Am I the only one who’s disappointed that this Yale abortion thing seems to be a hoax? Well, it’s not a hoax, but rather a stunt, where the art is the information and documentation about the thing, rather than the thing itself–which it seems never happened.
According to the Yale Daily News, this still isn’t clear. But according to the New York Times, Yale officials say Aliza Schvarts admitted privately that she never actually fertilized herself/aborted the results repeatedly. Her own commentary on the issue is deliberately, artspeakishly ambiguous: “For the past year, I performed repeated self-induced miscarriages.” What does “perform” mean? To act out as if to do, or to actually do? Again: “An intentional ambiguity pervades both the act and the objects I produced in relation to it. The performance exists only as I chose to represent it.”
I think it’s safe to say it never really happened. Sure, in the “information age,” you could argue that nothing is really real, and that everything exists only as narrative, so by creating narrative, you create the thing itself, and all that postmodern stuff. That seems to be what she’s after, and I don’t feel like rehashing those very well-known arguments here.
There are a few things that bother me about the hucksterism of this project. You could argue that faking the piece raises all the same questions as actually doing it, without any of the attendant health risks and ethical concerns. I disagree. First, faking and marketing multiple abortions is easy. Abortion-as-art is the sort of idea that any high schooler, recently introduced to the vagaries of contemporary art, might propose. To fake the idea isn’t much more sophisticated than coming up with it, despite the thin layer of discursive ambiguity added. In the end, it’s still an attention-grabbing stunt, less likely to promote dialogue than cause a brief spell out outrage followed by relief and, shortly thereafter, amnesia. Faking it entails all the gimmicky-ness of the idea without of the viscerality or consequences of the thing itself.
To actually do it–well, that would be different. Among sophisticated critics, it’s common to denigrate or dismiss ethically questionable art by saying that the theory or ideas behind the work aren’t very strong, anyway. I think this is inaccurate. Perhaps some people believe that certain ideas aren’t strong enough to outweigh the ethical issues the work entails, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to consider the ideas–or the work, if it gets made. In this case, we live in a nation where everything that Aliza Schvarts “did” is perfectly legal. Abortions are performed regularly in the U.S., and most forward-thinkers would defend them enthusiastically as a “woman’s right to choose.” By gratuitously exercising this “right,” Schvarts calls into question what, exactly, it means. It’s easy to defend abortions on paper or in conversation; it’s another thing to be confronted with the bloody and traumatic reality of miscarriages and abortions. Far from uncommon, they’re the natural products of a society that encourages both sex-for-fun and individual freedom–a combination we like to call by the friendly name of “family planning.”
Sex and pregnancy are controversial arenas because they blur the sacred Western boundaries between individuals. Sex isn’t just a recreational activity between two people; it’s a very dangerous decision that entails an ecstasy (”being put out of place” or standing outside the self) that questions the very idea of the individual. To induce abortions foregrounds the visceral nature of sexuality and reproductive freedom. It extends the age-old questions about how far an artist should be allowed to take self-expression and self-mutilation by reminding the art world that “self” is an ambiguous term, especially for women. It also asks why certain activities–artificial insemination and abortion–are enabled and condoned as the results of decisions made by certain “professionals” (politicians, judges, scientists) but not others (artists). To put it another way, Harry Blackmun has aborted many more babies than Aliza Schvarts ever could–and at far less risk to himself–but he’s a hero and she’s a mentally deranged terror?
I’m not arguing for or against an openly sexual society, but I am arguing for a society that admits the dark and transgressive underbelly of sexual freedom. Repeatedly inseminating yourself and aborting the results would be a risky way of forcing those issues into the spotlight. Schvarts’s project, had it actually happened, would have been truly courageous–the damage she might do to herself being but one more way of emphasizing the seriousness of a sexuality that is, in the enlightened circles of the day, perversely trivialized.