The Daily News

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

No Thesis

Updated at the bottom (and yet again Friday morning):

I left work still thinking about this and I don't want to carry it into my holiday.

I have an MFA; I think, at this point, I can call myself a professional artist. My background is in writing, my tangential credit hours are in printmaking. I've been a printmaker--italio and etching--for 16 years.

The mark of a responsible artist--as I was taught--is to focus on intent and predict reaction. After all, without intent, art is meaningless. Without a lack of consideration for others, art is at best thoughtless and at worst reckless.

What was Aliza Shvarts intent and predicted reaction?

"The goal in creating the art exhibition, Shvarts said, was to spark conversation and debate on the relationship between art and the human body."

Her intent was to open discourse, and, of course, she has. We are all talking about this. Perhaps, not in the way she hoped or with the focus being on the relationship between art and the human body. I have yet to read anything about this project that actually fulfills the student's intent. What I have read are a lot of thoughts about responsibility--which was not actually the point of the project. So, from that standpoint, I would give this project a failing grade.

I am not upset by her actions on one hand--after all, she was never pregnant therefore, it was never an abortion nor a miscarriage. For pregnancy to occur, implantation needs to occur and hCG needs to be noted. She can inseminate herself as much as she wishes, but if she is taking medications afterwards to stimulate her body to reject it, she is not actually impregnating herself. She is merely squirting in some semen, encouraging her body to slough off the uterine lining, and believing she has experienced a miscarriage.

For those of us who have actually experienced a miscarriage, we know that the physical part is nothing. It's the emotional part that kills you.

Taking cold medicine doesn't mean that you have a cold and taking abortion pills after an insemination doesn't mean that you are miscarrying. But I don't expect a 21-year-old art major to understand how conception works.

I do expect that there is an adult somewhere in the background who approved this project. And that is where my anger, my disappointment, my frustration, my bile is directed. Because there is too fine a line between free thought and irresponsible guidance. And this was a teaching opportunity missed.

Aliza Shvarts, like most people in this world, cannot be expected to know how miscarriage--or abortion--actually feels emotionally. But an adult can be expected to exercise enough guidance to help her understand that pretending through art does not mean you can make an actual statement about reality. And what was then the point of this project and what did she learn from a year at Yale?

I am pro-choice AND I'm an infertile woman and it's a hard road to walk internally because those two worlds clash so strangely. But this isn't about abortion at all for me. Or even reproductive rights. Or a woman hurting her body or tossing away a chance or treating gametes like garbage. Gametes like paint. Maybe, a small part of it is anger at someone treating so cavalierly what I can't do on my own. Or memories of what I believed to be true back when I was in college. Or simply a visceral memory of crouching over the toilet, my head leaning against the wall. Or lying on a gurney in an emergency room hallway because there were no curtained areas for privacy.

Driving home today, I realized why I was still crying, hours after I had read about it. And it isn't just about the reproductive statement. This is precisely why I left academia and that decision, while it was the best one for me, is still something I find very painful and a huge loss. When I left academia, I left behind years and years of work that had taken me to that place. But I couldn't work in a place where the lines between teaching and thought and irresponsibility and thoughtlessness were so hazy that people got damaged in the limbo land that existed between the two states. Anything can be justified--anyone can form an argument. Anyone can create a thesis and defend a thesis. But just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do something. There are real lives that get hurt along the way.


A statement released by Yale this evening:

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 it doesn't violate basic ethical standards to fuck with people's heads?

This still doesn't clear up the original point that was upsetting me so deeply--that there are professors who guided this project and others in academia condoning this. And frankly, as much as I believe in free speech, I don't believe in the right to intentionally emotionally hurt other people. There is a difference between speaking your mind and possibly hurting someone with your words and outright lying to push emotional buttons.

And perhaps it is because I left academia over an incident where someone was pushing emotional buttons that it brought out a very raw, internal scream. I had been saving my disgust for the way my own university processed events and condoned behaviour. It has certainly expanded today.

Second Update

Nope, turns out that she simply lied to Yale and is now "disputing their claim." I always thought academia was about discovering truths...not creating lies.

But Shvarts reiterated Thursday that she repeatedly use a needleless syringe to insert semen into herself. At the end of her menstrual cycle, she took abortifacient herbs to induce bleeding, she said. She said she does not know whether or not she was ever pregnant.

“No one can say with 100-percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen,” Shvarts said, “because the nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties.”

But thank you for this:
The abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America also condemned the exhibition in a written statement e-mailed to the News on Thursday.

“This ‘project’ is offensive and insensitive to the women who have suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage,” said Ted Miller, a spokesman for the organization.


bleu said...

Exactly. The feminist in me thinks she can explore things but needs sage women as guides. The mother in me is terrified for her mentally and physically now and in years to come. Imagine if she goes through IF later in life??? The infertile in me is just aghast.

My understanding is that she was pregnant before terminating it.

Andria and Co. said...

You know, I think I was so angry earlier, that I didn't read or think clearly to see that she never actually conceived.
It's wrong on soooo many levels.

Dreams do come true said...

I like you, am pro-choice, but this whole concept hits on such a disgusting level. Whether true, or a scam, or whatever, the very thought that someone could think of this, and make something out of it is beyond reprehensible.

She crossed a serious line. And, I worry too, about her future in conceiving. Whether she were actually pregnant or not when she shed her lining, the very thought that she could simulate something so horrifying and heartwrenching is horrifying.

STE said...

Disclosure: I am 37 and infertile, having suffered 3 chemical pregnancies and a loss of a 20 week pregnancy due to pPROM and stillbirth. I did not click over to see the site.

I am also a doctoral student in education -- a liberal department at a pretty conservative university in the midwest. I apologize for the length of this comment, I do get to my point at the end.

Last fall, there was much uproar over a student art project: one tire swing and 7 nooses hanging from trees in a local park. The exhibit was taken down after a group of Black students saw it and were horrified at what seemed to be an incredibly hateful reference. The art student claimed that he meant no offense, and was referring to youth and death, with no intention of hate.

The campus was pretty divided, but in my class -- a group of pre-service teachers, at that -- many claimed they thought that the student was not at fault, he simply didn't know his work would offend. Further, lynching was not even among the first thing they thought of when they saw a noose.

Whether the display was intended to be hateful or not, the really appalling thing to me is that the students have little social context for this symbol. Whether or not it was intended, the social meaning among adults who know anything about history is that the noose = hate. Specifically hate of people of color.

How can you get to be 18 or 20 or 22 years old and NOT know that it could be construed this way? How could an advisor approve of this project? Or approve of it without some sort of caveat or explanation for the viewer?

It seems, as you imply, that what is missing here, is guidance and context. In our culture, abortion is shocking, miscarriage is horrific, and pregnant women are prized above all others. Asserting that you mean only to start a discussion in this way seems irresponsible and immature. Claiming that you have no intent to shock or offend is even moreso.

Nearlydawn said...

Frankly, I just think it is sad that our world has become so depraved that this COULD be considered art, even by this undergrad.

I mean really, how do you explain this as art? I see that she wanted to "open a discussion", but about what? She DOESN'T SAY! So, if she doesn't know what she wants to talk about, I'm not sure this falls under "free speech" either, since she isn't trying to actually say anything.

I can see that it is a conversation generator. I can see that it is a shock piece. I can see that it is bloody and gory and could be scary. What I cannot see is how it is in any way artistic?

Is it art because of how she plans to suspend it in air and smear it in plastic? Is it because there will be videos accompanying it? What part of this is the "art"?

I know, people have been asking these questions for ages... We won't solve it here. We won't even change this one girl's feelings on what constitutes art.

I think that the school should look into how this "thesis" got approved. I think the adviser should get some counseling about what is appropriate. I also think this "piece" should not be displayed, out of respect for art if nothing else. This is not art, it is just stupidity - something we already have too much of.

Oh, btw, I'm totally for free speech, am pro choice, and am an infertile. If someone could convince me that this is art, I might be able to support it even. I'm just not certain it's possible to defend as art.

Anonymous said...

"I am pro-choice AND I'm an infertile woman and it's a hard road to walk internally because those two worlds clash so strangely."

It seems that many of us here are.

And yet, yet...this "art" has me so upset on the most base and primal level that my entire epidermis is itching.

It seems as if this woman has not yet identified that there are more complex issues with a miscarriage than simply bleeding.

Anonymous said...

OH!! In the post below Lori just informed us that the whole thing was a hoax. She included a link to the hoax in her comment.

I am relieved, but still sort of icked out that someone could even make this up.


From NewsBusters:
What is really the truth with this so-called "art" project, though, is that Shvarts has pulled the wool over the eyes of the Yale Daily News, the willing dupes who claim to be her professors, and anyone reading this story on Drudge and believing she really induced her own miscarriages. It's all a hoax. Or if not an outright hoax, it’s a misleading tale of a girl who hasn't a clue about how one becomes pregnant, what the fake drugs she took are really capable of doing, and the psychological pain of a real miscarriage.

Jess said...

I just wonder what the world is coming to if this is deemed art.

I'm happy to hear she was never pregnant, though.

Still...disgusting on so many levels.

Michell said...

This is just wrong on so many levels. Regardless of what she did or didn't do. There is no way this could be considered art by anyone other than a person with a totally messed up mind. I too am pro-choice and infertile and yes it is difficult sometimes. People who knowingling make light of it all makes it so much more difficult for those who are actually dealng with either situation.

Geohde said...

I find the whole thing quite upsetting, conception or not. I don't really see how any good comes of such sensationalistic behaviour and press.


Dana J. Tuszke said...

I had so much trouble conceiving, and I've had a miscarriage. I didn't know I was pregnant until the bleeding began and it was so horrid and not normal. I didn't have time to really digest what was happening until it was almost over and I cried and I cried and I cried.

It is the emotional that eventually wears us down. And what this young woman has done, even though it was "false" is irresponsible. The shock and anger it inspired is just sickening. I don't understand this girl's reasoning at all. Or the reasoning of the professors who encouraged her or approved her project.

Elizabeth said...

I saw a clip on the internet of Shvarts on a "soapbox" (literal and figurative) at a university event, commenting on institutional oppression, freedom of speech, etc. - well, as someone who teaches freshman writing, I have to say it was a pretty incoherent ramble. I could detect threads of argued positions on art and intellectual freedom in what she said, but her expression of these ideas was so inchoate and jumbled that basically it made no sense at all. An undergraduate rant parroting things she'd heard, just to get attention. I dunno. I'm an academic, but sometimes I really resonate with the critiques of the "ivory tower" as privileged drivel.

I certainly wondered, when I read the first news report, how Shvarts achieved this self-insemination; it seemed pretty far-fetched from the get-go.

Anonymous said...

I smell a letter writing campaign...

& what is now making me ill is that this has turned into a (forgive me, political rant coming) right-wing news orgasm to pick apart the crazy art loving liberals.

It IS possible to be a liberal, pro-choice, feminist, art lover infertile woman. But damn is it hard to deal with the emotional blow of this "project" and then have to get right back to defending art.


So sad that this girl was so poorly guided. So sad.

Journeywoman said...

This squicks me. The thing is where is her compassion? What were the advisors smoking? Where was their compassion. I mean if she doesn't know any infertiles, the advisors certainly do.

Also how dare she hand the pro-life lobby such a loaded gun. I am pro-choice and I know that the right to my own body is hanging by a supreme court justice. This is inflammatory and just damn wrong.

Julia said...

So now I feel like saying this silly little girl is exhibit A for the need to require at least a semester of biology for every damned college graduate. But then I know only too well how poorly bio is taught in many places and how few intro courses could even get into actual organism level mechanics of reproduction. Hm.. just had an idea-- citizenship biology: a course that provides accurate science behind controversial topics. Think it would've helped this so-called "artist?"
Or maybe what we really need is a required course in human tragedy and sensitivity. Yeah, when the pigs fly, I am sure.

Tash said...

I'm with Cali and J'woman here, in that this puts the pro choice contingent in the bizarre situation of defending what "art" is. And Mel, I'm not condoning this, I'm really not, but often art and science fuck with our heads -- the proposal that the earth wasn't the center of the universe drove men to kill. I think you hit it when you said "she has no context." I don't know her, but I'm assuming at 21 given what she did, that she does not. She was an overreaching kid (and perhaps, her adviser was overreaching in the same way) going for the crucifix-in-urine bang, and given the press she's getting, she succeeded. I guess my attitude is to ignore it, like any art that I decide I don't really like.

JamieD said...

I find the whole thing terribly upsetting and confusing. This whole stunt was to spark conversation/debate over the relationship between art and the human body? Yet it was not designed for shock value? This was the best idea she could come up with?

I found it interesting that it said the video will show her "experiencing miscarriages." Even if she was pregnant, she had not EXPERIENCED a miscarriage.

I agree with Cali's posts 100%. Bleeding is only a very small part of miscarrying.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I'm nearly as angry with the poor little exhibitionist idiot Aliza Shvarts as I am with the supervisor who gave her the go-ahead. It's all very well to say 'only pretending!' now - this wasn't presented as pretending, and was extremely upsetting to hear about.

Last year in London the Tate Gallery hosted an artist's recreation of the 'protest camp' of Brian Haw
Haw had been camped outside the Houses of Parliament with a vast array of banners and posters protesting the war in Iraq and the terrible things happening to the civilians out there. Some of the photographs showed the damage done by all the chemicals and dirty bombs to the unborn children. The photographs made me throw up and I was deeply upset for days. And yet, that was responsible, to my mind. That had intent, and both Haws and the artist (Wallinger) were making serious points about the right to public protest, the vital importance of fully informing a nation of what was going on. Horrible horrible horrible yet important.

To evoke that sort of gut-wrenched pity and outrage for, for what? For an arts course?

I speak as a pro-choice infertile woman. I firmly believe in choice, and that no one has the right to dictate what we do with our bodies. When I was nineteen I took the 'morning-after pill' myself, on one occasion. I am very grateful I live in a country where it was freely available and I could have access to it swiftly and without any nasty negative judgements being passed on me. And this little idiot and her morally defective supervisors take my considered, sad, responsible decision and cr@p all over it, making it so much harder for other women who need, so much, the right to make a responsible informed choice.

(And yes, I am well aware of the irony of an infertile woman taking the morning after pill in what, in educated retrospect, was a very long anovulatory phase. I could have done with better biology lessons myself at that point).

Maya Nair said...

I don't have children. Neither have I been trying to have one. I am happy in my single life. This, even to me, makes me sick. Physically sick. I am pro-choice and all about expressing yourself as you see fit. Where I draw the line is expression at the cost of others - as the Town Criers has said. It upsets my moral core that art so willfully takes something that is both so utterly fulfilling (I've been told )and so heartwrenching private and painful (I can only imagine) and toss it up to create something that is so hideously empty of purpose. What was the purpose of the piece? It doesn't educate, it doesn't please aesthetically, it doesn't raise questions. It raises hackles, for sure... As much as I am in awe of creativity, a big part of me thinks there is a chip missing here. Sensitivity. How can one be an artist when one can't feel subtle nuances of pain? How can such a callous piece be called artistic? Bu then, this is just my personal opinion. I don't know the artist and don't have the right to question her personality or moral core.

Rachel said...

I find this very offensive, and echo a lot of what the others have said.

For me, my miscarriage was extremely physically painful (worse than labor) and emotionally painful. She would not have done this repeatedly if she had been through what I had.

I am not sure what makes this art, but she did get attention for sure.

shinejil said...

Ugh. Yale. A snooty (and far from liberal) place for a poor education. Clearly, little miss artist needs a refresher in human biology, as well as a course of kind, loving therapy.

~Jess said...

I personally think the girl should be taken out back and should the people guiding this project. It's hard to believe that someone her age/education can go ahead with a project like this without thinking of the ramifications; all for the sake of 'creating discussion'. This is not art.
I just can't imagine even thinking up a project like this. It's so demeaning to women and pregnancy (wanted and unwanted). The fact that she doesn't know whether she every successfully conceived makes it all the worse. In all honesty, as an infertile, the idea of someone inseminating themselves numerous times and intentionally trying to cause a miscarriage is deplorable.
I'm pro-choice (to an extent), but definitely feel that women who view abortion as a form of birth control are sick.

KatieM said...

I just caught up on this story, and it is to say the least, speechless and heartbreaking. It also angers me that this CHILD, would make lightly of such a profoundly life changing issue.

However, I will say the after reading the original article I immediately wondered "well, how did she know she was pregnant in the first place?" Maybe this is the scientific side of me, or maybe it is the IF side who knows simply because you have a good supply of sperm doesn't mean you will actually become pregnant that quickly. I wondered if she actually confirmed the pregnancy, and then aborted it....which my stomach and heart did not wish to handle. Apparently as it turns out she just documented her period for 6 months, but from the context of what was trying to's sickening.

Oh, and I immediately hoped this woman would never, ever get pregnant for "real" or she would endure years of infertility and the hurt of wanting a child so bad she physically ached because of it. Strong reaction I know....but I couldn't help it.

Mrs. Spit said...

Wow, I'm still struggling to understand how she could:
a) think that she could even approximate understanding what it is like to lose an early pregnancy through miscarriage in an entirely hypothetical situation, and that
b) She was seemingly unaware that the "herbs" she was taking can be profoundly dangerous(part of the reason that we have legal abortion in North America is that the herbs women used to end a pregnancy sometimes ended their fertility, or the lives) and that
c) No adult had the balls to stand up and tell this young woman that she was making bad decisions, and needed to stop. . I'm still astounded that someone would willing hurt themselves like this, and that no advisor would see this as profoundly psychologically unhealthy behaviour, requiring professional treatment. I’m not prone to suggesting that anyone who acts in an “odd” manner is necessarily suffering from mental illness, but I find myself asking, how emotionally healthy can it be to attempt to duplicate or replicate a profoundly painful experience. I can’t imagine that artists go out and try to duplicate the experience of sexual assault to make art. This just doesn’t seem healthy, and it seems really wrong that no responsible adult told her that what she was doing was emotionally inappropriate.
I haven't even fully processed the offense of the actual exhibit.

Bea said...

I have to say I'm confused. I'm not sure whether it was a complete hoax or not. And if not, I'm still not sure how much of it was "real".

I'm also not sure how anyone can take something like miscarriage so completely out of its context and expect it to bear any meaningful relationship to the real world. What sort of discussion could possibly come from that? So that's my art critic angle, assuming there's an actual project out there of this description.

Now, from a choice/infertility/loss perspective... well, it's not really words, it's just this ball of disgust, indignation, sadness at being reminded, once again, how little people understand, frustration that she's been so naive as to miss the point so badly, anger, etc etc.

If it's all a hoax, then it actually becomes more interesting. There's been a lot of ethical discussion recently about "bioart" and this (as a hoax, rather than an actual project) certainly gives a new spin to the debate. (As an actual project, it's just more of the same.)


Vacant Uterus said...

I'm just catching up. And I know...I know I should NOT have read any of this. I should have heeded your warning and my own very fragile mental state and clicked away to LOLCats or CuteOverload or gone off to knit something. But I didn't. I read it. And I can't even get to tears (yet...they are coming...I know they are) because I AM SO ANGRY.

I WANTED my babies. The single most painful fact of my miscarriage is that I never got a chance to hold or bury my children (because they are children to me) but instead they were flushed down my toilet like the rest of my bodily waste like they didn't matter at all. It makes me vibrate with hurt and anger that something I treasure, something I want so desparately and hold so dear is being treated like common, everyday shit by some clueless teenager who thinks that my experience is about "political discourse." FUCK THAT NOISE. Whether she was ever pregnant or not.

Ms Heathen said...

Firstly, it is difficult to judge any artwork without having seen it. Yet even so, I scarcely know how to begin to respond to this piece - either as a woman who has suffered a miscarriage, or as an academic who works specifically on the history of feminist art practice.

As Cali and others have already said, there are many more complex issues involved in miscarriage than simply bleeding. Aliza Shvarts does not seem to have realised that losing a baby is not just a physiological process - albeit a painful and messy one. It strikes me that at the moment there is no real cultural discourse on pregnancy loss (or infertility for that matter) - was she perhaps trying to make a broader point in this respect? Was she perhaps trying to find a visual language through which to convey something of the intense emotional pain associated with miscarriage?

From what I've read, it would appear not. Instead, she was apparently trying to provoke debate 'on the relationship between art and the human body'.

Over the past forty years, many women artists have made art that speaks to the most taboo aspects of female bodily experience such as menstruation or termination(Carolee Schneemann, Judy Chicago, Tracey Emin, to name but a few). Just as Aliza Shvarts shows no awareness of a broader social context, so too does she appear ignorant of a broader cultural context that might have informed her piece. Instead, she appears to have set out deliberately to shock - with the result that her artwork runs the danger of being coopted by the prolife brigade.

Like many others, I am astonished that her teachers encouraged her to proceed with this project. Were she one of my students, I would have subjected her to far greater critique, and required her to think about the implications of what she was doing on an aesthetic level - but also, and possibly even more importantly, to her own body.

I'm just sorry that this foolish young woman has managed to upset so many women who have themselves suffered the very real pain of a miscarriage. Please do not allow yourselves to be distressed by what must ultimately be considered a naive and unthinking attempt to shock.