Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Art and Exhibitionism

I'm an academic and a blogger, but I typically don't think of myself as an academic blogger. Now and then I'll have a word or two to say about the right wing's attack on academic freedom because I think that's an issue people should care about even if college is neither in their past nor in their future. The United States boasts the greatest system of higher education in the world, and the desire of ultraconservative culture warriors to dismantle it should be a serious concern to everyone.

Most on-campus controversies, however, are either arcane or meaningless to those who are not closely connected with the academy. But once in a while, some issue makes its way from the ivory tower to the popular press and hits the radar screen of Middle America. Such an event is taking place right now at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, the school that improbably produced both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

A senior art major named Aliza Shvarts decided that her going away present to her fellow Elis would be to ensnare her alma mater in one of the ickiest dilemmas imaginable. For her graduation project, Shvarts decided on a performance piece commenting on "the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body" (that's ok, I have no idea what it means, either). The particulars? Let's go with the description offered by InsideHigherEd.com:

"A Yale University undergraduate said she repeatedly inseminated herself and induced multiple miscarriages to produce a senior art project."

Suffice it to say that the project itself included display of the results of her efforts.

Now let me begin here by saying that not only do I not know what art is, I don't even know for sure what I like. I went with drama—rather than music or art—to satisfy my fine arts general ed requirement in college. That means that the last time I actually studied the subject, I was very young and we were making plaster casts of our right hands for Mother's Day.

Shvarts efforts, which will apparently never find their way into a Yale studio, have simultaneously generated three separate threads of controversy. The first, of course, involves the morality of abortion and the definition of life. The second concerns the nature of art and the dividing line between creativity and exhibitionism. The third involves the responsibility of a university and its personnel to monitor the choices its students make, particularly if those choices might put a student at some level of danger.

I actually find the third controversy to be the most interesting, so we'll start there. First of all, Yale insists that the school was told by Shvarts that her performance piece was a hoax. She replied in an article in the Yale Daily News that her efforts were authentic, and that she did, indeed, artificially inseminate herself with samples from volunteer donors and then deliberately attempt to induce miscarriage.

The distinction here is critical. Every reputable university has a board of faculty members and/or administrators that weighs in on research projects that involve human beings. The complication, of course, is that this was, strictly speaking, not a research project and Shvarts was jeopardizing nobody's health other than her own. Nevertheless, academic advisers presumably have an obligation to keep students from harming themselves, and there is the non-trivial issue of the sperm donors and whether or not they were fully informed as to what would occur in this course of this project. If the Yale Art Department and its adviser(s) understood Shvarts' work to be a provocative hoax, then they have presumably committed no wrongdoing; if not, their judgment is certainly open to question. (Oddly, while insisting on the hoax story, Yale has nevertheless disciplined Shvarts' adviser. That seems inconsistent with logic, though consistent with the CYA attitude of many college administrators.)

As to the question of what is art, I will leave that to the experts. Several years ago, a young man placed a crucifix in a jar of urine and displayed the piece at one of America's finest museums. He was defended against the predictable public outcry on the grounds of free artistic expression, even though the entire concept struck me as something a couple of drunken high school sophomores might come up with before dissolving into an evening of Beavis and Butt-head giggling. If "Piss Christ", as it was called, is art, then I don't see how Shvarts' more complex and creative piece is not (my point here is not to defend Shvarts, but simply to compare her work to other controversial exhibits that have been supported by the artistic community).

It is, interestingly enough, the abortion controversy that provides perhaps the greatest justification for Aliza Shvarts' efforts. If one purpose of art is to get people to think (and that is what many critics argue), then she has succeeded brilliantly. I don't mean that she got the world thinking about "the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body", whatever the hell that means. But she did provide an interesting challenge to both sides in the debate over abortion.

Pro-choice groups have been quick to condemn Shvarts for trivializing abortion and miscarriage. They are, of course, worried that public revulsion at her project will play into the hands of those who wish to criminalize the voluntary termination of pregnancy. But they also find themselves in a sensitive situation here, since Shvarts' supposed terminations all occurred during the first trimester of the gestation period, a time in which abortion rights advocates claim that the product of conception is emphatically not a child. Perhaps they can take issue with the safety concerns of inducing repeated miscarriages, but their efforts to distance themselves from Shvarts betray an ambivalence about abortion that does their cause no favors.

But the pro-life groups also face problems. Those who oppose abortion rights like to conflate abortion at all stages of development. Their protest signs regularly display fetuses, usually from the second trimester or later, that appear human in their basic anatomy. But if Shvarts actually did induce spontaneous miscarriage (and inducing miscarriage is clearly equivalent to abortion), she did so at such an early stage of pregnancy that few outside the pro-life camp would seriously believe that she had actually killed a baby.

The first trimester, of course, is the Achilles heel of the anti-abortion movement: it is both the time period in which most Americans are comfortable with the abortion procedure and the one in which most elective abortions take place. Nobody who forced themselves to view Shvarts' project (if it were allowed to be displayed) would observe anything resembling a baby in the gory byproduct of her efforts. The success of the pro-life movement, however, depends on us "seeing" the baby every time an abortion is performed. Even more problematic for the pro-lifers is the fact that Shvarts claims never to have visited an abortion clinic, but rather to have used natural herbal methods for inducing miscarriage.

Again, I have no idea if Aliza Shvarts is an artist. Nor do I have any interest in sickening myself by viewing her project, should that ever become possible. But she has, for better or worse, raised several uncomfortable issues that go beyond the ickiness factor. In the end, I would not, as an adviser, allow a student to do potential harm to herself in the name of art or research, but it is hard to deny that Shvarts has provoked a national conversation on several levels.

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