visualization of the project itself, it would be easy to side with the administration and write off Shvarts as an insensitive liar.

But while Shvarts’ project is certainly insensitive, actions and statements by the administration in recent days suggest that she ought not — at least not yet — be condemned as a liar.

The News reported days ago that two faculty members have been disciplined for their connection to the project (“Yale threatens to ban Shvarts’ art project from show,” 4/21). But if it is true, as the University claims, that Shvarts’ project involved no activities that could have compromised her health, what did the faculty members do wrong? Should they have been making their decisions on the basis of the expected public response or the negative effect such a piece of “performance art” might have on the reputation of the University? That would subordinate academic freedom to institutional respectability, which, though a defensible position, is certainly not the one espoused by Yale.

Dean Salovey made a public statement yesterday that complicates the matter further. Quoting School of Art Dean Robert Storr, who said, “This is not an acceptable project in a community where the consequences go beyond the individual who initiates the project and may even endanger that individual,” Salovey responds, “I agree.” If Salovey is affirming that Shvarts’ project may have put her in danger, isn’t he then contradicting the University’s claim that the whole project is a fiction?

Given this collection of details, it is easy to construct a narrative that involves the administration lying, scorning a student and faculty members, and abandoning the principle of academic freedom, all as damage control to protect its reputation. Meanwhile, the administration has suggested an equally consistent narrative, in which Shvarts privately admitted to the administration that the project was a fiction but vowed to tell the press otherwise (“Shvarts, Yale clash over project,” 4/18).

With no other information at its disposal, the public is not able to adjudicate between the two consistent narratives. Now the administration has prevented Shvarts from publicly displaying her project, unless she signs a statement saying that the project is fictional. This presents a catch-22, for if Shvarts’ display did have evidence that demonstrated the truth of her claims, she could only present that evidence by first denying its veracity. Whether the project is fictional or not, she has little incentive to sign the statement, thus leaving the public to decide between competing narratives without a chance to see the project.

As for the administration, it will have effectively expressed disapproval for the project, but will have also allowed the doubt concerning its claims to linger. If Shvarts’ project was a hoax, no one will know, and the administration, though honest, will be tainted.

Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.


  • Dicky Brodhead

    Very accurate point here: Peter Salovey has inadvertently revealed the Yale administration's dishonesty by calling Shvarts a liar AND punishing her adviser for supposedly allowing the project to go forward. So which is it, Salovey? You can't have it both ways.

  • dicky brodhead's smarter brother

    How is that having it both ways #1? Salovey could be punishing the advisor for letting Shvarts perpetrate a fraud.

  • A.C.

    Ironic, isn't it? Through its statements and actions, the administration sort of makes a stronger case for the veracity of Shvarts' project than she does.

  • Dicky Brodhead

    I seriously doubt Salovey could punish the advisor for merely "letting Shvarts perpetuate a fraud." The advisor can only be held accountable for the substance of the senior project, not for any subsequent statements (or lies) that Shvarts makes to the media. Thus, by punishing the advisor, Salovey is implicitly deciding that Shvarts' project really did involve something very nefarious. Yet at the same time, Salovey and others in the administration are childishly claiming to the media that Shvarts is a complete liar. You can't have it both ways, Salovey.

    Now, don't get me wrong: I think Shvarts is highly disturbed and obnoxious, and she should have been kicked out of Yale for being such a complete idiot. And I also believe the Yale administration's biggest mistake has been not coming down harder on this student. Instead, they've completely mangled the situation by getting involved in a media war of words with this girl. Completely inappropriate and unbecoming of the Dean of Yale College.

  • jrirwin

    I must say that the "danger" that she might have caused herself could be the reaction from anti-abortionists. I feel crazy in saying this, however, if she did what she claims to have done, I could see her being targeted by a subset of radicals. Like I said, I feel crazy in saying this, however, I remember the high-profile bombings of abortion clinics and murders of doctors who performed abortions that used to be all over the news in the late 1990s. These groups could have done anything from call in a bomb threat to committing a violent crime in "protest" to her work.

  • Fellow DSer

    The man we have all known for so long, Peter Johnston, king of Yale's conservatives, the bowtie, and John Burke, agrees with Chase Olivarius-McAllister, the feminist icon?

    Is black now white? Is the world quite safe? What is there left to count on?

    I remember when you were close-minded and she was a socialite, and the bet was that you would follow your talents into fascism and she would follows hers, into fashion and being popular.

    You have both changed so much and right now, you are both right. This was a really great column Peter.

    In fact, reading the YDN this week made me glad, and proud, that you, Chase and I all read Herodotus together.

  • somewhere far away

    nice column- who to believe indeed. There wouldn't be that question if the faculty had turned down the project in the first place.

  • Anonymous

    Wasn't the project initially performance art and not a display? I thought Yale claimed the lying to the public was the 'art.' That seems to be what Shvartz created - a firestorm of confusing public statements, not a sculpture, painting, exhibit or anything tangible. The cube and blood are just just distractions from the real project - her public discourse.

    "The advisor can only be held accountable for the substance of the senior project, not for any subsequent statements (or lies) that Shvarts makes to the media."
    And the substance appears to be lying. Do we really want the University art department to be known for promoting dishonest, narcissistic grasps for public attention as high art?