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Ars Gratia Artis?

A shocking art exhibition communicates a surprisingly pedestrian message

By Lucy M. Caldwell, None

A few hundred miles away in New Haven, the prospect of menstrual blood and zygote parts is raising eyebrows. Aliza Shvarts, a Yale arts student, ignited a media firestorm last week when she refused to acknowledge that her senior art project, in which she sought to regularly conceive and abort a slew of fetuses over the course of nine months, had actually been a hoax.

Shvarts, a senior in Yale’s Davenport College, claims to have assembled a number of “fabricators” for her project who, at regular intervals in the last year, provided her with sperm samples which she injected into herself with needle-free syringes. At the end of each month, Shvarts would ingest an abortifacient, which caused her to experience cramps and heavy bleeding. The artist remains unsure of whether she was actually ever pregnant, but this does not discount the purpose of her project: to raise important questions about our societal perceptions of sex.

Regardless, in undertaking the expression, Shvarts has tapped into the genre of sensationalist artwork. In this New Haven affair, more significant than this young artist’s abusive bodily activities, or the possibility that she is a morally bankrupt person, or the potential for all sorts of newfangled dead baby jokes is the question of why anyone would even begin to take this girl seriously. Over the past two weeks, the Aliza Shvarts story has been picked up by a number of national media outlets. This coverage tends to presume that Shvarts’s project was remotely academic, which it was not.

That Shvarts’s abortion adventure has been awarded this sort of earnest attention represents our biggest problem. In the academy, there has been such a rush to demonstrate a collective commitment to sociopolitical progressivism—to a tolerance of alternative sexualities and sexual lifestyles, that is—that we have suspended rigorous examination of these themes. Certainly, great strides have been in the academic area of gender studies, and the field does seem to provide a unique opportunity to engage students in otherwise marginalized subject matter. However, our commitment to engagement can cause the door of academic tolerance to be left open too wide, giving way to the pernicious sense that anything or anyone that presents an “alternative” reading of societal affairs is worthy of our attention. This same sort of trap breeds academics like Cornel R. West, the professor whom former University President Lawrence H. Summers rightly forced out after he failed to present any academic work more substantial than a rap recording.

We see this barrier in Shvarts’s project too. Take, for instance, the guest column published in the Yale Daily News last Friday, in which Shvarts laid claim to her project. She wrote, “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.” Of course people regularly engage in recreational sex in which pregnancy is not the end goal, but to deny that sexual activity is inherently tied up with reproduction is laughably ignorant. The link between sex and pregnancy is the very reason that Shvarts would have needed to take abortifacient drugs each month if this project did take place—because unprotected sex leads to pregnancy.

Shvarts knows this of course. Summing up the crux of her argument—that there is a mistaken conflation of sex and reproduction—she wrote, “It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act [of sex for reproduction], and in doing so, reclaim it from the heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it.” This is the sort of jargon we’ve all come to know very well, the sort that bounces across our email screens daily and is advertised endlessly on campus posters. Shvarts’s pronouncement is hardly revelatory, and certainly conveying this message does not require self-inflicted abuse and abortion. In all likelihood, most of Shvarts’s audience already agrees that we should tolerate gay sex, alternative sexual choices, or recreational sex in general. If they don’t, then the prospect of her gruesome project is unlikely to be what changes their minds.

In crafting her project, our new favorite Yalie was capitalizing on shock value in order to put forth a very basic conception of sex politics—that we should not conflate gender and sexuality. But to merely abandon the mainstream medium is not a guarantee virtue. Alas, Shvarts should have been dismissed as an attention-seeking ninny, but instead she was launched into the national spotlight. Just how far has our bar fallen? The rush to affirm our commitment to social progressivism on college campuses has sadly left us in an abyss.

Lucy M. Caldwell ’09 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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