The Art of Folly at Yale

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By Charles Lane
Saturday, May 3, 2008

Four years at Yale costs $180,000. Here is how senior Aliza Shvarts planned to conclude hers: The art major would repeatedly artificially inseminate herself, then induce miscarriages, which she would record on video. She would build a four-foot-wide plastic cube and wrap it in layers of plastic. Between the layers would be Vaseline mixed with blood from the miscarriages. She would hang the cube at an exhibition and project video of the miscarriages onto four of its sides.

"This piece," Shvarts wrote in the Yale Daily News, "is meant to call into question the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body. . . . It creates an ambiguity that isolates the locus of ontology to an act of readership."

Horror spread across the Internet. Pro-choice activists, antiabortion activists and pretty much everyone else denounced Shvarts. Eventually, Yale officials said that her "piece" never should have been authorized; they announced that she had faked the miscarriages, and they barred her from exhibiting unless she admitted this in writing and promised not to display human blood.

Shvarts defiantly claimed that the self-induced miscarriages were real and showed student journalists a video of her apparently bleeding into a cup. The senior art show closed Thursday, minus her contribution.

Yale has taken unspecified "appropriate action" against two faculty members who apparently allowed Shvarts's project. But the damage control smells faintly of hypocrisy. Yale is normally absolutist about academic freedom. If the miscarriages were a hoax, as Yale insists, where was the health danger that officials cited as an argument against the project?

Whether Shvarts is telling the truth or, as Yale claims, was simply engaged in bizarre "performance art," the real issue is this: Where did she get such a gruesome, pornographic idea? And who taught her to confuse it with art?

Whether a monstrosity or a dishonest provocation, Shvarts's "project" was the reductio ad absurdum -- or ad nauseam -- of ideology and pedagogy that have been standard fare in the humanities at Yale and on many other campuses for years. Her supervisors -- Yale's fall guys -- probably didn't tell her no for the same reason that, in 2003, a New York University professor initially approved a student's proposal to record two students having sex in front of the class. (The NYU administration later nixed it.)

The politicized obsession with race, gender and sexuality; the denigration of canonical works by "dead white males"; the callow mocking of convention; the notion that truth itself is merely a construct of power and self-interest -- all characterize the study of art and literature in America's colleges and universities. All were reflected in Shvarts's rationale for her "installation."

Among her "conceptual goals," she wrote in the Yale Daily News, was "to assert that often, normative understandings of biological function are a mythology imposed on form. It is this mythology that creates the sexist, racist, ableist, nationalist and homophobic perspective, distinguishing what body parts are 'meant' to do from their physical capability." Shvarts wanted to show that "it is a myth that ovaries and a uterus are 'meant' to birth a child."

Yale, of all colleges, never should have been blind-sided by such a stunt. One of the most astute critics of the humanities is on its faculty. Last year, Anthony T. Kronman, the former dean of Yale's law school, published "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life." This superb book traces the historical rise and fall of the humanities, which, Kronman writes, "are not merely in a crisis. They are in danger of becoming a laughingstock, both within the academy and outside it."

In the past, Kronman argues, colleges and universities understood that undergraduates were hungry for answers to the Big Question: What is the meaning of life? And schools believed that not only religion but also higher education could help students find them. Humanities departments focused on great works of Western civilization, from Homer to Shakespeare. In short, Kronman writes, they gave their students a four-year seat in the unending "great conversation" of their civilization.

But between political correctness and the "publish or perish" ethic of the modern research university, the humanities have lost the desire and the capability to guide students' spiritual quests. Instead, humanities professors stake their authority on an unrelenting critique not just of contemporary society but of meaning itself.

Once, humanities teachers cultivated perspective in their young charges; now, many of them instill grievance. The biological function of female reproductive organs can be portrayed as some kind of injustice. Or so Aliza Shvarts learned.

What's especially interesting about Kronman is that he writes as a liberal -- an admirer of the civil rights revolution and an unapologetic adherent of secular humanism. He wants students to have an alternative to the soullessness of capitalist commerce and technology on the one hand and fundamentalist religion on the other. But such an alternative is impossible as long as the humanities traffic in nihilism, he argues.

Kronman, who also has a doctorate in philosophy, teaches in Yale's directed-studies program, a corner of the university in which students read, discuss and write about great books. It is a credit to Yale that it preserves such an alternative, even if it accepts only 125 students per year. Maybe Yale should admit everyone.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address islanec@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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