Friday, April 25, 2008

Art-Schvart: the abortions of art education

I've been hesitant to comment on the work of Aliza Schvarts. Condemning it is to easy and quick - and 87,000 people have already felt the need to do so. What is necessary are alternative perspectives and rational discussion or analysis: one that doesn't demonize her for artificially inseminating herself nine times in as many months and then taking herbal supplements to abort the possible fetus on the 28th day of her cycle; one that doesn't quickly belittle her act or her intentions as insane, illegal, or murderous; one that doesn't dismiss her for the act as another young artist trying to get famous quickly.

It's necessary to consider at least three things when addressing the piece and the intention of the artist in question: The Artist's Intention as canon, Accepted Performance Pieces that function as a foundation for the work, and the objectives of teaching.

I Blame Duchamp: The Canon of Artist Intention.
The first two are related, but it is necessary to separate them. The Artist's Intention as Cannon goes to Duchamp's Fountain. When Fountain is cited as the basis of work defended under the larger umbrella of "The Artist's Intention" it is necessary to understand both the context of that particular piece - Fountain - in terms of its submission and in terms of the time it was submitted. Fountain was submitted to an unjuried exhibition, wherein the participants of the exhibition could submit any work they wanted for the fee of $5. The piece would be exhibited regardless of what it was. Duchamp, under the pseudonym of R. Mutt, submitted a urinal to be displayed on a pedestal under the title Fountain. The piece was later rejected and it was the only piece rejected.

What the submission, and later act of rejection, calls into question is the academic and public response to what is and what is not art. Four years before Duchamp submitted Fountain, Teddy Roosevelt walked through the first Armory Show in 1913 and declared "That's not art!"Amongst those exhibited were Robert Henri, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Matisse, Leger, Delaunay, Odilon Redon, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Seurat... the list goes on. Though the following may be conjecture, it also may be accurate, because I cannot say for certain if Roosevelt was speaking about a particular piece or about the exhibition as a whole. But, if my estimation is correct, Roosevelt, like so many other educated pedestrians and professors of the old guard of art, considered the bucolic landscapes, bowls of fruit, allegoric and historical paintings in the Classical tradition to be art; anything that opposed the tradition of what the fine arts re-presented was antithetical to what the fine arts were. The Armory Show of 1913 moved the bar up, just a little. In 1917 Duchamp moved it further. It was a response to technology: photography and film, automotives, aeronautics, the advance of science, the scourge of trench warfare and chemical weapons.

This canon has been used to defend the works of many who followed, forever pushing a boundary further and further from a public grasp and understanding of what is and is not art. When bad work crops up it is the easiest thing to point one's finger at and blame. Yet, when examining the work of Cage, Turrell, Paik, Holzer, Rauschenberg, Johns, Irwin, etc we seldom thank Duchamp for creating a plateau from which to continually redefine our boundaries.

The Celebration of Burden and the Shock of a Few:
Schvart's work has also been linked to Chris Burden's work, Shoot, executed in 1971, wherein he had a friend shoot him in the arm. It gave him a flesh wound, a degree, overnight notoriety and celebrity, and the ability to (I'll bet easily) get tenure. But, herein lies several problems: was it the shock and awe of the work that was so celebrated, the sheer chutzpah to ask the same question as Duchamp, only to solve it with a more bombastic and explosive answer or was it the fact that his piece was sheer genius truly shedding light on an aspect of fine art that had remained unanswered until the hammer was dropped? Did it really expand our knowledge of the tragedy of the violence in Vietnam, removed from that country's civil war, removed from its politics, and seated comfortably in a white walled gallery in California? Did it expand our consciousness in the United States in terms of violent acts committed through a barrel with a bullet, violence that had taken away the lives of John and Robert Kennedy, Dr. King, Malcolm X; violence that picked off students from a bell tower in Texas; or violence that took the lives of four at Kent State? Considering the assassination attempts on Ford, Carter, and Reagan; the wakes of The University of Iowa, Columbine, and Virginia Tech (and all the school shootings between those 15 years); the continued debate over the right to bear arms; the continued wars currently campaigned in Afghanistan and Iraq, Burden's Shoot is nothing more than an artistic act of futility. Part of the reason why the answer to those questions is a resounding no is because little documentation exists from the work. It was seen by a few people. But it remains discussed in college classrooms throughout the US. Had ample documentation existed, maybe he too could have been pictured on the cover of a Rage Against the Machine album like more relevant acts of protest during Vietnam through self-immolation committed by Buddhist monks. Burden's statement, done in the sake of art, lacked all the poetry and beauty of burning Buddhists who didn't flinch under fire (like Burden did).

Shocking art has been created by many (and sadly I forget their many of their names). The artist who placed herself nude on a block of ice and lay there until she bled. The artist that ate chocolate and lard to make a point about body image, consumption and over eating. The artist that had sex with an art buyer who agreed to be part of the piece as a criticism of the art culture. Manzoni defecated into tins and critiqued the art market. When Carolee Schneeman stood nude like a life model, painted her contour on her body, and then read a scroll pulled from her vagina she was commenting on the objectification of women as objects. The list goes on and on.

What becomes mildly interesting is what gets remembered and what doesn't. In a decade will anyone outside of DC remember Adrian Parson's Shrapnel performance at The Warehouse? A man cutting off his foreskin is rather impressive in a way... it was a shot in the arm for DC shock art. Shock has been relevant in art for centuries, bringing artists into light and remembering their seminal works while eventually forgetting what brought them to the front at all. Some remained up front and center for centuries because of their talent. Leonardo, for example, is remembered for Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Most of history has forgotten that his name first gained attention because he participated in the gang rape of a boy. Caravaggio is remembered for turning out the light in 17th Century painting and ushering in The Baroque. We seldom discuss the pederasty of his early Bacchus-es - not only the pederasty of the models but the pederasty committed by the Cardinals who commissioned them. But, in another century will we still hold Damien Hirst's animals in formaldehyde or Jeff Koon's vitrines of basketballs and vacuum cleaners with as much "praise" as we do today? I'll guess not, though they may become analogous to the Emperor's New Clothes, if they aren't already in many circles.

When we "celebrate" these questionable pieces, is it really celebration or is it acknowledgement? After all, Paris Hilton is a celebrity. She's photographed all the time and appears as a source for gossip constantly. But, do we really celebrate her (or this questionable art) like a 25th wedding anniversary, a child's first step, the landing of a space shuttle, or the reward of a job well-done? Sometimes the shocking art of a few is truly brilliant. But, in many instances we simply need to reassess our values and how we guide our attention.

The Blind Leading The Blind:
The guidance of attention and value in education is at first steered by our professors. The weight of a project is evaluated by them and directed by them, and the good professors try to remain one step back from contorting a student's creativity into the professor's creativity; the student should work on his own work, not our work. We can purposefully direct how to draw an object, how to mix a color. These are, for lack of a better term, known quantities. What many art professors eventually want to encourage is how to think - how to create your own problems.

If the work cannot communicate directly the artist statement or curatorial statement is an attempt to fill the gap. As a result, art programs try to teach their students how to write. Published in The Wall Street Journal and borrowed from Ms. Schvarts is the following passage from her artist statement, below.
"The reality of miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality, an act of reading constructed by an act of naming -- an authorial act. It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act, and in doing so, reclaim it from heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it."
The first point of criticism is, just because you go to Yale and just because you are in a fine arts program does not mean you need to write like an ass hole: constipated and up tight. More to the point, H.G. Frankfurt (from Princeton) would quickly label this writing as Bullshit. While the writing is clearly versed in linguistics, the troublesome nature of many artists who study linguistics through Feminism and Gender Studies (as she clearly has) is they fail to realize that only other linguistics people can read their writing because it isn't English - it is linguistic-uesse. Let's dissect a little:

"Miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality..." Really? I thought it was a biological reality. Politics has no place in even attempting to position whether or not a zygote matures into a fetus, unless uterine linings have become politically active. It is true, however, that some uterine linings are possessed by politically active people. What is a linguistic and political reality is not miscarriage, it is abortion!

The linguistic reality is that people in the medical world refer to a miscarriage in three terms: missed abortion, incomplete abortion, and complete abortion. An abortion, as we discuss it in popular culture, is actually what is classified as an elective abortion. So, it could be determined that Ms. Schvartz seeks to qualify the weight of an adjective. Yet, she does not state the noun abortion, to which the value of the adjective can be adhered, in that quote.

Her process of insemination and expulsion, repeated nine times in as many months, lacks some science and reason. The first is that she never tested herself for pregnancy, so there is no telling if she actually conceived. After the 28th day of her cycle she consumed herbal supplements to abort the questionably existent "fetus." The ambiguity of existing fetal tissue, she rationalizes, questions whether the act is an [elective] abortion or a miscarriage. the only problem with that rationalization - as her professors responsible for the guidance of this project should have made her aware - is if she elects to consume a product that will terminate the pregnancy, then she has elected to abort the pregnancy. Or is the question that, if it does not involve dilation and curettage that it is not an abortion?

An additional point of note is that a miscarriage or an elected abortion typically damages the uterine walls, and requires approximately two menstrual cycles to heal. If a woman gets pregnant immediately following a miscarriage or abortion, she increases her risk of having a(nother) failed pregnancy. At least, that is what my wife's doctor explained to us after our miscarriage in November. So, Ms. Schvarts' thesis not only discounts linguistic logic, it spits in the face of biology and statistics as well.

However, this is missing the point! Why? Because her performance and its documentation is not about the language of pregnancy and miscarriage, it is about who society says should have babies and how portions of our anatomy are used to make them

The "authorial act" and "heteronormativity" of her thesis is arguing against the declaration that vaginas are meant to receive penises and that women are meant to have babies. Well, if procreation is your goal, until recent scientific advances, there could be no other way. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous... even the pregnant man in the news is, biologically a woman - he just happened to have a sex change and keep his uterus. If procreation is not the goal, the "authorial act" and the "heteronormativity" she should be railing against is the legislation and legal and social condemnation against activities that might expand beyond procreative acts. This would include anal sex, homosexual sex, oral sex, and other acts of penetration. The right not to bear children has ever been legislated against, to the best of my knowledge.

So, while her act does question form and function as it converges on the body, was it a necessary question that needed to be asked and did she answer it in any rational and articulate way. Her thesis has already been proven and added to for centuries by nuns and priests through their vows of chastity and historically recorded acts of pederasty. The same can be stated for many members of the general public, for kings and queens. Just because it wasn't in your high school text book does not mean it didn't happen.

And these are the very holes her professors should have poked through her ideas. Because, while it is necessary to get the students to consider problems in their work, it is also necessary for them to arrive at the answers. For painters and sculptors, traditionally, this may have occurred over decades, building upon their research and expanding their answers. For students, sometimes they need a little help. The obvious answers were in front of her, but she over thought them, nose deep in Jacques Derrida's doo-doo.

As for the general public, the question they are asking is just as invalid. Is this art? As opposed to what? Craft? Not art? This is absolutely art; the artist has declared it so! The point missed is that art is not the value to be assessed. Art is a commodity, like an appliance or consumable. The question the public should be asking is one of value. Is this good art? The answer is no.

1 comment:

Mark Cameron Boyd said...

As I have speculated already, in future, will artists be valued according to the amount of text a work will generate? Thus, I too am hesitate to generate more text on this sham. However, the links to linguistics irk me and, although I realize this little Yalie knows exactly which post-structuralist buttons to push to inspire maximum ire, I cannot resist taking the bait.

Schvarts is obviously referencing Judith Butler's writing on gender issues but she (the Yalie) gets it wrong: Judith Butler argued that “gender is a cultural meaning that is ascribed to human bodies” and “does not derive naturally from the biological sex of the individual.” [source: Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York, 1993, 51-52.] This would seem to negate Schvarts' project as the very essence of the actions involves her biological tampering with birth through abortive techniques. No matter how much she may want us to "read" it post-structurally as social-political, it is fundamentally flawed. And, yes, her Yale professors should have nailed her on it.

As one of my students wrote, "Gender shapes how viewers see and how they understand what is seen." Schvarts' femininity necessitates an inherent uncomfortableness with her (putatively performed) self-abusive acts but it fails to "linguistically" embody the post-structuralist theory she so obviously seeks to emulate. Mary Kelly better engaged these issues 30 years ago, as have Marina Abramovic ("the artist who placed herself nude on a block of ice and lay there until she bled"), Janine Antoni ("the artist that ate chocolate and lard to make a point about body image, consumption and over eating") and Andrea Fraser ("the artist that had sex with an art buyer who agreed to be part of the piece as a criticism of the art culture"). Which reinforces my belief that many current practitioners of postconceptualism (thanks to Marcel D.) fail to grasp the historicity and theories of conceptualism and that their work merely wears the "cloak of conceptualism" as a style without the substantive essence of the ideas involved.

Of course, as an exemplary manipulation of media Schvarts' piece has succeeded, as even adjunct professors of art theory like ourselves are talking about it .