Yale Performance Art: Where Are the Grown-Ups?

Carole Joffe

All that has been accomplished by a Yale senior's art project on pregnancy and abortion is a highly visible trivialization of the issue of abortion and a phenomenal insensitivity to women who suffer repeat miscarriages.

Yesterday the Yale Daily News published a story about the senior project of an art major, Aliza Shvarts, which consists, as the article put it, of "a documentation of a nine month process during which she inseminated herself as often as possible while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages." In short, Ms. Shvarts claimed to use donated sperm to achieve repeated pregnancies, and used then an unspecified drug for repeated abortions. Predictably, this story has spread like wildfire both on the Internet as well as the mainstream press.

Later on Thursday, Yale University issued a statement announcing that Shvarts' project did not involve actual pregnancy or induced miscarriage. But even before their statement, I was skeptical. Most puzzling to me was her claim to have used "abortifacient drugs that were legal and herbal." If she had really terminated her own pregnancies repeatedly, she could have been subject to legal prosecution — as occurred recently to a number of poor, mainly immigrant women who have tried to terminate their unwanted pregnancies by themselves, in situations vastly more grave than Schvarts' "senior project."

Even though Schvarts did not actually become pregnant and self-abort, this is a disturbing and irresponsible project. Shvarts told the Yale Daily News that her project was not designed for "shock value" and it was not her intention to "scandalize anyone." She also told the paper that she "believes strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity."

It is very hard to take such statements seriously. If she truly believed that claiming to get herself pregnant "repeatedly," only to then terminate those pregnancies, would not shock and scandalize, then she clearly has not a clue about reproductive politics, and should not be sticking her nose, er, her uterus, into a highly charged issue she knows nothing about. Art should be a medium for politics, but the responsibility of the artist is to know something about the politics with which she is engaging.

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What useful "conversation" has Shvarts provoked with this project — other than the fact that not all ideas for performance art are good ones? Does anyone — on either side of the abortion debate — gain any new insight from her work? All that seems to be accomplished with this project is a highly visible trivialization of the issue of abortion and a phenomenal insensitivity to women who suffer repeat miscarriages.

As someone who has been a college professor for over thirty years, I know it is not uncommon for eager students to have fanciful ideas for projects, and some of these, for various reasons, simply should not take place. It is the job of faculty mentors to give appropriate guidance and to point out that not everything that is "provocative" is necessarily worth doing. The Yale art department, and her advisor in particular, has failed Aliza Shvarts big-time. And in ways that clearly Ms. Shvarts does not understand, her "artistic" contribution to politics fails the rest of us.

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