By Lucas Kwong
I don’t usually follow the news publications at Yale these days. The bulk of campus news, however pressing it might have seemed during college, now strikes me as somewhat pedantic: I’m not particularly concerned as to whether Professor-such-and-such supports Clinton or Obama, or whether the freshman bathrooms merit renovation. Recent events in the Yale art world, however, have sucked me back into the drama of campus life, and caused me to spend many a sleepless night pondering one question:
Is my alma mater going to hell in a handbasket?
By now, I’m sure, most citizens of the blogosphere are familiar with the escapades of Aliza Shvarts, abortion artist extraordinaire. Over the course of nine months, Shvarts allegedly inseminated herself nine times with sperm obtained from anonymous donors, only to ingest abortive pills two weeks after each insemination. Shvarts now intends to display videos of her self-induced miscarriages, as well as an installation of her own blood, on campus. While the university insists that her story amounts to a “creative fiction project,” I suspect that Aliza’s exhibit is nothing less than an example of art imitating life—not in terms of its content, but in terms of its philosophical underpinnings.
For me, the most revealing statement Shvarts made had nothing to do with the specifics of her artistic endeavors (I use that term very loosely) and everything to do with her conception of art. “I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity,” Shvarts told the Yale Daily News. According to Shvarts, art can only either be a vehicle for ideological agendas or a product of capitalism. A third option—art as an autonomous object of beauty, subject to neither politics nor profit—isn’t even considered.
Such a false dichotomy would be unfortunate in and of itself, but when juxtaposed with an opinion article in the Yale Herald that ran the same day that Shvarts’ story first broke, the standard of art outlined above points to a deeper problem. In “Reproductive Rights: A Movement for Sexual Education,” Alice Buttrick argues that more students need to pay attention to the politics of sex, which to her means supporting contraceptives and family planning. Why? “Because...it is our responsibility—especially in our “hook-up” culture—to step up and advocate for ourselves.”
In other words, because the culture of one night stands and “friends with benefits” is an unalterable given—because there is no other way to think of sex than as an unavoidable weekend extracurricular—we’d better spend more money on condoms.
Buttrick’s column opens with the disclaimer that the column was written without knowledge of Shvarts’ project and “should in no way be considered a response to that incident.” In that light, perhaps one should consider Buttrick’s column not as a response but as a necessary context in which to view Shvart’s actions. After all, what is Shvart’s senior art project if not the aesthetic embodiment of a culture that accepts self-degradation as a fact of life?
Buttrick complains in her article that not enough students pay attention to the politics of sex, but she might as well complain that not enough students pay attention to the politics of playing one’s Nintendo Wii: at Yale, sex has largely been stripped of its mystery, thanks to such events as Sex Week, during which Yale hosts seminars on sex toys and features porn stars as guest lecturers. It’s only a matter of time before such reductionism bleeds over into aesthetic philosophy; the result is an art that has also been stripped of mystery, an art that, rather than opening up other planes of existence, shackles the viewer to the power relations of the present day. In short, Shvarts’ unimaginative approach to art is the fruition of an unimaginative approach to life.
Yale’s administration has decided to ban Shvarts’ project from being displayed. Rather than simply breathing a sigh of relief, however, conscientious students might well spend some time reflecting on just how far the ivory tower’s standard of art has fallen, not to mention the cynical ethos that has accelerated this decline. Should students fail to do so, I fear Shvarts will not be the last artist on Yale’s campus to sacrifice aesthetic and moral sensitivity in the name of politics. We get the artists we deserve.