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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.”