I am a teacher and a human being. Students may be surprised to learn that this is true of most Yale faculty. From this unavoidably compromised position, I too am a little troubled by what I’ve heard about Aliza Shvarts’ art. Unfortunately, the University has banned her work from the Senior Project Show, making a first-hand encounter with Shvarts’ work impossible. The University has decided not to allow the rest of us make up our own minds. I am considerably more troubled by their action than by hers.
The eminent philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto writes that since Marcel Duchamp displayed a urinal as art in 1917, “the era of taste has been succeeded by the era of meaning.” In other words, it is no longer part of art’s job description to be beautiful or entertaining or to exhibit good taste. Instead, art has an obligation to say (or to ask) something. By this criterion, Shvarts’ work not only affirms its status as art but also fits comfortably into the arc of Western aesthetic tradition over the past century.
Years ago, when I was a student, my senior art-history seminar studied the work of Chris Burden, who has had himself shot in the arm with a rifle and crucified — bolts driven through his hands — on the back of a Volkswagen Beetle. A student asked the obligatory question: “It’s interesting, but is it art?” The answer given by the professor, Joan Brigham, remains one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned: “It might as well be art,” she said, “it’s not anything else.” This may sound flippant, but it points out a crucial distinction: Art isn’t politics or law or business or science. Art does not and should not dictate policy, legislation, profit, or fact. Although contemporary art aims for meaning, it doesn’t have any obligation to get it right. If there is still something essentially beautiful about art, it is that it is granted the freedom to engage problems without a responsibility to solve them.
Art is a “zone of free play” in which the ideas, concerns, joys and sorrows of a community can be engaged in safety and without practical ramifications. Art is a form of societal role-playing, a testing of conceptions of identity and ideology undertaken in a buffered space. In this sense, art tests societal mores as drug trials test medications: prior to or separate from their availability and use in the real, legislated, world. It is incumbent upon us, especially as members of a community of learners, to understand what art does and how it does it. It is our intellectual imperative to insure that art not be confused with politics, law, business, or science. Such confusion has ramifications: books have been burned, poets exiled, filmmakers blacklisted, painters jailed.
For art to speak to the interests of its time and place, it must first be allowed to speak. Disappointingly, Robert Storr, Dean of the School of Art, has issued a statement saying that an individual relinquishes the right to freedom of expression when that individual “evades full intellectual accountability for the strong response he or she may provoke.” What would constitute “full intellectual accountability”? Should Darwinians keep evolution to themselves because Christian fundamentalists are deeply offended? Should Flaubert have kept Madame Bovary under wraps? Would it have been preferable if 60 Minutes had passed on the Abu Ghraib story? This account of freedom of expression is, to all appearances, its opposite.
Notwithstanding the faulty premise of “full intellectual accountability,” Shvarts has acquitted herself admirably in a guest column in this paper last Friday, April 18th:
“It remains ambiguous whether there was ever a fertilized ovum or not … This ambivalence makes obvious how 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.”
Shvarts accepts the intellectual responsibility of art in general and of her own work in particular. She has posed questions that have no easy answers. She has posed them not in the field of politics or law or business or science — where the complexity of the questions would have to be subdued in order to be adjudicated — but in a work of art.
Peter Salovey, Dean of Yale College, has written that the Woodward Report, on the subject of “free expression, peaceful dissent, mutual respect and tolerance” at Yale, “affirms the special responsibility for a university community to uphold its members’ rights to ‘think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable,’ even in the face of words and acts that members find abhorrent.” For the University to ban Aliza Shvarts’ artwork, to deny the rest of us the opportunity to make up our own minds, is to abdicate this “special responsibility.”
The University should admit they have made a mistake and reinstate Shvarts’ artwork.
Seth Kim-Cohen is a lecturer in the History of Art Department.