By MICHAEL J. LEWIS
April 24, 2008; Page D9
Has any work of art been more reviled than Aliza Shvarts’s senior project at Yale? Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix suspended in his own urine did not lack for articulate champions. Nor did Damien Hirst’s vitrine with its doleful rotting cow’s head. But Ms. Shvarts’s performance of “repeated self-induced miscarriages” has left even them silent. According to her project description, she inseminated herself with sperm from voluntary donors “from the 9th to the 15th day of my menstrual cycle . . . so as to insure the possibility of fertilization.” Later she would induce a miscarriage by means of an herbal abortifacient. (Or so she claimed; whether she actually did any of this remains unclear.)
Ms. Shvarts may have, as she asserts, intended her project to raise questions about society and the body. But she inadvertently raises an entirely different set of questions: How exactly is Yale teaching its undergraduates to make art? Is her project a bizarre aberration or is it within the range of typical student work, unusually startling perhaps but otherwise a fully characteristic example of the program and its students?
A traditional program in studio art typically begins with a course in drawing, where students are introduced to the basics of line, form and tone. Life drawing is fundamental to this process, not only because of the complexity of the human form (that limber scaffolding of struts and masses) but because it is the object for which we have the most familiarity – and sympathy. Students invariably bristle at the drawing requirement, wishing to vault ahead to the stage where they make “real art,” but in my experience, students who skip the drawing stages do not have the same visual acuity, and the ability to see where a good idea might be made better.
Following this introduction, students might specialize in painting, sculpture or such newer media as photography or video. A rigorous college art program provides a strong vertical structure, so that students take a sequence of ever more challenging courses in the same medium. Most undergraduate programs culminate in a senior show, a high-spirited and uneven romp in which students’ clever ideas race far ahead of their execution and workmanship. It was for just such a show that Ms. Shvarts’s project was, so to speak, conceived.
It is often said that great achievement requires in one’s formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it does not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others. And such seems to be the case with Ms. Shvarts.
In “My Life Among the Deathworks,” the sociologist Philip Rieff coined the term “deathworks” to describe works of art that celebrated creative destruction, and which posed “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.” He argued that the principal artistic achievements of the 20th century were such deathworks, which, however lovely or brilliant, served primarily to negate or transgress the existing culture, rather than to affirm or celebrate it. He did not live to see Ms. Shvarts’s piece, but one suspects that he would have had much to say.
Mr. Rieff was especially interested in those who treated their bodies as an instrument of art, especially those who used them in masochistic or repugnant ways. By now, it is hardly an innovation to do so. Nearly two generations have passed since Chris Burden had a bullet fired into his body. It is even longer since the Italian artist Piero Manzoni sold tin cans charmingly labeled Merde d’artista, which contained exactly that. Even Ms. Shvarts’s central proposition – that the discomfort we feel at the word miscarriage is itself a species of linguistic oppression – is a relic of the highly politicized literary theory of the late 1980s. As she wrote in an op-ed published in last Friday’s Yale Daily News:
“The reality of miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality, an act of reading constructed by an act of naming – an authorial act. It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act, and in doing so, reclaim it from the heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it.”
In other words, one must act to shatter the rigid lattice of categories that words impose upon us. Although the accompanying jargon is fashionable (or was a few years ago), it is essentially a portentous recycling of the idea behind Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 urinal, which became a “Fountain” when he declared it so.
Immaturity, self-importance and a certain confused earnestness will always loom large in student art work. But they will usually grow out of it. What of the schools that teach them? Undergraduate programs in art aspire to the status of professional programs that award MFA degrees, and there is often a sense that they too should encourage the making of sophisticated and challenging art, and as soon as possible. Yale, like most good programs, requires its students to achieve a certain facility in drawing, although nowhere near what it demanded in the 1930s, when aspiring artists spent roughly six hours a day in the studio painting and life drawing, and an additional three on Saturday.
Given the choice of this arduous training or the chance to proceed immediately to the making of art free of all traditional constraints, one can understand why all but a few students would take the latter. But it is not a choice that an undergraduate should be given. In this respect – and perhaps only in this respect – Ms. Shvarts is the victim in this story.
Mr. Lewis is
Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art at