Category Archive 'Aliza Schvarts'

19 Apr 2008

Hermeneutics of the Art of Aliza Shvarts

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The artist at the time of her high school graduation

Helaine S. Klasky, Yale University Spokesperson, raised some interesting issues in the administration’s statement denying the reality of that naughty Aliza Schvarts’ senior art project:

(Yale now has at least one Spokesperson, forsooth! Demonstrating that the current president and his entire skulk of deans are too self-important, or know themselves to be too inarticulate, to speak for the University. Jesus wept.)

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.

But Ms. Schvarts fired back a manifesto, repeating the story of her project, and artfully identifying it as “myth,” while darkly hinting at a purpose and meaning capable of shaking the Yale art department and the University’s administration to their very foundations.

For the past year, I performed repeated self-induced miscarriages. …

To protect myself and others, only I know the number of fabricators (Note the term -JDZ) who participated, the frequency and accuracy with which I inseminated and the specific abortifacient I used. Because of these measures of privacy, the piece exists only in its telling. This telling can take textual, visual, spatial, temporal and performative forms . copies of copies of which there is no original.

The artwork exists as the verbal narrative you see above, as an installation that will take place in Green Hall, as a time-based performance, as a independent concept, as a myth and as a public discourse.

In other words: the supposed piece of art never existed at all, except as a concept, a narrative, and a spoof.

Then, embedded in more jargon, Schvarts delivers the ultimate ambiguity.

Is she spouting a bunch of ridiculous leftwing cant, or is she producing what looks like a classic example of the genre in order to mock and satirize it? Is Aliza Schvartz possibly really a nice, ethically-concerned Jewish girl, taking a shrewd whack at the conventional liberal consensus on sex, reproduction, and abortion in the contemporary elite university with a vicious parody of the methodology and hermeneutics of fashionably politicized “art?”

It creates an ambiguity that isolates the locus of ontology to an act of readership. An intentional ambiguity pervades both the act and the objects I produced in relation to it. The performance exists only as I chose to represent it. … This central ambiguity defies a clear definition of the act. The reality of miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality, an act of reading constructed by an act of naming . an authorial act.

It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act, and in doing so, reclaim it from the heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it.

As an intervention into our normative understanding of .the real. and its accompanying politics of convention, this performance piece has numerous conceptual goals. The first is to assert that often, normative understandings of biological function are a mythology imposed on form. It is this mythology that creates the sexist, racist, ableist, nationalist and homophobic perspective, distinguishing what body parts are .meant. to do from their physical capability. The myth that a certain set of functions are .natural. (while all the other potential functions are .unnatural.) undermines that sense of capability, confining lifestyle choices to the bounds of normatively defined narratives.

Just as it is a myth that women are .meant. to be feminine and men masculine, that penises and vaginas are .meant. for penetrative heterosexual sex (or that mouths, anuses, breasts, feet or leather, silicone, vinyl, rubber, or metal implements are not .meant. for sex at all), it is a myth that ovaries and a uterus are .meant. to birth a child.

When considering my own bodily form, I recognize its potential as extending beyond its ability to participate in a normative function. While my organs are capable of engaging with the narrative of reproduction . the time-based linkage of discrete events from conception to birth . the realm of capability extends beyond the bounds of that specific narrative chain. These organs can do other things, can have other purposes, and it is the prerogative of every individual to acknowledge and explore this wide realm of capability.

Roger Kimball, at PJM, notes that Ms. Schvartz’s “art” has successfully challenged some orthodoxies, and recognizes that the question is exactly which ones?

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?… 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 the war in Iraq. Thou shalt not vote Republican. There really are some things that are beyond the pale. …

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.

James Taranto, too, at the Wall Street Journal, sees the ironic possibilities.

When Yale says that Shvarts’s project, “if real,” violates “basic ethical standards,” what kind of ethical standards does it have in mind?

It seems unlikely that Yale is making a moral claim against the putative Shvarts project. The abortion debate is driven by two irreconcilable moral premises: on the antiabortion side, that it is wrong to take a human life deliberately at any stage of development; on the pro-abortion side, that a woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her body.

In practice, most people’s actual positions on abortion amount to a compromise between these two absolutes. If Yale has an institutional view on abortion, surely it is closer to the pro- than the antiabortion side. And if Shvarts did what she claims to have done, she destroyed protohumans (for want of a better neutral term) no later than the embryonic stage of development–a stage at which, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, a woman has an absolute “constitutional” right to terminate her pregnancy.

Is Yale claiming that Shvarts violated academic ethics? This is a real head-scratcher. Academic ethics center on honesty; the most important prohibitions are against such actions as falsification of data or plagiarism (misrepresenting another’s work as one’s own). But Yale is claiming that Shvarts’s project violated “basic ethical standards” if she was honest in describing it. If Shvarts perpetrated a hoax, then according to Yale she was exercising “the right to express herself.” The implication is that if she was lying, she was behaving ethically.

Yale therefore is either taking a moral position in opposition to abortion or standing academic ethics on their head. Which raises an intriguing possibility: Could it be that Aliza Shvarts is an opponent of abortion who has staged a hoax aimed at embarrassing those who support or countenance abortion?

Earlier postings

18 Apr 2008

All Just Performance Art

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Artist scamp hard at work

A new report from the Oldest College Daily advises the well-and-truly-grossed-out news-reporting and news-reading worlds that Aliza Schvarts (Y’08)’s miscarriages-as-art project was merely a naughty undergraduate joke intended to spark conversation and debate.

Aliza Shvarts ’08 was never impregnated. She never miscarried. The sweeping outrage on blogs across the country was apparently for naught — at least according to the University.

As the news of her supposed senior art project chronicling a year of self-induced miscarriages was greeted with widespread shock on campus and elsewhere, the Davenport College senior traded barbs with Yale officials on Thursday over a project she described as an exhibit documenting a nine-month process during which she claimed to have artificially inseminated herself “as often as possible” while periodically inducing miscarriages.

But while Shvarts stood by her project and claimed that administrators had backed her before the planned exhibition attracted national condemnation, the University dismissed it as nothing more than a piece of fiction.

“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,” Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said in a written statement Thursday afternoon.

Klasky said Shvarts told Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and two other senior officials Thursday that she neither impregnated herself nor induced any miscarriages. Rather, the entire episode, including a press release describing the exhibition released Wednesday, was nothing more than “performance art,” Klasky said.

“She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art,” Klasky said. “Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.”

But in an interview later Thursday afternoon, Shvarts defended her work and called the University’s statement “ultimately inaccurate.” She 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.”

Told of Shvarts’ comments, the University fired back. In a statement issued just before midnight on Thursday, Klasky told the News that Shvarts had vowed that if the University revealed her admission, “she would deny it.”

“Her denial is part of her performance,” Klasky wrote in an e-mail message. “We are disappointed that she would deliberately lie to the press in the name of art.”

Yale’s response to the supposed exhibition came at the end of a day of widespread shock. The blogosphere erupted in stunned indignation over Shvarts’ detailed description in Thursday’s News of her supposed exhibition, which she said would include the display of blood she preserved from her nine-month endeavor.

As more news outlets posted their stories online early Friday morning, Shvarts responded to the University’s second statement, asserting that her project was, in her words, “University-sanctioned.”

“I’m not going to absolve them by saying it was some sort of hoax when it wasn’t,” she said. “I started out with the University on board with what I was doing, and because of the media frenzy they’ve been trying to dissociate with me. Ultimately I want to get back to a point where they renew their support because ultimately this was something they supported.”

It was a media frenzy that Shvarts triggered herself. The article in Thursday’s News was prompted by a press release Shvarts circulated on Wednesday in which she discussed — in graphic detail — what she called a cycle of self-insemination followed by “repeated self-induced miscarriages.”

The Drudge Report linked to the News’s story early Thursday, overloading the newspaper’s Web site with traffic and attracting the attention of news outlets across the country. The article generated more press inquiries from the University than any matter since the controversy surrounding Yale’s admission of former Taliban diplomat Rahmatullah Hashemi flared up in 2006, according to a Yale official.

In an interview for the article in Thursday’s News, Shvarts explained that the goal of her exhibition was to spark conversation and debate about the relationship between art and the human body. She said her endeavor was not conceived with any “shock value” in mind.

“I hope it inspires some sort of discourse,” Shvarts said. “Sure, some people will be upset with the message and will not agree with it, but it’s not the intention of the piece to scandalize anyone.”

Shvarts said her project would take the form of a large cube suspended from the ceiling of a room in the gallery of Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall. Shvarts said she would wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around the cube, with blood from her self-induced miscarriages lining the sheeting.

Recorded videos of her experiencing her miscarriages would be projected onto the four sides of the cube, Shvarts said.

And while 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.

Davenport College Dean Craig Harwood — whom Shvarts said supported the project — and Shvarts’s thesis adviser, School of Art lecturer Pia Lindman, could not be reached for comment Thursday. The director of undergraduate studies in the School of Art, Henk van Assen, referred a request for comment to Yale’s Office of Public Affairs.

Which denoument makes a lot of sense. The whole business did sound just a little too far out there in a variety of ways to receive academic approval. And it’s true, we all gaped and marveled, but accepted the story at face value.

Does this prove that news organizations and bloggers are unbecomingly credulous? I don’t think so. The alleged miscarriage project was not all that far removed from any number of real examples of purported art featuring unlikely materials of organic origin, in some cases personally provided by the artist.

Aliza Schvarts’ alleged art project made news on the basis of its man-bites-dog outrageous character, but these days the relationship of major universities and the arts to perversity and shock is so warm and intimate that it all had a distinct air of plausibility.

Despite the unfortunate aesthetic and moral aspects of her prank, my own disposition is to smile and extend congratulations to Aliza Schvarts for successfully pulling so many legs. What is undergraduate life for, if not for shocking and outraging the adult bourgeois world?

Well done, Aliza.

Her taste may be questionable, but she demonstrated admirable quantities of imagination, flair, and enterprise. The world should keep an eye out for this girl. What an advertising campaign manager she is liable to make!

17 Apr 2008

Her Work of Art is a Real Abortion

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The Yale Daily News (fallback link, thoughtfully provided during the Oldest College Daily’s site maintenance) reports on a student art project which will inevitably receive wide coverage.

Beginning next Tuesday, (Aliza) Shvarts (’08) will be displaying her senior art project, a documentation of a nine-month process during which she 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 preserved collections of the blood from the process.

The goal in creating the art exhibition, Shvarts said, was to spark conversation and debate on the relationship between art and the human body. But her project has already provoked more than just debate, inciting, for instance, outcry at a forum for fellow senior art majors held last week. And when told about Shvarts’ project, students on both ends of the abortion debate have expressed shock – saying the project does everything from violate moral code to trivialize abortion.

But Shvarts insists her concept was not designed for “shock value.”

“I hope it inspires some sort of discourse,” Shvarts said. “Sure, some people will be upset with the message and will not agree with it, but it’s not the intention of the piece to scandalize anyone.”

The “fabricators,” or donors, of the sperm were not paid for their services, but Shvarts required them to periodically take tests for sexually transmitted diseases. She said she was not concerned about any medical effects the forced miscarriages may have had on her body. The abortifacient drugs she took were legal and herbal, she said, and she did not feel the need to consult a doctor about her repeated miscarriages.

Shvarts declined to specify the number of sperm donors she used, as well as the number of times she inseminated herself. …

The display of Schvarts’ project will feature a large cube suspended from the ceiling of a room in the gallery of Green Hall. Schvarts 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.

Schvarts 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.

School of Art lecturer Pia Lindman, Schvarts? senior-project advisor, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. …

The official reception for the Undergraduate Senior Art Show will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on April 25. The exhibition will be on public display from April 22 to May 1. The art exhibition is set to premiere alongside the projects of other art seniors this Tuesday, April 22 at the gallery of Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall on Chapel Street.

The establishment art world’s recent movement in the personal biological products direction at least represents a self-correcting problem. “Art works” consisting of human or animal waste or blood tend to develop “preservation issues” as their chosen media naturally breakdown or wind up being consumed by microorganisms.


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