Thursday, 17 April 2008

Suffering for her art

This is going to be huge.

As part of an "art project", Yale student Aliza Shvarts allegedly made herself repeatedly pregnant - by artificial insemination, we're told - and then induced abortions (using herbal compounds) which she filmed. The blood and foetal remains are due to be exhibited in a cube as part of Shvarts' degree show next week. The report states:


Shvarts will wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around this cube; lined between layers of the sheeting will be the blood from Schvarts' self-induced miscarriages mixed with Vaseline in order to prevent the blood from drying and to extend the blood throughout the plastic sheeting.

Shvarts will then project recorded videos onto the four sides of the cube. These videos, captured on a VHS camcorder, will show her experiencing miscarriages in her bathrooom tub, she said. Similar videos will be projected onto the walls of the room.


Shvarts claims that her intention is "to spark conversation and debate on the relationship between art and the human body". Rather than, say, become famous overnight. "I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity," she is quoted as saying. "I think that I'm creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be."

Which raises questions as to precisely what she thinks art "ought to be". I suppose that brought up on a diet of shock art, in which bissected livestock and lightbulbs switching on and off garner headlines, dense passages of critical analysis and inexplicable fame and money for their creators, she has a fairly jaundiced view of what art is meant to be. A way of getting attention.

By these lights, this piece is indeed Art. Not so much épater le bourgeois as splatter le bourgeois. Servers at Yale Daily News crashed when the story was discovered.

IF this story is true (and all we have to go on is a report of an undergraduate seminar at which she revealed or described - it's not quite clear - the contents of her show) then a major ethical row looms. On the other hand, she could turn out to be a pro-life evangelical Christian staging a hoax in an attempt to discredit abortion. I'm suspicious. The story is short on details. Schwarz apparently induced her abortions without any medical supervision and is cagey about where she found her "donors".

If nothing else, it would make an interesting subject for one of Tony Blair's seminars when he arrives at Yale to teach about faith.

UPDATE 18/4/08 It seems I was right to be suspicious. A statement passed on to me by "Anonymous" (who would appear to be based at Yale) late last night runs as follows:

Statement by Helaine S. Klasky — Yale University, Spokesperson

New Haven, Conn. — April 17, 2008

Ms. Shvarts is engaged in performance art. Her art project includes visual representations, a press release and other narrative materials. She stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages. 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.
She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art.
Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.

No surprise there. There never was any real evidence for this story, as I noted. But until this statement was issued no-one apparently cried foul. The New York Sun has a full report on the episode, which included a quote from a biology professor at rival university Princeton who thought it more likely to be menstrual blood. Why this professor? Well, according to the Sun,

A science student of Mr. Silver’s once proposed impregnating herself with chimpanzee sperm. Mr. Silver convinced her it was a “horrible thing for her to do,” but his fictionalized account of the event became a book and a play.


I don't believe that either, as it happens.

The story went on,

An environmental health official at Yale, Peter Reinhardt, sounded alarmed when told of Ms. Shvarts’s plan to put a mix of her own blood and Vaseline on display in a public building. “I will look into this immediately,” he said. “Normally, that would be out of the bounds of what we would allow a student to do.”


I love that "normally".

A few weeks ago there was another student art project which went global. An anonymous young woman calling herself "90 day Jane" announced that she was going to commit suicide three months after beginning a blog detailing her last days. In the event, she lasted only a week before admitting it was all a hoax.

So what was Shvarts's point? Is her intention really, as the statement claims, "to draw attention to the ambiguity of a woman's body"? Was she just trying to get publicity? Or was she perhaps making a point about the easy sensationalism and credulity of the media, especially in the internet age? It's a point that can't be made often enough.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Statement by Helaine S. Klasky — Yale University, Spokesperson

New Haven, Conn. — April 17, 2008

Ms. Shvarts is engaged in performance art. Her art project includes visual representations, a press release and other narrative materials. She stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages. 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.
She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art.
Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns. (http://www.yale.edu/opa/)

The Monkeyman said...

Is it asking too much for young academics, whether artists or scientists, to get attention/acclaim via good work rather than bullshit stories and lying?

I think not.

The Heresiarch said...

I think you're missing the difference between art and science. No one will ever paint as well as Rembrandt, because the training is too intense, and portraiture of that type is no longer what the culture values. Ideas, and words, have come to substitute for technique. So art becomes a game in which the genuinely important and the bullshit become ever harder to distinguish. Thoughts of naked emperors come to mind.

Science, though, is another matter. At least I hope it is. Some of the "science" in the media - vitamin pills will kill you, for example - don't exactly fill one with much confidence.

Does your monkey research have any bearing on human sexuality? That might get you some headlines...

The Monkeyman said...

I believe that my research will prove the link between beetroot juice, electromagnetism and a long life. The daily mail can reach me on my blog for 5 years worth of headlines....

But for what it is worth, I have faith that the next generation of artists are more than willing to take time to perfect their art, and the attention seeking types are the artistic equivalent of big brother contestants i.e. the short cut that gives quick gains will in reality mess you up instead of the longer path that is worth toiling for. Of course the media has a role to play here, as they can direct the layperson to good art over sensationalist headlines.