Roger’s Rules

Yale, abortion, and the limits of art

I was just about to sit down to write about Aliza Shvarts, the Yale art student whose senior project, The Yale Daily News reported yesterday, was a piece of performance art that recorded “a nine-month process during which [Shvarts] artificially inseminated herself ‘as often as possible’ while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as prepared collections of the blood from the process.”

Disgusting, no? The explosion of outrage in the blogosphere yesterday showed that there was considerable unanimity about that.

Well, it seems that Shvarts was lying–perpetrating a “hoax” is the way it is being reported. “The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman’s body,” a Yale University spokeswoman said, relief wafting off the page as a public relations disaster is narrowly avoided.

That news made me feel a little better. But not much. Why? Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, put his finger on part of the reason: “I’m astounded by this woman’s callousness,” Wolfgang said. “There are thousands of women in this country who are dealing with the pain of having had an abortion, with the trauma of having suffered a miscarriage. For her to make light of that for her own purposes is just beyond words.”

True, true. And there is the further wrinkle that Shvarts is sticking by her original story–more or less. According to a piece in today’s Yale Daily News, Shvarts replied that the University’s statement about her work was “ultimately inaccurate.”

“Ultimately,” eh?

The Daily News report went on to note that Shvarts

reiterated that she engaged in the nine-month process she publicized on Wednesday in a press release that was first reported in the News: repeatedly using a needleless syringe to insert semen into herself, then taking abortifacient herbs at the end of her menstrual cycle to induce bleeding. Thursday evening, in a tour of her art studio, she shared with the News video footage she claimed depicted her attempts at self-induced miscarriages.

“No one can say with 100-percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen,” Shvarts said, adding that she does not know whether she was ever pregnant. “The nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties.”

Well, that is not quite accurate. Certainly, the whole idea of the “piece” was morally repellent. Certainly, Yale’s response was a masterpiece of evasion. “Had these acts been real,” their statement continued, “they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.” You don’t say? Here’s a question: what action would Yale be prepared to take if it turns out that Shvarts has “violated” the above mentioned “basic ethical standards”? And what, by the way, was the standard being violated? I wonder, for example, whether the Yale spokesman would say that abortion itself violated a basic ethical standard? Or maybe the violation requires first deliberately impregnating oneself? (But why would that affect the “basic ethical standard” involved?) Or maybe it was videotaping the performance that was the problem?

I know that in the universe occupied by Ivy League academics, the spectacle of a woman repeatedly inseminating herself, quaffing abortifacient drugs (“herbal”ones, though: we’re all organic environmentalists here), and then video taping the resultant mess poses a problem. I mean, in that universe there really are basic ethical standards: Thou shalt not smoke, for example. Thou shalt not support support the war in Iraq. Thou shalt not vote Republican. There really are some things that are beyond the pale.

But when it comes to “art”: oh, that’s a tricky one. Shvarts “is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art,” the Yale spokeswoman said. But doesn’t it depend on the nature of the performance?

Today’s Yale Daily News has some details:

[W]hile some news stories late Thursday dismissed Shvarts’s exhibition as a wholesale hoax, the Davenport senior showed elements of her planned exhibition to News reporters, including footage from tapes she plans to play at the exhibit. The tapes depict Shvarts, sometimes naked, sometimes clothed, alone in a shower stall bleeding into a cup. It was all part of a project that Shvarts said had the backing of the dean of her residential college and at least two faculty members within the School of Art.

Aliza Shvarts may be a kind of genius when it comes to generating publicity for herself. But I believe her performance, whether or not it involved real semen and abortifacients, was morally repugnant. (It would be much worse if it did, of course, but then we enter into the realm of serious mental pathology not to say–let me employ an old-fashioned word here–sin.) The invocation of “art” doesn’t change that one whit. Indeed, as a society, we suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia: an anesthesia based on the delusion that by calling something “art” we thereby purchase for it a blanket exemption from moral criticism–as if being art automatically rendered all moral considerations beside the point. George Orwell gave classic expression to this point back in 1944 in “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí,” a review of Dalí’s autobiography. “The artist,” Orwell wrote,

is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word “Art,” and everything is O.K. Rotting corpses with snails crawling over them are O.K.; kicking little girls in the head is O.K.; even a film like L’Age d’Or [which shows among other things graphic shots of a woman defecating] is O.K.

A juror in the obscenity trial over Robert Mapplethorpe’s notorious photographs the S&M homosexual underworld memorably summed up the paralyzed attitude Orwell described. Acknowledging that he did not like Mapplethorpe’s rebarbative photographs, he nonetheless concluded that “if people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.”

“If people say it’s art, then I have to go along with it.” It is worth pausing to digest that terrifying comment. It is also worth confronting it with a question: Why do so many people feel that if something is regarded as art, they “have to go along with it,” no matter how offensive it might be? Perhaps–just possibly–Aliza Shvarts has reminded us how untrue that statement is. If so, we are in her debt.