Shock and Ambiguity: When attention-seeking art goes too far

Take a moment and breathe in the pungent aromas of the season: blossoming flowers, strong fertilizer, wet grass. Springtime brings April showers, May flowers, and, all across the land, a whole lot of art. While spring is supposed to be a fecund season for just about everything, the truth is that too much of any of the above–including art–can result in a nauseating washout.

We have Version, Artropolis, B.A. and M.F.A. shows from many Chicago colleges and universities, and here on the University of Chicago campus our very own springtime deluge, Festival of the Arts. Art, and all of the potentially staid discourse that comes with it, is everywhere. Artists try to say something, or they purposely try to say nothing. They pursue aesthetic bliss or issue shocking statements. What exactly art is has been something to discuss, ad nauseam, since anyone bothered issuing art criticism.

The art world is full of scandals, and that isn’t new either. They are monetary, like Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God,” a diamond-encrusted human skull which sold for approximately $100 million to a group of investors. They are ambiguous, like that surrounding Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas, whose plans to display “Eres Lo Que Lees” (“You Are What You Read”), a piece involving a starving chained dog, have caused animal rights activists to protest his inclusion in the upcoming Central American Biennial. Whereas Hirst’s piece is pretty cut and dry (a skull, lots of diamonds), Vargas’s piece is ambiguous. The artist’s gallery has stated that the dog was not actually harmed or deprived of anything, except during the three hours that the exhibition lasted. The artist himself has made no comment on the state of the dog, but has publicly noted that he has received hundreds of death threats for his alleged animal abuse.

What do both of these artists have that is never really lacking in the self-generative, exceedingly masturbatory art scene? They have press, and the kind of attention generated beyond a few column inches in the backwaters of the culture section of a newspaper. They have Facebook groups–at least one indication that people care. A quick search for Hirst’s name turns up half a dozen groups about whether he is or isn’t a “real” artist. The most effusive, titled “Damien Hirst is the best artist to have ever lived!!!!!!!”, has 101 members. That’s nothing compared to Vargas’s anti-fan base. Vargas’s name turns up over 200 groups, many with thousands of members, calling for a boycott of the artist’s work and arguing that it is not, under any circumstances, art. There are several groups in Vargas’s favor, but outcry of “torture is not art” dominates the conversation. However vitriolic the tone, Vargas, Hirst and other artists willing to make art that generates headlines come out of the media melée with intense name recognition.

If you’ve been paying attention to the many scandals and issues that have enriched our discourse in the past month, perhaps the somewhat perplexing, blogosphere-fueled story of Yale’s Aliza Shvarts has come to your attention. In a world of serious issues, this stunt is particularly, as many commentators have put it, “annoying.” But Shvarts’s story can teach us something about the way that art works, and remind us that our biggest enemy in terms of achieving something that legitimately starts a conversation may be ourselves and the institutions within which we choose to function.

Shvarts’s story, in the end, is Self-Promotion 101. Shvarts is a senior art major at Yale who told the Yale Daily News that she was planning on presenting a senior thesis project of a controversial nature. She claimed that she had artificially inseminated herself for nine months and then used herbal remedies to cause herself to miscarry repeatedly. She had collected the blood from these potential pregnancies (though whether it was actually blood from a miscarriage or menstrual blood was ambiguous), and planned on incorporating it, mixed with Vaseline, into an installation piece, onto which she would also project video footage of her “miscarrying” in a bathtub. While the work quickly earned the tag “abortion art,” the piece’s ambiguity and actual intentions were quickly overlooked by a scandal-seeking public. She’s ended up with more Facebook groups for or against her than Hirst, whose work sells for more than any other living artist. Though, of course, many of them are calling her a murderer.

Within hours of the Shvarts story being posted on the Yale Daily News website, the story was picked up by the Drudge Report, and a few hours later a slew of other internet sources published the link. By the afternoon of the following day, Yale had issued a statement calling Shvarts’s project “a creative fiction.” While Shvarts still maintains that she did artificially inseminate and miscarry, she acknowledges that the blood itself could be ambiguous in origin and, in a column in the newspaper, called the work “an intervention into our normative understanding of ‘the real.’” Yale told Shvarts that unless she explicitly admitted the piece’s fiction, she would not be able to display it in the senior art show. She refused to describe her work as fiction, and did not include a work in the show. However, she turned in an alternate (unpublicized) project, and will presumably complete her visual arts major.

If it hadn’t been a “fiction” and so highly publicized, Shvarts’s work would have fit in with many pieces that use menstrual blood as a medium. Female artists have long questioned sexuality through pieces that display their own blood in a graphic way, using it to express femininity, fertility, and the taboos instituted by male-dominated culture. While Shvarts’s art might have been interesting had it been ultimately displayed, the quashing actions of the institution she works within, and her own insistence on creating ambiguity and controversy, meant that the work of art itself would effectively never exist except in the minds of those who sensationalize it: Shvarts herself, Yale University and, to be fair, the author of this essay.

While Shvarts chummed the waters for a media feeding frenzy, she shouldn’t be needlessly condemned. After all, she faces the pressures of a looming graduation on top of an intense media scrutiny. A friend of mine dishearteningly commented, “It’s probably good if she didn’t actually make herself have all those miscarriages. She probably still needs health insurance.” And perhaps this is the most upsetting thing about Shvarts: her art is formless, so it cannot actually be critiqued. Before graduating from college, she’s made herself hated, controversial–but, bonus! She’s famous. Though at what cost, both to national discourse and to Shvarts personally, remains as ambiguous as Shvarts’s work. A woman’s right to choose should be inalienable, but by sensationalizing it in a media circus, nobody gains any ground on which to be taken seriously, so there is a reason to be upset by this investigation of “the real.” Shvarts says she has no plans to display her art in any alternate venues. There could be many reasons for this decision, but in the end, one wonders if this is an implicit failure of the artist to get behind the work that she alleges to have created. Hopefully, being the one of the most famous college students in America for about fifteen minutes provides enough salve for the burn caused by the bright lights of the media she invited upon herself.