Art for Shvarts’ Sake

Aliza Shvarts (Yale ’08) made a senior project consisting of an installation/video/performance piece that supposedly documents her repeatedly inseminating herself, over the course of nine months, and then inducing multiple miscarriages.

The volatile mix of contemporary art, abortion, and campus free speech lit up the blogosphere and caused an uproar on campus. Surprise. Ms. Shvarts’ show was supposed to go up today, April 22nd, right next to all the other senior art projects. As of this post, Yale is saying it won’t happen unless Ms. Shvarts agrees to publicly admit that her piece is fiction and to promise that there won’t be any real blood in the installation. (And just a few decades ago, mere abstract painting caused college deans to have palpitations!)

Last week, Helaine Klasky (Yale’s version of Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino) insisted Ms. Shvarts was merely pretending to do all the things her piece claims she really did. “The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding the form and function of a woman’s body,” said Ms. Kalsky, who ought to consider working a second job as a label-writer for the Whitney Biennial.

As far as Ms. Shvarts is concerned, the fact that her advisers knew what she was up to means they “supported” her, which in turn translates for Shvarts into her project being “university-sanctioned.” She adamantly denies her piece is a fiction: “No one can say with 100 percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen.” She adds that she didn’t know if she was ever pregnant and that the “nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties.” Whatever its other faults, Yale, it seems, is quite effective in teaching its undergraduates that we live in very uncertain times.

Ms. Kalsky — not to be trumped by a young art student on the career make — responds that Ms. Shvarts’ denial is part of her performance. (Hey, somebody is either lying, or this “uncertainties” business is spreading like Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-9.)

Kalsky then adds that Yale was “disappointed that she [Shvarts] would deliberately lie to the press in the name of art.” (Didn’t some guy named Picasso say that art is a lie that reveals the truth?)

For those of us in the contemporary-art business, the Yale squabble isn’t all that interesting. Ms Shvarts’ undergraduate project sounds so, well, so undergraduate. Contrary to what a lot of people may think, her project wouldn’t make it into a serious contemporary gallery and, if it did, it wouldn’t get much traction with the press or the public. Ms. Shvarts’ project is getting attention mostly because it’s at an elite university, where it has students, professors, administrators, and college flacks running to the free-speech and culture-wars barricades. Almost everyone in the art world has been there and done that, a long time ago.

The real stuff — e.g., performance works by such artists as Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, Karen Finley, Chris Burden or Annie Sprinkle in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s — was bitter, shocking, risky, and always on the line. It took place in funky, rented venues, and not the cushioned halls of ivy. Sometimes it was stupid, but sometimes it was powerful and moving.

The dispiriting part about Shvarts’ tempestuous teapot isn’t really the art — whether it’s morally offensive, or not, or good, or bad — but the fact that putatively edgy art projects are really guided to completion by faculty advisers who inexorably turn what was once upon a time a fierce counter-voice to culture into soft, risk-free, pseudo-avant-garde exercises in calculated offensiveness.

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