Abortion as Art? (Critical Theory Gone Berserk)

By now you’ve all probably heard about Yale Abortion Girl, right? Her name is Aliza Shvarts, and she’s a senior art student at the esteemed Ivy League school. She made international news last week when her outrageous senior art project was made public.

According to Shvarts, her project is a documentation of a nine-month process in which she artificially inseminated herself (from a number of sperm donors) “as often as possible” and then took herbal abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. The actual project was to be an installation of a large cube suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition hall, filled with the menstrual blood from her supposed litany of miscarriages. Recorded video of her experiencing the miscarriages in her bathtub was to be projected on each side of the cube.

Schvarts initially defended the project by saying, “I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity… I think that I’m creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be… It was a private and personal endeavor, but also a transparent one for the most part… This isn’t something I’ve been hiding.”

But as news circulated beyond Yale and outraged criticism came pouring in, Yale put a kibosh on the project, which was supposed to be installed for the senior art show last week.

“I am appalled,” said Yale College Dean Peter Salovey. “This piece of performance art as reported in the press bears no relation to what I consider appropriate for an undergraduate senior project.”

School of Art Dean Robert Storr also denounced Schvarts’ project, saying that while Yale “has a profound commitment to freedom of expression,” the University “does not encourage or condone projects that would involve unknown health risks to the student.”

Soon after the initial hubbub, however, the University officials announced to the press that Shvarts had privately denied actually committing the acts in question, and that the whole project was nothing more than an elaborate hoax—a “creative fiction” meant to highlight the ambiguity of the relationship between art and the human body.

Shvarts responded by calling the University’s claims “ultimately inaccurate,” and refused to sign a written confession saying that the whole thing was a hoax. Instead, Shvarts began a “no one knows the truth except me” campaign of meta-meta-meta critique. And arguably, this is when her “project” kicked in to high gear.

Shvarts told the press that throughout the nine months she never knew if she was ever really pregnant or not (she never took a pregnancy test), and in a column for the Yale Daily News, Shvarts wrote that “The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading.”

Huh? Being pregnant is a matter of reading? This is where it becomes clear what Schvarts is really up to—an amped-up deconstructionist exercise in sexual semiotics.

“The part most meaningful in [the project’s] political agenda … is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood,” Shvarts wrote in the same column. “Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether there was ever a fertilized ovum or not.”

“This piece — in its textual and sculptural forms — is meant to call into question the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body,” she wrote. “…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.”

Ahh, the crux: the piece exists only in its telling. With no more metanarratives, no external “Truth,” we can only trust individual perceptions, personalized accounts of experiential contingencies. What a wonderful world.

There is a lot to be disturbed by in this little viral provocation. Of course, the cavalier treatment of pregnancy and abortion (as mere tools in an artistic creation—even if just on the conceptual level) is one thing; and the notion that anything so disgusting (a cube of menstrual blood from self-induced abortions?) could be considered art is another…

But the most frightening aspect of this whole thing, for me, is that it shows just how inaccessible (and out of fashion) truth is in the academy today. When someone like Shvarts can blatantly lie to the press and write it off as part an academic project, what does that say about our academic standards? Where would she get the idea that education (formerly known as the search for truth) can be founded on lies and the privileging of ambiguity?

Hmmm, well, she can get that idea from at least 20 years of critical theory, for starters. This is the strain of scholarly thought that puts truth on the backburner (if it doesn’t dispose of it entirely) in favor of a view of reality as a contested space in which nothing is certain, everything has to do with power imbalances, and ambiguity (re: “complicating, problematizing…”) is the end of all academic pursuit. She also gets this idea from radical feminism, which in saying “the personal is the political” situates the human body in a discursive battleground of contextual ideologies that laughs off the idea of transcendent morality or gender.

Shvarts’ project shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, and Yale should look no further than their own professors if they want someone to blame. If we teach our students that all reality is perceptual, all morality personal, and all truth a narrativized fiction, “Abortion Girl” is the least we should expect.

19 responses to “Abortion as Art? (Critical Theory Gone Berserk)

  1. shakespeherian

    I think ‘the academy’ acknowledges a pretty stark difference between the inarguably ambiguous nature of reality as filtered through human perception and outright bold-faced lying.

  2. Horrifying! Next, someone will document a murder or rape as “art”.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I first learned about this last week, and was incredibly disturbed and saddened, both by Shvarts cavalier and arguably naive attitude as well as Yale’s poor handling of the affair.

    Lord have mercy.

  4. I agree entirely. We are beginning to see the physical consequences of popular critical theory in academia, from Heidegger to Derrida. It will be interesting to see where truth ends up next.

  5. I really hope she wasn’t on a scholarship and no-one gave her money to produce such a steaming pile of turd.

  6. Thanks for your insights. And great observation of the perceived inaccessibility of “truth” today. I was at a theological conference last week where it became even more frightening as many there began to apply this postmodern framework of non-certainty to theological pursuits. As these things continue to play out it will become more and more disturbing and flat out frightening.

  7. It’s a curious phenomenon that so many can cynically dismiss poststructural ontology and postmodern phenomenology without even so much as an argument (or even stated philosophy) against it. What is it about continental philosophy that you disagree with, and on what basis? In my experience (and I don’t mean to implicate anyone here), most people who dismiss postmodernism think it’s the same thing as believing there is n truth, no rules, and that there’s no point to anything— that dismissiveness comes before attempting to engage with anything said by critical theory since the 1950s.

  8. Tim-
    I’m certainly not dismissing critical theory in all incarnations; and as far as postmodernism goes, I agree that it is NOT (as many presume) simply a negation of truth. I consider myself postmodern in many respects. As you may or may not know, I’m a huge fan of Heidegger and many other continental (even some French!) philosophers. I’ve engaged critical theory quite a bit (and enjoyed engaging with it), and while it has many merits I think that the end game of it gets quite ridiculous and depressing… I do, however, love Baudrillard!

  9. This sounds to me like one of two things:

    1. a great tongue-in-cheek backlash against postmodern readings by a brilliant (conservative) student who really knows how to manipulate the media

    2. or (more likely) a really bad idea, that got shut down and her desperate attempt to redeem her senior thesis, which is currently spiraling out of control.

    In the spirit of reading the truth, I’m going to choose it’s #1. While I tend to agree w/ contentinal philosophy in most regards, I think this would be a great (ironic) prank, just because it’s so over the top (assuming, of course, that’s what it is).

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  13. Perhaps the whole thing was, in effect, an idealistic exercise in ‘celebrity’, attention seekings, and media manipulation. It’s hard to tease out a single truth when the offered ‘truths’ are a shapeshifting tangle of contrastingly indignant and seemingly self-serving sound bites. It happened, it didn’t happen, no, it happened this way, or that, we’re shocked, etc.

    The most memorable visual from the resulting coverage is that of Abortion Girl standing on a soapbox with mouth wide open, sporting a sort of wide open smirk.

    But like other ill-conceived stands, this one ended nowhere – not at an ultimate truth or ground-breaking revelation or even a novel or interesting point of view. It simply caused us to lose interest before the mess was philosophically and artistically sorted out. And now she has to go forward with that unfortunate nickname.

    I think I learned something from this but I am not sure what. And I enjoyed your post. Still, I have to wonder what Maya Anjelou’s mother, and other of my imaginary mentors, might have to say about the whole pile. Signed– Mo from the above ‘Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)’

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  15. The world denied God the Son, what chance then does truth and morality and art have.

  16. one mans/womans truth could be anothers pois0n

  17. truth like art is subjective

  18. Alan, a man/woman’s belief doesn’t make it true.

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