Last Friday, the News ran a story about Aliza Shvarts’ senior art project. For her project, Shvarts claims to have inseminated herself repeatedly and then used herbal drugs to induce miscarriages, the video of which she hoped to project onto a plastic cube smeared with a mixture of Vaseline and miscarriage blood. This has generated controversy.
As a person who has visited several art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, I am appalled that the public, in its rush to condemn Shvarts, has failed to engage her piece as a work of art. It is my intent to remedy this egregious gap in the public discussion by publishing this thoughtful critique of her performance.
Given the University’s refusal to install Shvarts’ piece in the Senior Project Show that began in Green Hall yesterday, one might criticize me for attempting to review a piece that I have not had the opportunity to see. However, as Shvarts herself wrote in an explanatory column in the News, “The artwork exists as the verbal narrative you see above, as an installation that will take place in Green Hall, as a time-based performance, as an independent concept, as a myth and as a public discourse.”
Having read Shvarts’ “verbal narrative,” conceptualized her “independent concept,” internalized her “myth” and read more of the “public discourse” than I care to admit, I can safely say that I’ve experienced as much of her art as I can handle. The banned installation seems like a triviality by comparison; a mere drop of blood and Vaseline in a rhetorical ocean too vast to comprehend.
Primarily, Shvarts’ sprawling piece is about ambiguity, about forcing participants to question their understanding of what is real. And on innumerable Internet message boards around the country, readers have been debating the important ontological questions that arise from Shvarts’ piece: Did Shvarts really have abortions, or didn’t she? If she did, is she more like Hitler, or more like Charles Manson? Where does this piece rank in the greater canon of bodily-fluid-based art? Is it better or worse than “Piss Christ”? And finally, will the video of a naked Shvarts bleeding into a disposable cup be made available online?
Nowhere is Shvarts’ meaning more brilliantly ambiguous as in her own explanation of her work. In her narrative, the skills that she acquired over four years of rigorous art study shined — specifically, her ability to state a simple concept in an immensely complicated way. Consider the following passage:
“The act of identification or naming — the act of ascribing a word to something physical — is at its heart an ideological act, an act that literally has the power to construct bodies. In a sense, the act of conception occurs when the viewer assigns the term “miscarriage” or “period” to that blood.”
In short, this means that people jump to conclusions about whether or not Shvarts had a miscarriage, even though they cannot know for sure.
When distilled into readable English, Shvarts’ column begs an important question: Was she really ever pregnant? The response by Yale to the reports of Shvarts’ project has been integral to preserving this important ambiguity. Soon after the story broke, Yale denied that Shvarts ever inseminated herself and characterized the entire episode as a “creative fiction.” When Shvarts maintained that she in fact possibly had had miscarriages, the University expressed its dismay that Shvarts would “deliberately lie to the press in the name of art.”
That the University has gamely worked side-by-side with Shvarts to protect the central uncertainty of this piece demonstrates their laudable commitment to the free expression of their students.
What, however, is Shvarts’ purpose in creating all of this ambiguity? If we are to believe her column, she is mainly concerned with dispelling certain “myths” about human “form and function.” One of the myths that Shvarts seems most intent on exploding is that our body parts have a discrete number of acceptable functions, for instance, “that penises … are ‘meant’ for penetrative heterosexual sex.” I entirely support Shvarts’ efforts to this end; personally, I often employ my penis in the act of urination, and also occasionally as a tea cozy.
Finally, the most important function of this piece is, ironically, the resolution of an ambiguity — the question of what constitutes art. The only meaningful difference between Shvarts’ miscarriages and every other miscarriage is that Shvarts decided that hers was art, while other women apparently lacked the foresight to do so. Thus, we see that any action is art so long as the performer calls it so. In a sense, the act of creating art occurs when artists assign the term “art” to their work. Thanks to Shvarts’ revolutionary work, we can now declare the tedious squabble over what qualifies as art to be definitively resolved.
Michael Zink is a junior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays.