By now the whole world and its mother has expressed an opinion about Yale senior Aliza Shvarts and her ill-begotten senior art project, which allegedly involved repeatedly inseminating herself and taking abortofacient drugs, filming her miscarriages, and then smearing the blood on a big plastic cube. Speculation continues over whether she actually carried out the acts or whether (as is more likely) it’s all a big “creative fiction” in aid of discourse, discomfort, and one student’s 15 minutes of fame.
But we should pause before we get too caught up in collective righteous outrage (particularly inappropriate for those, like me, who don’t think abortion is murder in any sense of the word). Doesn’t this all seem familiar somehow? Haven’t we seen this scene replayed dozens of times in art galleries from London to Oz?
Shock tactics in the name of art are nothing new, whether it’s excrement smeared on the Virgin Many (Chris Ofili), crucifixes submerged in urine (Andres Serrano), or Danish artist Marco Evaristti exhibiting live goldfish in functional blenders (several of which were liquidated by exhibition visitors before they were disconnected from the wall). The increasingly common problem, however, is that they no longer really inspire shock, merely a curled lip of disgust, a bemused head-shake, or a shrug—it’s all wearing a bit thin.
But recently, shock-art has had a little extra spice added. In their thirst for authenticity, artists are increasingly trying to bring real acts of cruelty and horror into the art gallery—Shvarts’ miscarriage extravaganza is just one example. In Nicaragua, Costa Rican artist Guillermo Habacuc Vargas found himself a stray dog, tied it up in the corner without food or water, and let visitors watch it die (though there remains speculation over whether the dog was removed before it actually expired).
How do these artists justify such gruesome excesses? The possibility of an aesthetic justification is out of the question, after all—it’s not as if there’s anything beautiful about the slow starvation of a mangy mutt or in the minced guts of a goldfish. Unlike filmmaker Werner Herzog, for example, whose macabre yet stunning Lessons of Darkness portrays the burning Kuwaiti oil fields of the Gulf War, many performance artists do not court any kind of beauty. Instead, they often redeem their projects with the vague notion of “protest” or discourse. Shvarts claimed her aim was to inspire “some sort of discourse” (what sort, we might wonder?). Vargas says he wanted to draw attention to the common fate of stray Nicaraguan dogs.
Of course, the notion of discourse inspired by art isn’t, in itself, shallow or boring. There is a long and venerable tradition of using shock to stir the art-appreciator’s conscience. Surrealist shock-art sought to tear open the subconscious, politicizing the personal realm of Oedipal complexes and bourgeois sexuality. And not all controversial modern ideas are petty and narcissistic. German artist Gregor Schnedier was recently pilloried for trying to bring real death into an art gallery; he has constructed a room for dying and has offered it to anyone who wants to die in a “peaceful” atmosphere. He claims he is interested in changing the public perception of death. “I find the public portrayal of death on TV and on the Internet violent and cruel; it lacks grace and respect for the human spirit,” he wrote in a recent Guardian article. “People used to die within the family. These days, many die in hospitals, locked away from the public.”
But the use of taboo and shock by artists like Luis Buñel, Max Ernst, and Schneider is justifiable because they have more formulated ideas behind their art than platitudes about “discourse.” They sought, or seek, substantive change. The frustration with cruder attempts is that behind the lip service to “debate,” one senses that there is little of meaning or substance. Instead, these displays are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the lurid tabloid spreads of Amy Winehouse’s personal decay or Britney’s tiresome new pregnancy. Where’s the line, exactly, between inducing repeated voluntary abortions and mindless stunts like “magician” David Blaine’s several-day stint trapped inside a block of ice?
And the problem is not that “art” is becoming the inferior “entertainment”—indeed the boundary between the two is often blurry. The important distinction is in the degree and subtlety of thought involved, both that which goes into the creative product and that which it provokes. The stupidity of Shvarts’ and others’ projects stems from the sense that the pure, ugly spectacle is all that there is to be had here. We might as well attend a Victorian freak show or circus for all the stimulation such displays will supply.
In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote that, “[Mankind’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” He was referring to the mass popularity of the Nazi aesthetic. This modern artistic phenomenon is even worse: There isn’t even any aesthetic pleasure any more. All that these increasingly macabre displays provoke is the temporary fury of the average gent and the viewer’s cheap satisfaction that at least there is someone in the world more senseless, base, and ugly than she.
Juliet S. Samuel ’09, a former Crimson Editorial Executive, is a social studies concentrator affiliated with Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.