Much press has recently been devoted to Yale Senior Aliza Shvarts’ senior thesis project after it was first written about in the Yale Daily News. Shvarts, an art major, claims that the project is a documentation of a nine-month period in which she artificially inseminated herself from the ninth to the fifteenth day of her cycle, “as often as possible” and then used herbal, abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibit includes a large cube, suspended from the ceiling, and wrapped with plastic sheeting that holds the blood from the self-induced miscarriages, mixed with Vaseline.
After bloggers, and then major news sources picked up the story, most of them outraged that the project trivialized abortion or that Shvarts abused her right to choose, Yale University issued a statement that the project was a fiction: Shvarts never impregnated herself nor induced 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.”
However, Shvarts denies Yale’s account, claiming she does not know if she ever was impregnated and whether she actually miscarried. In a guest column for the Yale Daily News, she writes, “To protect myself and others, only I know the number of fabricators 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.” She goes on to say, “No one can say with one hundred percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen. The nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties.”
Shvarts insists that the purpose of the project was not “shock value” but instead to inspire discourse about the body and its relationship to art. And, indeed, the project has provoked conversation. In this respect, Shvarts was successful. However, from Shvarts’ comments about the work, it seems that the specific conversation generated was not the desired outcome.
The focus of the debate has been specifically about abortion— is abortion immoral and if not, is it wrong to attempt to get pregnant for the sole purpose of having an abortion? In many ways, the work reads like an anti-choice piece: If abortion is simply another operation, then why is it wrong/ outrageous/ upsetting/ offensive to attempt this operation as many times as possible in a short period? Are those who claim to be pro-choice but are upset by the act hypocrites? Are they revealing that they know that abortion is actually immoral? It does not inspire further conversation about the designation of certain body parts as sex organs or not. There has been no discussion about the ambiguity of whether the blood in the piece is actually the result of a miscarriage as opposed to simply being menstrual blood, as Aliza Shvarts had hoped there’d be. These points have inevitably been swallowed up by the more emotional, more controversial issue of abortion.
Ultimately, the work reads as naïve work of an undergraduate artist who has studied the work of performance artists like Marina Abramovic and Karen Finley and also wants to make something of importance, something that matters, but is unclear as to the specific statement she’s trying to make, or the most effective way to go about it. The piece is both heavy-handed, and unclear. The concept and materials seemed to have been chosen because they feel important; they are chosen for their controversy and yet the controversy provoked muddies any meaningful debate.
Much has been made about the fact that this student is a Yale undergraduate, a senior about to get a degree from one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions. Regardless of the college she is graduating from, she is an undergraduate: a twenty-one or twenty-two year old who has spent the last four years studying philosophy and theory and weird sciences and whatever else is a part of her bachelor of arts degree as an art major. She is now trying to put all this knowledge into practice as an artist, and, just as a political science major’s senior thesis is likely thoughtful, but ultimately flawed, so too is this work. I certainly would not want to be judged upon the art I was making as a twenty-one year old.
What is amazing about this project is that it has generated so many comments of outrage, shock and horror. It’s the naive, not particularly good work of a twenty-one year old getting her BA in art. Why talk about it at all?