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.