A confession: I have enjoyed Aliza Shvarts’ project.
However, my enjoyment is dependent on whether or not she actually carried out the nine-month process that she has described. At the time of this writing, this remains uncertain. There are good reasons to believe that she did not: the obvious dangers to health that the Art Department would have had to approve, the University’s claim that her public statements are simply a continuation of her performance and Shvarts’ own discussion in her column last Friday about the spheres in which her artwork exists.
The public responses to this project have largely assumed that Shvarts did indeed, in her words, “induce miscarriages.” On those grounds, the project has been mostly condemned.
I hope, and believe, that Shvarts didn’t simply intend to “generate conversation.” Her column indicated that she is not simply a provocateur. She doesn’t abrogate her intellectual responsibility to take a stance on the taboo that she has broached. At the least we should consider seriously her own explanation.
Shvarts is trying to make a point about sexual semiotics. It is a difficult point to make. And it is not a stance on abortion or reproductive rights that some people wish she had taken. I see no reason to demand solidarity between those making art with those trying to influence public policy.
I ask, does Shvarts’ project trivialize the real pain experienced by women undergoing miscarriages or abortions? She has certainly eviscerated her own private sphere, and I doubt that disgust is separable from an appreciation of that. Much of the hostility toward her project seems based on a perception that she is ignoring spiritual and emotional suffering. But I take her at her word that she wants to represent something else. We shouldn’t expect all art to speak to a single experience.
Nevertheless, it matters tremendously whether or not Shvarts did what she claims to have done. This is the heart of the question of whether proper bounds exist for art and for freedom of expression. Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’09 was right to rebuke Dean Salovey’s recent public statements: whatever the publicity damage, this university is precisely the place to enact the fullest extent of free expression. Yet the Woodward Report is not quite right in asserting that students need “unfettered freedom” to be able to “challenge the unchallengeable.” With good reason, there are legal fetters to our expressive freedom: we are not free to challenge by means of violence. Similarly, there should be moral fetters restricting our art.
Artistic sensibility can be divorced from a sense of moral significance. When we say that an event has been “aestheticized,” we often mean to critique its depiction by ignoring the event’s moral cosequences. Artists should not make us aware of the potential beauty of violence by enacting that violence. They should not be given license to commit murder in order to show us that the barrel of a smoking gun can be intriguing, or that a hole in someone’s chest might excite us. People like Quentin Tarantino have made careers out of aestheticizing such violence.
But it is one thing to depict violence. It is another to commit it. There is something at stake when someone fertilizes eggs and then purges them from her body in an exercise of artistic freedom. Why commit violence to divorce form from function?
I don’t find menstrual fluid beautiful. I don’t find the idea of Shvarts’ monthly enactments beautiful. And I don’t find the ideological distinction between calling something a miscarriage or an abortion particularly intriguing. But if this process was indeed a myth, then Shvarts’ orchestration of the public response to her project is brilliant and beautiful. All of us would have responded to a series of events that did not in fact take place. This is the beauty of parody and reminds us that our self-serious, self-righteous public discourse is sometimes simply delusional.
I would consider the following statement a triumph of Shvarts’ project: We don’t know what exactly is smeared in the lining of her cube, but we will go and gawk and try to label it: menstrual blood/miscarried matter/aborted life. The admission of the gawking and the use of the slash-marks constitute her success.
But the self-seriousness of this artistic approach deserves criticism as well. The world is open to a textual perspective: Everything can be seen as a narrative and significance is less fixed than everyone presumes. But Shvarts’ heavy leaning on theoretical jargon (locus of ontology, act of readership, intervention into our normative understanding) betrays the cost of this perspective. Language must communicate, and clear communication necessitates that some things won’t be signified. That is, there’s a good reason that most people won’t follow Shvarts in claiming that “it is a myth that ovaries and a uterus are ‘meant’ to birth a child.” But Shvarts should still be free to create a myth that rejects that meaning.
Spencer Gray is a junior in Trumbull College.