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Yale Senior's 'Abortion Art' Whips Up Debate, Protests

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

A Yale University student's senior art project, which she said documented her bleeding during repeated self-induced abortions, sparked a protest on campus, an outcry on the Internet, and debates over morality, medicine, art and academia.

And -- the project was all faked. Senior Aliza Shvarts told Yale officials yesterday that she didn't get pregnant and didn't have abortions. But that didn't stop an outpouring of emotion as the story spread.

Shvarts told classmates that she had herself artificially inseminated as often as possible for much of this past year, then took legal, herbal abortifacient drugs and filmed herself in her bathtub cramping and bleeding from the miscarriages. She said her work will include video, a sculpture incorporating her blood mixed with Vaseline wrapped in plastic, and a spoken piece describing what she had done.

She declined to comment yesterday. Shvarts presented a mock-up of the project in class last week -- the final piece will go on display at the undergraduate senior art show at Yale on Tuesday -- and told the Yale Daily News that she wanted to provoke debate about the relationship between art and the human body but that the intention of the piece was not to scandalize anyone.

Well, it did.

Within hours after the article ran yesterday in the student newspaper, blogs were full of livid reactions, including horror that so many fetuses were apparently aborted, revulsion at the graphic nature of the piece, shock that someone would risk her own health in such a way, and general disdain for art and academia.

Students gathered in Beinecke Plaza near the administration building to protest yesterday afternoon, said sophomore John Behan, president of Choose Life at Yale. "CLAY and the entire Yale community, I think, are appalled at what was a serious lapse in taste on the part of the student and the Yale art department."

In a statement yesterday, Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said: "Ms. Shvarts . . . stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages. The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman's body.

"She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art.

"Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns."

Shvartz, an arts major, told the Yale Daily News: "I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity. I think that I'm creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be."

But to many, her piece symbolized the worst of art -- shock without substance -- and of academia, with professors encouraging useless introspection.

Within hours, photos of her in leopard-print shorts and fringed boots were on the Internet, with such blog headlines as "Aliza Shvarts is One Sick Puppy" and comments furious, disgusted and bitter. ("Has she applied for an NEA grant? I am sure she is a shoe-in.") ("In five years, she'll be having an auction at Sotheby's.")

Shvarts's adviser, Pia Lindman, and other art department professors did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

But Juan Castillo, a senior art major who saw Shvarts present the work in progress, said by phone that her artwork had been oversimplified and sensationalized. "It's a much more complex project," he said, with a powerful message as well as technically polished and impressive sculpture.

"It's supposed to challenge the mythology of the body," he said. "Are we only supposed to do what our bodies were 'naturally' meant to do, which is to procreate?

"I think she was definitely trying to spark conversation. In that respect, she's accomplished her goal," Castillo said. "But I don't know if she meant it to get this crazy, this out of control."

Staff writer Philip Rucker and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report. Amila Golic reported from New Haven, Conn.

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