Yale Performance Art: Where Are the Grown-Ups?

Yesterday the Yale Daily News published a story about the senior project of an art major, Aliza Shvarts, which consists, as the article put it, of "a documentation of a nine month process during which she inseminated herself as often as possible while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages." In short, Ms. Shvarts claimed to use donated sperm to achieve repeated pregnancies, and used then an unspecified drug for repeated abortions. Predictably, this story has spread like wildfire both on the Internet as well as the mainstream press.

Later on Thursday, Yale University issued a statement announcing that Shvarts' project did not involve actual pregnancy or induced miscarriage. But even before their statement, I was skeptical. Most puzzling to me was her claim to have used "abortifacient drugs that were legal and herbal." If she had really terminated her own pregnancies repeatedly, she could have been subject to legal prosecution — as occurred recently to a number of poor, mainly immigrant women who have tried to terminate their unwanted pregnancies by themselves, in situations vastly more grave than Schvarts' "senior project."

Even though Schvarts did not actually become pregnant and self-abort, this is a disturbing and irresponsible project. Shvarts told the Yale Daily News that her project was not designed for "shock value" and it was not her intention to "scandalize anyone." She also told the paper that she "believes strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity."

It is very hard to take such statements seriously. If she truly believed that claiming to get herself pregnant "repeatedly," only to then terminate those pregnancies, would not shock and scandalize, then she clearly has not a clue about reproductive politics, and should not be sticking her nose, er, her uterus, into a highly charged issue she knows nothing about. Art should be a medium for politics, but the responsibility of the artist is to know something about the politics with which she is engaging.

What useful "conversation" has Shvarts provoked with this project — other than the fact that not all ideas for performance art are good ones? Does anyone — on either side of the abortion debate — gain any new insight from her work? All that seems to be accomplished with this project is a highly visible trivialization of the issue of abortion and a phenomenal insensitivity to women who suffer repeat miscarriages.

As someone who has been a college professor for over thirty years, I know it is not uncommon for eager students to have fanciful ideas for projects, and some of these, for various reasons, simply should not take place. It is the job of faculty mentors to give appropriate guidance and to point out that not everything that is "provocative" is necessarily worth doing. The Yale art department, and her advisor in particular, has failed Aliza Shvarts big-time. And in ways that clearly Ms. Shvarts does not understand, her "artistic" contribution to politics fails the rest of us.

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  • amanda-marcotte

    What it has done is trivialize (properly) the anti-choice movement.  It demonstrated better than all the op-eds in the world a number of things:

    1) The gross-out factor they employ is more about misogyny than a commitment to "life".  All she really was expressing was her menstruation, and even if there was a zygote in there, you couldn't tell.  Their hostility towards menstruation is rendered indistinguishable from their hostility towards abortion, showing what this is really about—thinking women are Teh Icky.

    2) They'll believe anything, no matter how impossible, if it's centered around the idea that giving women freedom and education was a bad idea.  

    3) That they can muster more outrage on the behalf of a half dozen imaginary embryos than they can all the dead in Iraq.


    I, for one, am laughing my ass off.

  • invalid-0

    Amanda, if you spend 10 minutes looking at google stories about this, you will see that it is NOT the antiabortion movement that is being trivialized…if the artist wanted to do a project about menstruation, as you suggest, why didn’t she simply call it that? and if its about menstruation, why the need to claim–as she still does–that she repeatedly impregnanted herself and then induced a miscarriage? carole

  • invalid-0

    Having just read the artist’s statement on feministing, I can see that Aliza Shvarts is an incredibly bright young woman. And is, at the same time, either incredibly naive or intended to provoke people … but has chosen to go for shocking people rather than getting them to think.

    Shvarts says “The myth that a certain set of functions are .natural. (while all the other potential functions are .unnatural.) undermines that sense of capability, confining lifestyle choices to the bounds of normatively defined narratives.”

    Here I think she fails to distinguish between function versus use. I totally 100% agree that women don’t have to use their bodies to have babies at all, just because they can. But what other possible FUNCTION could a woman use her uterus for? Storing her spare change?

    I’m all for political art as well. Even if it offends people.

    But I’m with you on this one, it needed to be thought through a bit more carefully.

  • http://www.katporter.com invalid-0

    And I realize I’m in a very small minority here. I’ve not yet read her statement on Feministing, but I do want to respond to one question you pose, Carole:

    Does anyone — on either side of the abortion debate — gain any new insight from her work?

    I feel like I have. Ms. Shvartz has stated (whether truthfully or not) that she herself doesn’t know if she was pregnant, and if she was, whether she successfully self-terminated the pregnancy, and if she did, how often. All we know is that she experienced vaginal bleeding on a regular basis.

    For those who believe this bleeding to be the result of abortions – those on both sides of the debate – the reaction has been one of shock and repulsion. You don’t have to go very far to see Ms. Shvartz receiving multiple death threats, and insults ranging from “pig” to “inhuman” to “serial killer.”

    And if it’s a hoax? Well, in that case too, a woman’s body bled once a month. It expelled excess uterine lining exactly as it should. She’s a college student having a regular period, and thousands have threatened violence because of it. They’re outraged, and they’re screaming (and they’re typing very loudly, too, I’m sure) because of an act they imagine she may have commited.

    She says even she doesn’t know which it is.

    I’d like to pose a question myself:

    If she were just a student, taking a monthly herbal supplement (whether potentially harmful to her or not), would you still feel the outrage? Would the internet still be aflame with judgment and anger?

    When you answer no – and we all will – when we allow the possible presence of a fetus justify our wanting to exert control over another woman’s body, what then? How safe is our right to abortion, to self-determination, when other pro-choice women are this ready to judge?

    It may not be tasteful, and I don’t know if it’s art, but I do know it’s made me think.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I've got a piece on Monday arguing about this, but basically, she showed how absurd the arguments against contraception are.  Anti-choicers are now arguing that contraception, at least hormonal contraception, is "abortion" because there's a possibility that someone on the pill could pass a fertilized egg.  That someone not on the pill could also pass a fertilized egg is ignored, because it kind of screws up their point, but it has created this situation where they have backed into a place where a tampon could be the death scene of a "baby" in their book.


    Her project exposes the absurdity of that.


    But I'll admit, I find the whole thing charming.  I love the anarchist spirit that fuels things like this.  Abortion could very well still be illegal if 2nd wavers hadn't decided to dispense with polite, defensive maneuvers and instead got into people's faces like this.

  • http://coathangrrr.blogspot.com invalid-0

    If she truly believed that claiming to get herself pregnant “repeatedly,” only to then terminate those pregnancies, would not shock and scandalize, then she clearly has not a clue about reproductive politics, and should not be sticking her nose, er, her uterus, into a highly charged issue she knows nothing about.

    It is different to do something that will shock and scandalize than it is to do something *because* it will shock and scandalize. It certainly would be absurd to say that she couldn’t have known that people would be scandalized by this, but that certainly doesn’t mean that she did it for that reason.

  • http://www.americamatters.org invalid-0


    I think what we have learned from Shvart’s “project” is that, what is deemed art has now become the ridiculous. The artist must certainly be allowed to show self expression. However the motive of the project should be clear and make a definitive statement. What would this project prove? Gore, a disregard for life, a dumbing down of the male figure, and that our professors and universities are stretching so thin what education truly is…. Whether one is pro-life or pro-choice, this is a disgusting diplay of education and a wake up call on what is being taught and allowed in our great universities.


  • invalid-0

    I appreciate the various responses to my piece that have been posted. Let me respond to CatP by posing another hypothetical question: what if this project had taken place at the U.of Missouri, or the U.of S. Dakota–states that are trying their hardest to ban all abortions–rather than at liberal Yale, in liberal Connecticut. I think its highly likely that the police would have been on campus in a minute as soon as someone had announced to the world that she had repeatedly aborted herself. Going further, lets imagine that indeed if Shvarts had impregnated herself but for some reason “her legal herb”–whatever that is–did not work. Those who provide abortions in heartland states often do so under very challenging conditions. There is one clinic currently in S. Dakota, where doctors have to fly in from out of town, as no local doctor will risk working there. Would it be morally justified to ask a provider to put herself/himself at risk to perform an abortion for someone who had repeatedly impregnated herself with the intention of repeatedly trying to self-abort for the sake of a senior art project?

    Of course, Shvarts’ project did not take place in S. Dakota or Missouri. Nor, from what I understand about her intentions, was her project an attempt to make a statement about abortion per se. But someone who purports to be making a link between art and politics, she reveals zero understandings of the politics of the situation of women in the real world, far less privileged than herself, who in many cases simply cannot access legal abortion, and who, when they take matters into their own hands, don’t end up an international celebrity like Shvarts (already in Wikipedia, and with nearly 30 thousands Google hits to her name), but in jail. Amber Ambreu, a Latina immigrant in the Boston area was initially jailed for attempting a self-abortion, and still faces serious jail time.

    My problem with Shvarts’ project is she gives no indication of seeing any connection between what her project claims and the real world situation of these women. The support for abortion in this country is very tenuous. A bare majority of the American public supports keeping the procedure legal but under very restricted conditions. The antiabortion movement has for years been relentlessly pushing the message that women get abortions for the most trivial of reasons–“to fit into prom dresses,” and they have continually accused the “abortion industry” of tricking women into having them. But even the antis’ imagination didn’t go as far as Shvarts’ project–that women get pregnant for the specific purpose of having abortions! Shvarts, I am sure unintentionally, has handed the antiabortion movement a propoganda victory of immense proportions. You can be sure that her story will be on fundraising letters for those attempting to abolish all abortions. Sorry, Amanda, but its hard to find that “charming.”

  • http://www.americamatters.org invalid-0

    Not only will Shvarts’ill-planned and disgusting “art project” be on fundraising letters for pro-lifers, but it will also be all over talk radio come this Monday morning…I can guarantee you that. There is not one iota of this issue that is charming, progressive, or moving anything forward. Only a bleak and disturbing view into our current collegiate education system and the blurred ideas that result from it.


  • invalid-0

    Didn’t it end up being a hoax?

    Also I have to ask if it is medically possible to have repeated abortions in the 9 month time frame she supposedly claimed to have done this project in. She never said she confirmed being pregnant nor how often she insemniated herself.

    Doesn’t it take up to 15 days to go from fertilisation to implantation?

  • http://www.americamatters.org invalid-0

    It is being reported that it was a hoax. However, many beleive that Yale and Shvarts caved under media pressure and scrutiny, and may have claimed it a hoax. It was really a horrible and disturbing concept to begin with. No one has benefited on either side of the issue. Shvarts may have gotten some limelight for this, but I am not sure this kind of media attention is what she would want. I am sure there will be those out there to call her “genius” and a “hero”….. and that is a shame.

    Thanks for writing about the Professor Joffe.


  • invalid-0

    I am extremely curious to know what the difference is between what Aliza Shvarts did, and what the thousands or millions of college students on the Pill are doing? Each are accepting sperm into their bodies, with no intention of carrying to term any sort of pregnancy, and each menstruate at the end of each month. The menstruation is the project here, and it is shocking to me how scared everyone is of a bit of blood and tissue.

    Either you believe that people have the right to control of their own bodies, and thus, abortions are every woman’s right, or you believe that people’s bodies are the ward of the state, from which point you could justify outlawing them.

    The key to the artwork is to blend the lines between casual sex and abortion, and mere menstruation. Showing how confused the logic is, what the anti-choice crowd is arguing, this is where the heart of her performance lies. A point which is continually missed, in favor of either outrage, from those whose logic she is taunting, or professed concern for her, from those who don’t really know why abortion should be legal, but support it anyways.

    I think what this really highlights is how confused everyone is about what the ACTUAL issue behind abortion is. I’d love to see some people who are anti-choice get stuck up on a stand and forced to defend their carnivorism. It is all about humans being trained to have discontinuous minds, in an extremely continuous world. Stop trying to label and divide everything, and start trying to live together.

  • http://sigmundcarlandalfred.wordpress.com/ invalid-0

    “A poet does not become a poet by writing words. A poet becomes a poet by having the words he writes become meaningful to others. It is in the understanding that the meaningfulness and depth of his words are part of a compact, an agreement we have with each other, that it is what we have in common, the shared ideals and values, more than anything else, that determines our worthiness.

    It is in understanding that it is our universality and not our individuality that we can determine our highest truth. When we live in a world where only our own thoughts, ideas and needs count, we live in a prison. Our greatest joys and achievements have come as the result of sharing and in the union with others.”

    Shvarts has done nothing to elevate the discussion about women, society and freedom, nor has she contributed anything to ‘artistic expression.’ If her intent was to promote exchange’ and ‘dialogue,’ why not shoot someone instead- or is that next?

    Her efforts are not art. They are creative expressions of her own pathological dysfunctions and nothing more. Think of it as Performance Dysfunction.

    For the record, I am a pro choice conservative. Abortion (especially as a form of birth control) makes me uncomfortable but I understand I cannot dictate to anyone what they can and cannot do. Nor do I want to.

    • invalid-0

      Carl and Alfred Sigmund, can you please cite your quote that begins with “A poet does not become a poet by writing words”? I would like to read it in context. Thanks for your help.

  • http://www.americamatters.org invalid-0


    You make good points…However what you should realize is that the “labeling and dividing” works both ways from both sides.

    (I am not sure what carnivorism has to do with anything. Are you saying that anti-abortion folks are all carnivores? Or that all pro-choice people are vegetarians and vegans? I think that is far from truth. I’m sure there are plenty of pro-choise people that enjoy a good Big Mac now and then)

    This issue of abortion alone is an issue that affects all involved..on both sides. It is something to disagree on no doubt, but that does not mean it should divide.

    Those on the extreme of the anti-abortion and pro-choice crowds. They are the ones that divide.

    The issue of abortion means a great deal to both sides of the argument.

    There is hardly anything confusing about abortion. However Shvarts project is confusing and even more so it’s disturbing. It proves nothing to no one. It also adds more fuel to the fire of an already emotionally charged issue. Shvarts was all about Shvarts in this one… This hurt her cause.


  • invalid-0

    Politics is not the only arena

    “she clearly has not a clue about reproductive politics, and should not be sticking her nose, er, her uterus, into a highly charged issue she knows nothing about. Art should be a medium for politics, but the responsibility of the artist is to know something about the politics with which she is engaging.”

    But the political discourse has been going round and round in tiresome circles, and a breakthrough would have to come from elsewhere.

    I think she wasn’t speaking to the right; she was speaking to us in the left who haven’t figured this out on our own. We’re so defensive against the anti-choicers that we can’t imagine a woman purposefully and insouciantly inseminating herself-outside of sex- with no intention of having a child.

    I’ll tell you this has provokes a lot of fruitful discourse in many circles and I have personally grown from it.

  • http://www.americamatters.org invalid-0


    Did she teach you anything about abortion you didn’t already know?

    We don’t need visuals or another person physically or mentally (if this happened) putting themselves through this or those of us in disagreement over abortion being ruffled or churned because of HER “project” There are better ways of proving a point…This proved more about Shvarts than anything else. We don’t need an “artist” to show us the seriousness of abortion or to create awareness of any aspect of abortion, no matter where one stands on this issue. This woman may be an artist to some… However,she is no “martyr” by any stretch…Just an over zealous student. A student that lacked guidance at a very prestigious university.


  • invalid-0

    I’m genuinely worried that in this climate Shvarts’ actions will be used to make abortion illegal and damage women’s already perilous access to birth control.

    If I had been her, my project would have been about that girl from Boston (who I heard about, and it infuriated me) and others who did the only thing they could and were mistreated by a patriarchal legal system. Oh, and women soldiers who are raped by their fellow servicemembers and are denied abortion by the conservative jerks who control healthcare for the military.

    Just my 2c.