Every once in a while a work pops up out of the depths of the art world and sweeps through mass-media channels, shocking and mystifying a general public unaware of the arcane value system possessed by artists. In 1971, Chris Burden had an assistant shoot him in the arm in a gallery space. In 1989 Andres Serrano provoked a wave of controversy with his photograph “Piss Christ.” And, this year, Yale undergrad Aliza Shvarts incited condemnation for a performance in which she repeatedly impregnated herself and took abortifacients to end the pregnancies each month over a period of nine months.
Naturally, both pro-life and pro-choice factions decried the performance, which apparently makes light of a deeply divisive ethical quandary. Others have taken aim at Yale for censoring the work, which was to have been exhibited as part of a student show at the university; they point out that without seeing Shvarts’s final project, no one can pass judgment on its artistic or moral worth. Yale, for its part, told the student that she could display the work only if she released a statement saying that the piece is a “creative fiction,” and that she did not, in fact, induce and terminate the pregnancies. The university claimed to be concerned about encouraging mentally and physically unsafe behavior.
What gets lost in all the controversy, though, is the actual point of the piece. In an article for the Yale Daily News, Shvarts laid out the meaning and import of her performance, explaining that she recruited a number of anonymous men to donate sperm for the project, which she then applied to her cervix using a syringe. On the day she expected her period to start, she ingested the abortifacient, which causes bleeding. She then recorded video of herself moaning and bleeding into a cup (both the videos and the blood were supposed to have been part of her final installation of the work). Because of this process, neither she nor anyone else could know whether she was pregnant. It is a matter of interpretation. The work, as she sees it, raises questions about the use of a person’s body, and whether it is legitimate to think of organs in a utilitarian sense. This question, of the purpose of human anatomy and sexuality, has been raised time and again to come to terms with the propriety of masturbation, contraception, homosexuality, and generally, any non-procreative sexual activity.
Art can be viewed as a sort of safe space in which society allows itself to push moral boundaries with the understanding that the artist is asking a question. Behavior that would otherwise be proscribed is permitted in order to catalyze moral evolution. We can draw analogies here to other safe spaces that humans set up in order to take otherwise unacceptable risks: the boxing ring, the therapist’s office, even the dreamworld, where desires and fears are explored without physical commitment. Therapeutic uses of art are well established, as is the connection between dreams and artistic production.
Problems arise, however, when the boundary between art and life is blurred. When we move from image to enactment, a crucial line has been crossed, and the artistic space becomes not so safe. As much as morally questionable performances have been integrated into the artistic canon, it is possible that they will always provoke trepidation, if not outrage, in the general public. After all, we are at a point where this kind of performance art has been going on for decades (if not longer), and it has not become any more palatable to a general audience. The Viennese Actionists put on aggressive, often violent performances throughout the 1960s. One Actionist, Rudolph Schwarzkogler, fell to his death from a four-story window — and to this day no one is quite sure if this event was a planned “action,” a suicide, or an accident.
Although the goal of obliterating distinctions between art and life is axiomatic to many artists, occasionally even the most well-respected performance artists admit that boundaries should exist. In 2005, Chris Burden resigned from his professorship at UCLA after the administration did not act quickly enough to discipline a student who had staged a game of Russian Roulette in the classroom of another art professor. Burden’s outrage may have been premature, as it was later revealed that the student had used a hand-carved wooden replica rather than a real, working gun. But his point is legitimate. Although Burden’s own performance, “Shoot,” was a genuine act of self-mutilation, it was done in a private gallery space, and the audience chose to attend knowing what was in store. The UCLA student, Joseph Deutch, had not informed the professor or any of the students of the nature of his performance, and, had the gun been real, would have been posing a genuine threat to an unwitting audience at a public university. (Shvarts, in contrast, intended to present documentation of risky, but private behavior, making Yale’s argument for censorship somewhat less convincing.)
Some artists and theorists would point out that defending the social value of transgressive art is begging the question. They would defend the autonomy of the artist regardless of social benefit. After all, to talk about the utility of a form of art is to place its importance beneath that of other social values — to say that art is a means to an end. This is precisely the kind of thinking that Shvarts critiques. Her uterus does not exist for the purpose of fulfilling anyone’s definition of social value, and neither does her art.
However, there’s another side to that coin, and to the extent that an artist places the creation of art above personal and social safety, the broader community is bound to question the validity of that work. At a certain point, transgressive artwork is not breaking down barriers but creating new ones with a single-minded focus on autonomy as the primary concern of the artist. Pro-choice activists are certainly correct in pointing out that Shvarts’s piece will create fresh problems for a movement that is trying to defend women’s rights while also ensuring that women are responsible in exercising those rights. But it sure would be nice if we could explore the meaning of the work before condemning it. •