The one thing that can be said about Aliza Shvarts, the Yale art major who either did or did not give herself a series of artificial inseminations followed by abortions as part of her senior project, is that she is only about 22 years old. That might explain her apparent unawareness of the health hazards to herself and others inherent in repeatedly inducing miscarriages and using the blood from those miscarriages as a medium for an art installation – and also the incoherent but postmodernistically pretentious description of her proposed artwork, a plastic-sheeting cube displaying blood, Vaseline, and videotaped images of four supposed self-induced abortions: “[T]he piece exists only in its telling. This telling can take textual, visual, spatial, temporal and performative forms . copies of copies of which there is no original.” Come again? Shvarts may be crazy, silly, or in the grip of a late-stage feminist protest against all that is “patriarchal” and “heteronormative,” as she puts it, but she does have her youth and her obviously limited exposure to the real world outside Yale to excuse her.
The same can’t be said, however, for the other person involved in the creation of Shvarts’s project, which Yale has refused to install unless and until Schvarts admits (which she won’t) that it is a “creative fiction,” not a record of actual abortions, and that it doesn’t involve the use of human blood: That other person is Shvarts’s faculty adviser, Pia Lindman, a Finnish-born, New York-based self-styled performance artist who was hired as an art instructor at Yale in the fall of 2007 and has shepherded Shvarts’s project since the beginning of the school year. Born in 1965 and thus well into her 40s (old enough to know better, in short), Lindman had served as an art instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 2004-2005 academic year. You would think that as an experienced faculty member at a prestigious Ivy League university such as Yale, Lindman would have had the presence of mind to realize that the seeming trivialization of abortion would offend even the most staunchly pro-choice, and that blood is usually classified as biohazardous waste matter. Not to mention the artistic judgment to question whether plastic sheeting and videotapes of a naked undergraduate flaunting her presumed miscarriages add up to a work of art.
That, however, would probably be too much to expect of Lindman, who has made a Shvarts-like career out of staging her own dubious material and calling it art – or, rather, “performance art.” Lindman’s best-known work (if it can be called that) is something called “Public Sauna,” installed briefly on the grounds of a New York City school in 2000. “Public Sauna” consisted of an open-air sauna bath to which members of the public were invited to get naked (hmmm, an inspiration for Shvarts?) and frolic amid the steam vents and showers. The aim, as Lindman explains on her web page, was “to provoke members of the audience to perform and experience a particular social practice, forcing a re-evaluation of notions of corporeality and public sphere.” Lindman’s art also has a sociopolitical dimension. After the massacre of Sept. 11, 2001, she writes on her website, “[i]n residency at the World Financial Center, I submerged a camera in the harbor nearby, in an attempt to create a point of access to an otherwise impenetrable corporate environment further rendered paranoid by the traumas of the World Trade Center disaster.
“Impenetrable corporate environment” and “paranoid” might not be the way everyone would describe the ghastly events of 9/11 and the effect that the murder of thousands of innocent people had on those who worked and lived in Lower Manhattan. The Yale Daily News reported more of Lindman’s political views: “I am still waiting for this self-aggrandizing mass psychosis; the uncritical belief in the omnipotence and goodness of the American people, troops and government, to dissolve and have it replaced with sober self-reflection.” Jeremiah Wright-style rehetoric of this sort may not appeal to most Americans, but it does seem to qualify artists for teaching jobs at elite Northeastern universities, and, even more amazingly, for giving those same artists the power to shape the lives and thinking of the naive and impressionable young people whom they mentor. The apple of Aliza Shvarts’s abortion project did not fall far from Lindman’s self-aggrandizing tree.
After the Shvarts imbroglio broke in the press, Lindman went into hiding from reporters. A call by me to Yale to find out what criteria the university uses in hiring art professors and permitting them to mentor undergraduates has so far gone unanswered. To his credit, Peter Salovey, dean of Yale College, in the wake of outrage by some Yale trustees, termed the art department’s go-ahead on Shvarts’s project “appalling” and promised to take “appropriate action” with respect to Lindman and also to Henk Van Assen, the department’s director of undergraduate studies (Van Assen, unlike Lindman, practices real art, not performance art; he is an award-winning book designer). But the mood in Yale’s art department might be best reflected in an April 23 essay by another instructor, Seth Kim-Cohen, in diction whose impenetrable pomposity would have done both Shvarts and Lindman proud: “Art is a form of societal role-playing, a testing of conceptions of identity and ideology undertaken in a buffered space. In this sense, art tests societal mores as drug trials test medications: prior to or separate from their availability and use in the real, legislated, world” (read George Washington University English professor Margaret Soltan’s masterly skewering of Kim-Cohen’s bloviations here).
The real victim of all of this may be Aliza Shvarts herself, who seems to be an object lesson in what four years of postmodernist indoctrination by the likes of Lindman can do to a bright and talented young person. The American Digest blog features before-and-after-Yale photos of Shvarts that dramatize her transformation from the attractive, well-groomed valedictorian of the class of 2004 at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., to the disheveled, jargon-spouting harridan of the Yale class of 2008. Makes you wonder about the value of an Ivy League education.