Alicia Shvarts: Abortion, Art, Politics, Shock, and Consequences

Laurie and Debbie say:

News media outlets and blogs all over the political map have been condemning Yale University performance artist Alicia Shvarts for what she originally described as “a documentation of a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself ‘as often as possible’ while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages.” Once the shit started to fly, Yale recanted, claiming she now says “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.” To recomplicate the issues, Shvarts is now disputing Yale’s position.

The work, which was apparently planned to be “a cube lined with plastic sheets with a blood-and- petroleum-jelly mixture in between, onto which she would project video footage of herself ‘experiencing miscarriages in her bathroom tub'” doesn’t exist, and can’t be evaluated.

Nick Mamatas discusses Shvarts’s work in the context of “extreme art.” One quality of extreme art (think about explicit erotic art as one example) is that it is rarely mediocre; it is usually an artistic failure and occasionally an extraordinary artistic success. This is because making art about shocking subjects will by definition cause the bulk of the audience (if not the artist) to be distracted by the subject. When it’s successful, the the subject doesn’t subvert the art, but rather becomes part of the work. Of course, using art to shock is hardly new: the practice is at least 150 years old, so unless the work is good, the overall result is neither original nor interesting.

On balance, it seems very unlikely that Shvarts was producing fine extreme art. We think Jezebel (linked several times above) is probably right when she says:

We’ve all met young men and women like Aliza Shvarts: They come from relatively happy, upper-middle-class families, and are so desperate to be “edgy” and “crazy” that they perform a series of stunts — whether through drug experimentation, sexual exploration, or bad performance art — to differentiate themselves from their hopelessly bourgie peers and parents.

One very disturbing aspect of the story is that Shvarts seems to show contempt for many of the women whose experiences she was mining for her work. (We have no idea what her own reproductive history is; she apparently isn’t saying.) Doing work that is designed to impress a small elite cadre of peers at the expense of causing pain to a large group of people with similar experiences shows a lack of respect for people whose life experiences are being examined. Because we work in areas that many people find shocking, we’ve chosen to spend a lot of thought and effort learning how to present our work in a respectful and inclusive context.

Shvarts shows real talent for identifying what’s shocking. Shock, of course, is a matter of time and place, and the amount of furore Shvarts has generated tells us that she had her finger on a major cultural hot button.

Abortion is legal for any reason in this country, with various limitations imposed by individual states. It is not, however, culturally acceptable. The acceptable position (in liberal circles) is to be “pro-choice,” and to bemoan the sorry state that forces women into abortion, which is “known” to be emotionally and psychically damaging. As Nick Mamatas points out, the reactions from NARAL and from the right-to-life groups sound almost identical. Miscarriage, the end result of approximately 15-20% of pregnancies, is also culturally “known” to be painfully life-changing.

And, of course, those things are frequently true … and more frequently true because of the cultural expectations than they would be otherwise. We completely sympathize with the women who are offended, freaked out, or thrown back into bad experiences by reading about Shvarts’s project.

For another aspect, we turn to Badgermama, who has written two excellent pieces on this topic. Here are a few quotations:

We can choose to get an abortion, only if our intent is pure by some nebulous standard. Only if we say that we didn’t mean it, that we weren’t sluts, that we weren’t careless.

Only if we don’t do it for art.

If we have actual agency and choice and control over our bodies, then, my body is my canvas. What I do with it is up to me.

How I talk about it, and document and video and photograph it, is also up to me.

By writing this, Badgermama is lifting the genuine questions Shvarts was raising out of the context of bloody plastic sheets and into the arena where they really do matter. What does “choice” mean? Who polices “good choices” and defines “bad” ones?

Your body is a temple, but mine might be an art gallery … or a demolition site.

Let’s finish with one more quote from Badgermama.

I challenge people to think a little more about it all, and give their reactions more analysis and time. And, about the project, I certainly realize it is upsetting, perturbing, “triggering” for many people. I respect that, but it is not good justification to lash out with hostility at another woman’s choices. … Art gets to push boundaries, and can carry “trigger” or warning labels to let people know.