Bleeding For Your Art

Topic: Well, let’s be generous, and say I’m using a specific recent example to talk about controversial art.

So, where is everybody on Aliza Shvarts, then?

In case you’ve missed it, Ms Shvarts is an Art Student at Yale, and her latest piece includes blood from 9 months of self-induced miscarriages.

Well, maybe. There was a tediously predictably appalled set of noises from both the pro-life and pro-choice lobbies and Yale University released a statement saying the Ms Shvarts is a performace artist, and specifically:

“Her art project includes visual representations, a press release and other narrative materials. She stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages.”

That the whole thing is a fake, and the press release is part of, rather than simply about, the art.

Shvarts has since said that no, that’s not entirely true – the for 9 months she has both artificially inseminated herself with a needle-less syringe (from a panel of anonymous donors that she gathered for the purpose of the art) and then took an abortifacient, timing the insemination for maximum chance for conception, and the abortifacient with her natural cycle, so she cannot say with any certainty whether or not she was actually pregnant at any point. This lack of certainty, is, to her part of the point.

So, the first question to be asked is “is she telling the truth?”

Let’s assume she is, because even if she isn’t, well, I don’t think the questions she’s trying to pose are in the line of “what is art?” and “what is truth?” There are any number of far easier ways to set up those questions.

So first question: is this moral? Well, not if you’re pro-life, obviously. And there are a number of people who are only pro-choice up to a point, and this probably exceeds that for a lot of them. Except…

Even if this is real, there’s no certainty that she did concieve or abort. Even she doesn’t know, and it’s explicitly part of the work, that actually, the controversy only exists in the telling – she’s had to make a physical object to provoke the reaction, but actually, her intent is to create a reaction out of the uncertainty.

Is “it might be over the line” enough of a justification to judge her art in that context? If we believe in innocent-until-proven-guilty, then how can we presume that she did? And even if intent does changes our presumption, why does it do it in a less “real” case, than in actual criminal law, where, say “murder” and “conspiracy to commit” are different things?

And there’s another interesting angle to this. In the artist’s words:

“Just as it is a myth that women are “meant” to be feminine and men masculine, that penises and vaginas are “meant” for penetrative heterosexual sex (or that mouths, anuses, breasts, feet or leather, silicone, vinyl, rubber, or metal implements are not “meant” for sex at all), it is a myth that ovaries and a uterus are “meant” to birth a child.”

And it’s hard to argue her point. If it’s acceptable to do things to your body that are not entirely in line with what nature intended, surely every possible “unnatural” act deserves at least a bit of time considering whether or not it is also something there is value in doing. She’s come up with a delibarately polarising example, of course, but nothing succeeds like excess, and all that…

For myself: well, I’m pro-choice. She gets to chose how she treats her own body, just like we all do. So for me, this isn’t over the line. It can’t be. Yes, it does make me a little uncomfortable, for reasons I can’t really articulate very well, but that’s my failing to live up to my own principles, not a judgement I can make on her.

And well, I’ve never been bothered by art that’s “trying to be controversial”, because if art isn’t trying to provoke a response, then what the hell is it doing? You might as well protest that someone throwing water on a crowd is “trying to make people damp”. I get slightly more bothered when it’s prefixed by “just”, but I don’t think this is “just” anything. Yes, it was an attempt to create controversy, but it’s on a subject that’s worth discussing. We’re currently stuck in the bodies we have, and I think it’s worth looking at the limits to which society will permit us to have control over them.

Do I think it’s legitimate for someone to claim a press release, and people’s re-telling of the work on commentary on it as part of the artwork? Yeah, I do. Why shouldn’t it be? It’s just making explicit what is implicit in a Turner or Monet – that art is created with the intent of reaction. If she wants to claim that this post is part of her art exhibit, I’m happy to let her. It couldn’t have existed without her, after all.

What do you think?