UP CLOSE | Art, post-Shvarts

This article has been corrected. You may view this article’s correction here.

In a long uninterrupted video, Aliza Shvarts ’08 sat naked in a shower stall holding a cup streaked with blood between her legs. She claimed to have documented a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself and took legal abortifacients to induce multiple miscarriages. Staff reporter Danika Fears investigates the senior project that shook Yale.

Her final exhibition consisted of video recordings of the alleged miscarriages and a 4-foot-wide cube made from PVC piping. It was covered and re-covered with hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting. Coatings of Vaseline and blood from the miscarriages were spread between the layers. The cube was to hang from the ceiling.

Aliza Shvarts ’08 prepares to show her video in her studio last year. Her final project was never exhibited.
YDN
Aliza Shvarts ’08 prepares to show her video in her studio last year. Her final project was never exhibited.

When news of Shvarts’ project broke into the mainstream media, it quickly became a nationwide sensation. The University issued a statement denying that Shvarts was ever impregnated, deeming her piece a “creative fiction.” Shvarts fought back; she insisted that her project was University-sanctioned and that her adviser, Pia Lindman, had approved it at various stages throughout the year.

Yale barred Shvarts from displaying the project unless she confessed in writing that it was a work of fiction. Shvarts refused, and the project was never exhibited.

Even a year later, it remains to be seen whether the tape was evidence of Shvarts’ self-induced miscarriages or a mere hoax. Still, the Shvarts controversy has forced administrators to reconsider the advising process for senior projects, raising critical questions about students’ artistic freedom. Yet for all the controversy the project stirred last spring, members of Yale’s art community say that they are largely unfazed — that the content of their work is largely unaffected. Still, students wondered whether the same could be said of Yale’s reputation.

Asked last week if Shvarts’ project was the biggest “zoo” of his tenure, University President Richard Levin responded simply: “We don’t rate them.”

THE OUTCRY

The purpose of the project, Shvarts told the News at the time, was to “inspire some discourse.”

The project spurred widespread media coverage after the popular news Web site The Drudge Report posted the story, rousing political discourse from pro-choice and pro-life groups, as well as launching a debate about the value of so-called performance art. Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee, called Shvarts a serial killer with “major mental problems.”

While a gaggle of camera crews and reporters descended on Yale’s campus, the University fell under scrutiny: People condemned Shvarts’ project for being both immoral and grotesque; others, dismayed that Yale had barred the Shvarts’ work from being displayed, criticized the University for curtailing artistic freedom.

Reporters and camera crews convened along Chapel Street and lined up in front of the Green Hall gallery, but were initially met with closed doors. Though they were eventually let in, Shvarts’ project was absent from the exhibition.

Then-Dean of Yale College Peter Salovey and Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr released statements that said there were “serious errors in judgment” by two unnamed individuals who were involved in the final project. Lindman, Shvarts’ adviser, was identified by sources as one of those individuals. (Lindman, a former visiting lecturer, is now an artist in residence at Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Germany, for the academic year.)

Across the Internet and the Yale campus, a discourse about the artistic and ethical underpinnings of the project ensued. Academics and artists alike debated the significance of her performance piece, questioning whether it was a mockery of art or a work of imagination that could be compared to the likes of Edouard Manet and Marcel Duchamp. Some academics blamed the unstructured manner in which art students are taught today. Pro-choice activists were shocked by Shvarts’ use of her reproductive rights, while outraged pro-lifers referenced the piece to champion their cause.

On April 27, 2008, the day of the art majors’ exhibition in Green Hall, there were neither recordings shown, nor plastic sheeting strewn about the exhibit. The only evidence of the Davenport College senior’s final project was the flurry of debate on campus and a firestorm of media attention on various blogs and news outlets. In the end, Shvarts submitted another piece for final review, though it was never displayed to the public.

Today, Googling “Aliza Shvarts Yale” returns nearly 10,000 hits. But the project’s Internet footprint is far from being the controversy’s only remnant.

FREEDOM, QUESTIONED

While in the art world there are unspoken guidelines that artists constantly defy and challenge, the rules are markedly different in a university setting. Administrators are obliged to judge what is acceptable on a given campus, differentiating between the appropriate and the inflammatory, art majors said.

In 2003, Paula Carmicino, an undergraduate at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, submitted a proposal for a project to contrast lust with quotidian behavior, in which she would record actors having sex in front of her class. Though the student’s adviser, Carlos de Jesus, approved the project, he also alerted the upper-level administrators of the provocative proposal. The administrators promptly shut it down and mandated that all student films and videos must meet the Motion Picture Association of America R-ratings guidelines.

Students at NYU criticized the university for censoring an artist and limiting the freedom of expression.

Given the nature of Shvarts’ piece, which purportedly involved self-induced miscarriages, art students at the time immediately threw their attention toward the University’s response, wondering if their artistic freedoms would also be restricted.

Just three days before the exhibition opened last year, Salovey demanded that Shvarts state that her project was a “work of fiction,” admit that she did not try to inseminate herself or produce miscarriages, and promise that no human blood would be displayed in her exhibit. When she did not comply, the University then told Shvarts she could not display her work.

In a recent interview, Storr said the University was responding to a project that, if it were authentic, would raise serious health and safety concerns. Shvarts did not consult a doctor before she allegedly induced miscarriages.

“We won’t work on something that would be dangerous to your health within this institution,” Storr said. “Schools cannot get involved in doing that kind of stuff.”

Yale would later claim Shvarts’ project was a hoax, nullifying the health and safety concerns of her project. The moral and ethical quandaries surrounding the abortion-art project, however, were still the topic of conversation.

Amit Bhalla ’09, an art major in the sculpture concentration, said he and his peers worried that administrators could have too large a role in students’ work.

“I remember that when it happened there were thoughts about the ability for administrative figures to take away the venue and devoid the conversation, but I don’t think I’ve felt that in any serious way this year,” he said.

REVISING ADVISING

When Shvarts submitted the proposal for her final project to her adviser and the former art director of undergraduate studies, Henk van Assen, last year, she provided nothing more than a theoretical concept for her senior piece, never revealing the scope of her final work: to “question the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body,” as Shvarts wrote in an opinion piece published in the News.

But this year, the current DUS, Clint Jukkala, requested that the 18 art majors be as specific as possible with their proposals: A student cannot simply propose a vague concept, but must state how he or she will actually execute an idea.

In an interview last week, University President Richard Levin said the stir generated by Shvarts’ project demonstrated that the advising process of senior art majors’ final pieces needed rethinking.

“One of the lessons of that episode was that we needed some work on the advising process, and Dean Storr pursued it,” he said.

Storr said he revamped the system, placing an emphasis on the clarity of a senior’s proposal from its inception. The process is now more conscious of the initial proposals students submit, forcing them to clarify what the ultimate pieces will encompass, Storr said. Had the School of Art known what Shvarts was orchestrating behind closed doors, Storr said he would have prohibited its creation. Abstract ideas are no longer acceptable, he added.

“[Shvarts] made a theoretical statement, but it was not clear what she was going to do,” he said. “There is a change in that we must know what someone is actually going to do, and it has to be more than just an intention or idea.”

Taking into account the ambiguity of Shvarts’ initial proposal, several art majors still question how she managed to slip through the cracks. The system last year, which is largely the same one in place now, was sound, they said. A rigid advising structure requires art majors to meet weekly with their advisers, who oversee the evolution of their final projects. Proposals are simply the starting point of a yearlong advising process, in which advisers and their advisees typically maintain close relationships.

Yagmur Ilgen ’09, an art major in the painting concentration, noted the influential role her adviser, senior critic in graphic design professor Pamel Hovland, has played in critiquing her project. Ilgen said she is still confused how Lindman — a “very involved” professor who met with students often, as Ilgen put it — allowed the project.

“I don’t see how you can get away with that,” she said. (Lindman did not respond to several requests for comment.)

With a new DUS presiding over the advising process, the new infrastructure, which encourages open communication, seeks to ensure that administrators are not left in the dark.

“I’m not in the job of censoring people,” Jukkala said. “But if there is a question to communicate it is important that everyone’s well-being is taken into consideration.”

THE IMPACT

Although the Internet bears the remnants of the uproar that exploded last April, it appears the dust may have settled, even within the School of Art. It was an unprecedented level of controversy at the School of Art, and it forced art majors to consider the real-world implications of art and its censorship. The current class of art majors, however, said they have moved beyond the hubbub Shvarts generated.

“I think we all kind of moved on,” Jarren Simmons ’09, an art major, said. “We do so many different and robust things that we’re all off in our own worlds.”

Yale on the whole seems to have moved on as well. Amongst students, the topic still arises from time to time, often in the form of humorous banter. During a student play last week in the Saybrook College Underbrook Theater, “Cold Turkey,” one person shouted abortion when asked for an improvisation prompt from the actors. A parody of Shvarts’ project ensued; the audience erupted in laughter.

Several students interviewed said the University’s reputation should not suffer simply because one individual’s work caused a stir.

“The University as a whole cannot suffer for one person’s work of art,” Chaka Jaliwa ’10 said.

Last year, the media firestorm coincided with Bulldog Days, when newly admitted Yalies visit campus to get a taste of Yale life. But several freshmen interviewed said that even at the time, Shvarts’ controversial project did not influence their perception of the University or the School of Art.

“I had heard about her project before coming to Yale, but her project didn’t change any opinions I might have had about Yale or the Yale School of Art,” Nina Beizer ’12 said. “An entire institution shouldn’t suffer because of an individual’s actions.”

One freshman, Ariana Berkowitz ’12, faulted the University for failing to explain the events to potential Yalies. She recalled attending Bulldog Days amid a crowd of camera crews and journalists, but found no administrators who were willing to discuss what had actually occurred.

“The lack of communication and transparency between the Art Department and other officials at Yale seemed rather shocking,” she said. “But, while I do not have respect for how the debacle was handled, I do have respect for the Art Department who encouraged her to work on ‘shock art.’ ”

Of the dozen prefrosh interviewed at this year’s Bulldog Days, almost all of them had never heard of Shvarts or her project. Will Shlesinger, a prefrosh from St. Louis, Mo., however, was fascinated by the Shvarts incident when it happened. Inspired, he wrote a commentary about performance art for his high school’s newspaper. He blamed Lindman for not alerting administrators of the project. Still, he relished the project’s artistic value.

ART, ONE YEAR LATER

Senior art major Rachel Rose ’09 sat covered in paint in the middle of her studio on the second floor of Green Hall on Saturday. Five-by-7 canvases surrounded her, revealing what she called the “pictorial boundaries within a painting.”

With less than a week left before the senior thesis exhibition, Rose was adding the finishing touches to the nine large-scale canvases that comprise her final project. The room was quiet as she moved around the cramped space that has housed her senior project over the past semester.

During this annual process for senior art majors last year, the Shvarts incident dominated the atmosphere — much to her classmates’ dismay. But now, art majors say they have moved on and are ready to exhibit their work in a stress-free environment.

Pushing the boundaries to create something wholly original is an essential part of the final project, students said, but that does not necessarily imply controversy. The art majors this year labeled themselves experimental, but not controversial.

Bhalla spent the last few months playing with a wide assortment of materials in his studio and experimenting with light bulbs and cement in order to create something that would be both industrial and suburban. His final sculpture is the culmination of this work. Creating something experimental, Bhalla said, is incomparable to the shock-art Shvarts aspired to create.

“I think that there is always an impulse to do something that’s new or shocking or will instigate something,” he said. “But what [Shvarts] did was a very particular kind of work and art that not necessary many people are interested in making on their own.”

When designing projects that will hang before the entire school this year, Elisabeth Walden ’09, who is in the painting concentration, said art majors were more conscious of the potential significance of their pieces.

“It’s wonderful to do independent work and for the first time you get recognition for it,” Walden said. “I think people make the projects for themselves, but you design it with putting the show up for the Yale community in mind, especially now.”

There may never be a definitive answer about the validity of Shvarts’ piece: Did she actually inseminate herself and take abortifacients? Or was it all part of the act? While Shvarts’ artwork and the University’s response remain shrouded in ambiguity, her legacy on campus and the sensation that ensued have become a permanent fixture in the history of campus scandals.

As Shvarts herself wrote in an opinion piece in the News: “An intentional ambiguity pervades both the act and the objects I produced in relation to it.”

Comments

  • Examine the forest not the trees

    This article walks the reader through the woods identifying every possible twig, shoot and tree along the way and never noticing the forest itself.

    The question Schvartz raises for the srt world and academia is:

    In a world in which every pharmacy advertises openly on shelves products which make human reproduction and its fluids subservient to recreation, can human reproduction and its fluids be a valid art medium?

    If not, why can they be a valid scientific medium (for experimentation)?

    If so, what questions do they raise about about the intentionality of Nature and the ethics related to modifying that intentionality?

    The Yale community's avoidance or denial of these questions seems to me to be intellectual negligence.

    Perhaps Puritanical prudery, administrative prissiness or fear of an abortion lobby alumni donor revolt, are all actually covers for fear of ideas.

    Tis a shame.

  • Hieronymus

    "Moved on?" Yes, in a way, although I still find the "artist" and her "art" beneath contempt, deducting from dignity, narcissistic in the worst way, and just plain "ugly" (in the conceptual sense).

    But, of course, I am a philistine when it comes to art…

  • Y11

    Sorry, why are we revisiting this again?

  • Anonymous

    can't we just forget about it? please?

  • Anonymous

    Shvarts belong in a psych ward. What more could there possibly be to discuss???

  • Anonymous

    Examine the forest and not the trees? Why don't you examine the pedantic nature of your own writing and thought process, #1? What the hell are you actually talking about, you tool?

  • DENIAL ANYONE

    We are REvisiting it because it has never been adequately VISITED in the first place except to report on hysteria and shock.

  • Anonymous

    Doesn't the N in YDN stand for new? This is basically just re-writing a bunch of articles from last year.

  • April 3 comment

    ". . . start with Aliza Shvarts: if what she wanted to do was to get us to ask certain questions, and if the controversy that her project created got in the way of that discussion, could she have done anything differently to get those questions asked in a more productive, public way? Who behaved badly/counterproductively during that scandal? The university administration? Faculty? Aliza Shvarts herself? Fox News? All of the above? "

    From comment on April 3 letter to editor on "the liberal arts…"

  • Tool or not a tool

    #6

    Tool or not, here is what I'm saying: if you can separate Schvartz's art from the hysteria ans shock which surrounds it, it raises valid questions about a culture which has turned the human body itself into an endless and dubiously ethical scientific experiment.

    PS
    Sorry my stuffy prose got under your skin.

  • ariberkowitzfail

    “The lack of communication and transparency between the Art Department and other officials at Yale seemed rather shocking,” she said. “But, while I do not have respect for how the debacle was handled, I do have respect for the Art Department who encouraged her to work on ‘shock art."
    -Ari Berkowitz, '12

    Yale is criticized for shutting down abortion art and preventing it from interfering with the Bulldog Days experience.

    The Art Department is lauded for promoting artistically-empty, attention-seeking, profoundly disturbed shock art.

    Thank you for citing such an incisive source.

    Otherwise, great article.

  • Arborist

    Good article. Thank you. Not all of us were in the little bubble last year, so it's cool to have a retrospective on something that was fairly significant arount here.

    #6 - I vote tool. The article reports the event and the aftermath. It's up to the reader to reach his/her own conclusions about the "art." As for me, the only art I see here is in her name. If what she did was real, then it's deviant and destructive behavior, which hardly qualifies as art. If it was a hoax, then its just vaseline, plastic, and red dye #3 posing as disgusting subject matter. Either way, it's sensationalistic, offensive tripe. At the end of the day, I suspect that's why it wasn't displayed, not because there is some administrative conspiracy at this university against cutting edge art that makes a profound statement. If you think I'm wrong, google "Shvarts" in about 20 years and see if you have any great art reviews. Don't think so. I'm betting #5 knows where she is.

  • Gender

    If this had been a male artist using his body's contribution to a potential embryo as art, I doubt there would have been such hysteria as we still detect a year later (a full year!) in # 2,3,6,12.
    I'll bet they are all males too.

    PS Few actually SAW the art peice so it is difficult to evaluate it as "art" as # 12 so confidently seems to do.

  • iconclasm

    Nothing is sacred. That is what the hysterical reaction is screaming. That is what Schvartz has taught us----- that is what we have come to.

  • Hieronymus

    #13 makes an interesting point.

    Had a male, uh, "painted" his, uh, "seed" in some way, well, we would have laughed!

    Why, then, is the Shvarts girl so… unfunny?

    Likely because we recognize the tangential requirement of male contribution, but also, innately, the fundamental necessity/duty/power? (Hmmm… at a loss for the right word, and I hesitate to use "sacred" because I do not think that the "specialness" of human life even need to resort to religion).

    A male's crusty tee-shirt is just funny.
    A female's alleged (and never recanted) intentional destruction of her own offspring is, well, kinda sick.

  • "Offspring"?

    "offspring"? How do you know that a moning after pill sloughs off a zygote? it may simply be sloughing off an unfertilized egg. Sounds sexist to me. Women just can't win. MEN are desperate to retain control(with their big fat mouths) of women's reproductive decisions, even when those decisions purport to be art.

    PS Loved your comment about Harold Bloom in today's article!

  • Anonymous

    To those posters who would prefer *not* to talk about the Aliza Shvarts scandal: why post a comment at all, particularly if all you offer is a conversation stopper (#3-5, for example)? Nobody is forcing you to read, think about, or discuss any of this. If you really have no good reason for posting, other than to register your desire not to talk about it, then we’re all better off without your posts, since you don’t offer anything of value to the conversation. (Unless, of course, you’re posting because you *do* in fact want to talk about it, which makes a lot more sense.)

    What interests me about this whole thing is that, as far as I can tell, nobody--except Aliza Shvarts--knows precisely what happened. And that makes the issues difficult to tease apart. #12 more or less sums the question up, though not without including his or her own value judgments: “If what she did was real, then it's deviant and destructive behavior, which hardly qualifies as art. If it was a hoax, then its [sic] just vaseline, plastic, and red dye #3 posing as disgusting subject matter. Either way, it's sensationalistic, offensive tripe.” But because *nobody knows* whether it was “real” or not, we can’t *really* tell what we’re arguing about. If people knew that it was a hoax, people might get “offended” (which is really just a complaint, let’s not forget) because of the subject matter itself, or because of way it was approached, or perhaps because the deception itself and the negative public attention it generated. Still, if we knew it was a hoax, we wouldn’t have seen nearly the same kind of vehement, moralizing outrage that we did see (e.g., people calling her a murderer, and so on). On the other hand, what if we *knew* it was real? Then the conversation would be about something very, very different. And maybe she really did do it, or at least tried to (wasn’t there some medical skepticism about her claims?). Adding to the confusion is that we can’t take any statements from anybody involved as reliable. As I recall, Shvarts changed her story somewhat, and the university acted in what it thought would be the safest way possible—first by calling it a hoax and claiming that she would deny it, and that this denial was itself an element of her project, and then eventually by not allowing it to be shown.

    #12’s view—that one way or another, it’s worthless crap—misses what’s at stake in this ambiguity, and what’s really interesting, on the one hand, and unfortunate on the other, about this whole thing. Interesting because she was able to draw attention—mine, at least—to how people react to certain kinds of ambiguity, but unfortunate in that it didn’t draw attention to the ambiguities she claimed to be interested in (i.e., with respect to how we understand the body). But of course, we don’t really *know* if that’s what she was interested in at all.

    So, I don’t know what I think about all this. But I’m pretty sure I disagree with the view that we shouldn’t (re)visit the incident.

  • Worthless tripe

    Worthless tripe? Is Salvador Dali's experiment with "smoke" as art worthless tripe? The Virgin Mary painting or sculpture made from cow dung, worthless tripe? The cadavers marinated in polyethylene and cut into sections for exhibit worthless tripe?

    Art defines and evaluates the Age we are attempting to live in before we get there so we can decide whether or not we wish to continue on the journey. Ms. Schvartz monstrosity fits that definition.

    So does Picassos fractured nude descending a staircase or dDali's melting watches and groaning crucifixes or Mr 15 Minutes of Fame's canvasses of Campbell's Soup Cans.

  • Anonymous

    #18 seems to be responding to #17, but #17 isn't calling the piece worthless tripe at all. #12 is.

  • Not quite so---

    This is what #17 said about #12 quoting same with a "tripe" remark:

    #12 more or less sums the question up, though not without including his or her own value judgments: “If what she did was real, then it's deviant and destructive behavior, which hardly qualifies as art. If it was a hoax, then its [sic] just vaseline, plastic, and red dye #3 posing as disgusting subject matter. Either way, it's sensationalistic, offensive tripe.”

  • Recent Alum

    "The Virgin Mary painting or sculpture made from cow dung, worthless tripe?"

    Are you really asking this rhetorical question with the expectation that we would all respond in the negative?

    Wow.

  • huh?

    #17 is trying to sum up the question of whether it was "real" or a "hoax," and quotes #12 to get that question across. In so doing, #17 *also* notes that #12 is imposing his or her value judgments on the real/hoax question. The "tripe" remark is a direct quotation from #12's comment, evidence of #12's--not #17's--value judgment.

  • oxygen please

    17 says 12 "sums up the qustion" and quotes 12 as saying "either way it is "sensationalistic offensive tripe".

    Recent Alum and many other respondents here have a rather limited and suffocating vision of art. Stuffy---definitely OLD Blue (gilt frames and marble and ladies coming and going, speaking of Michaelangeloing). Tedious, country club chatter.

  • Vox clamantis in deserto

    Why would 17 not simply say "sums it up" instead of "sums it up WELL" [my emphasis]? Why would 17 not OMIT the words "sensationalistic, offensive tripe" if 17 were MERELY trying to sum up? It is clearly a value laden 17 speaking not a quasi-objective voice.

  • ????

    #24, *please* read more carefully.

    #17 does NOT write "sums it up WELL," as you claim it does. Here's what #17 says--copied and pasted: "#12 more or less sums the question up, though not without including his or her own value judgments…" #17 does not omit the words "sensationalist, offensive tripe" because #17 wants to show the evidence that #12 is making value judgments.

    In fact, #17 goes on to CRITICIZE #12's view: "#12’s view—that one way or another, it’s worthless crap—misses what’s at stake in this ambiguity, and what’s really interesting, on the one hand, and unfortunate on the other, about this whole thing. "

  • Eager Igor

    Quite right. Stand corrected. "More or less sums up the queston" seems gratuitous though. Sums it up with shrillness bordering on hysteria.

    It seems IMPOSSIBLE that art generated by a male could produce such an intense reaction. (Exception: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring created a near riot in the audience). Let's change that to "art generated by a male in 2009"

  • Anonymous

    Indeed--12's summing up of the hoax/real problem unfairly condemns the project out of hand.

    The thing that seems to arise from the hoax/real confusion, is an unanswered question of precisely where the artwork is "located"--was the project what she said it was (inseminating herself, bleeding into a cup, etc. etc.)? OR, was her project in the *claim* that she did it, and not the act?

  • And then there was silence.

    Or was OUR reaction to it the actual Art work similar to John Cage's 9 minutes of silence at a piano keyboard?

  • Anonymous

    Indeed!

    4'33, though.

  • Perplexed

    4'33? I do not get the allusion.

  • Anonymous

    4' 33" -- 4 minutes and 33 seconds --is the John Cage piece.

  • Anonymous

    4' 33" -- 4 minutes and 33 seconds --is the John Cage piece.

    Surely there is an accepted shorthand for noting minutes and seconds which doesn't confuse them with feet and inches
    (4'33" 4m 33s?)

  • Anonymous

    It's a bit confusing, yes. Running the numbers through a Google search gives you 4' 33" (for whatever that's worth).

  • Veritas

    I'm surprised no one has understood it, yet. This comment board alone is proof of Shvarts' brilliance as an artist.

  • This Comment Board

    I agree. It ought to be published somewhere.

    PS:
    I note that at 34 it is tied for most responses with "The Evolution of Tap Night". That fact alone says volumes about Old Blue v. New Blue or perhaps Society v. Art---as does this Comment Board's give-and-take itself.