One of the chief lessons of contemporary “avant-garde” art, especially that which pullulates in an academic setting, is that the unutterably tedious can cohabit seamlessly with the repellent. That may seem counterintuitive. After all, wasn’t the main point of “transgressive” art to rescue us from banality, to lift us out of the tedious, taken-for-granted way of looking at things in which all of us philistine, middle-class bourgeois folks have been absorbed since childhood? That’s certainly a large part of the rhetoric. It is curious, though, how rarely that happens. Why?
Once upon a time “academic art” meant boring stuff that might be technically proficient but which lacked any spark of genuine feeling or vital contact with reality. Academic art was rote art, art that merely went through the motions. Its decorousness was not so much mannerly as a species of mannerism: something stale, decadent, ultimately lifeless. Academic art might be quietly lubricious. But its governing commitment was slavish devotion to whatever clichés defined establishment taste. In consequence, academic art was as predictable as it was insipid.
That was once upon a time. Today, you can forget about the technical proficiency. Hardly anyone learns traditional drawing or painting techniques any more. But today’s academic art is similarly boring, similarly predictable, similarly devoid of genuine feeling, similarly in thrall to the reigning clichés of the age. It’s just that the governing clichés today are instinct with the rancid detritus of yesterday’s avant garde. Item: several years ago, The New York Times reported on a student in Columbia University’s graduate program in visual arts who bought and killed frogs. He then extracted muscle tissue, affixed it to small skeleton-like structures he had constructed out of wire and plastic, and made them move by electrically stimulating the muscle tissue.
Ethicists among our readers may wish to ask themselves why this was a repellent practice: Why, for most of us, is it OK when a frog ends up on the laboratory dissecting board or as cuisses de grenouille à la lyonnaise but not OK when someone wantonly slaughters Kermit in order to make his latest piece of sculpture twitch? While you are pondering that, consider this latest and most disgusting bit of academic art news: the now-infamous story of Aliza Shvarts, the Yale student whose senior art project, as the Yale Daily News reported, recorded
a nine-month process during which [Shvarts] artificially inseminated herself “as often as possible” while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as prepared collections of the blood from the process.
Horrifying, isn’t it? The explosion of outrage that greeted the story showed that there was considerable unanimity about that. But no sooner had the revulsion got going than Yale issued a press release informing us that the whole thing was a hoax: “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,” a Yale University spokeswoman said, relief wafting off the page as a public relations disaster was narrowly avoided. That made us feel a little better. But not much. Why? Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, put his finger on part of the reason: “I’m astounded by this woman’s callousness,” Wolfgang said. “There are thousands of women in this country who are dealing with the pain of having had an abortion, with the trauma of having suffered a miscarriage. For her to make light of that for her own purposes is just beyond words.”
Yes, it is. And it is worth noting as well that Shvarts is sticking by her original story—more or less. According to a follow-up piece in the Yale Daily News, she replied that the University’s statement about her work was “ultimately inaccurate.” According to the paper, Shvarts
reiterated that she engaged in the nine-month process she publicized on Wednesday … repeatedly using a needleless syringe to insert semen into herself, then taking abortifacient herbs at the end of her menstrual cycle to induce bleeding. Thursday evening, in a tour of her art studio, she shared with the News video footage she claimed depicted her attempts at self-induced miscarriages.
“No one can say with 100-percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen,” Shvarts said, adding that she does not know whether she was ever pregnant. “The nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties.”
Well, that is not quite accurate. It is certain that the whole conception of the piece was morally repellent. It is certain that Yale’s response was a masterpiece of evasion. “Had these acts been real,” their statement continued, “they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.” You don’t say? Here’s a question: What action would Yale be prepared to take if it turns out that Shvarts has “violated” the above-mentioned “basic ethical standards”? And what, by the way, was the standard being violated? We wonder, for example, whether the Yale spokesman would say that abortion itself violated a basic ethical standard? Or maybe the violation requires first deliberately impregnating oneself? (But why would that affect the “basic ethical standard” involved?) Or maybe it was videotaping the performance that was the problem? (Yale is now insisting that Shvarts publicly admit her project is a “creative fiction” or they will forbid her to exhibit it; as we write, she has refused.)
Aliza Shvarts may be a kind of genius when it comes to generating publicity for herself. But we believe her performance, whether or not it involved real semen and abortifacients, was morally repugnant. (It would be much worse if it did, of course, for then we enter into the realm of serious mental pathology.) The invocation of “art” doesn’t change that one whit. Indeed, as a society, we suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia: an anesthesia based on the delusion that by calling something “art” we thereby purchase for it a blanket exemption from moral criticism—as if being art automatically rendered all moral considerations beside the point.
But the issue of what has become of academic art today is inseparable from the issue of what has become of the academy that guides and sanctions the art. Had Shvarts pulled her stunt at an art gallery, it would have been just as morally repugnant but would not, we think, have been quite so depressing. Why? Because in the latter case the intellectual and moral authority of a great university is involved. When the university dismissed the project as a hoax, Shvarts went back to the Yale Daily News and shared
elements of her planned exhibition to News reporters, including footage from tapes she plans to play at the exhibit. The tapes depict Shvarts, sometimes naked, sometimes clothed, alone in a shower stall bleeding into a cup. It was all part of a project that Shvarts said had the backing of the dean of her residential college and at least two faculty members within the School of Art.
Note the concluding sentence. This was a project that “had the backing of the dean of her residential college and at least two faculty members within the School of Art.” As a work of art, what Aliza Shvarts did for her senior project doesn’t begin to exist. It is just another in a long line of dreary outrage-by-the-numbers episodes that have been a familiar fixture of cultural life since Dada and surrealism. But as an event in the annals of academic life, Shvarts’s pathetic exhibition is yet another reminder that something has gone very wrong in the groves of academe.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 9, on page 1
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