Students & Parents | Freedom of Expression

Yale Student’s Art Project Stirs Debate Over the Limits of Academic Freedom

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  April 21, 2008 by Robin Wilson

A Yale University student’s art project that portrays her as inducing her own abortions has drawn a firestorm of criticism from all along the ideological spectrum, but it is protected by intellectual and artistic freedom, said officials of groups that defend that principle.

Yale should not only refuse to bow to outside pressure to cancel a planned exhibition of the artwork, the officials said, but the university should also use the exhibit as a tool to explain the value of free expression, even in cases when what is said—or displayed—is offensive.

“Academic freedom for faculty and intellectual freedom for students give them the right to speech that shocks and challenges,” Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, said in an e-mail message to The Chronicle on Friday.

While Yale has not canceled the exhibit of the work—which is expected to open on Tuesday—Yale officials have distanced themselves from the project. On Friday night, Yale issued a written statement in which two deans said that the project should not have been permitted to go forward and that it was not appropriate work for an undergraduate.

“I am appalled,” Peter Salovey, dean of Yale College, said in one of the statements. “The dean of the School of Art and I are reassessing what constitutes an appropriate senior art project and the manner in which those projects are mentored.”

Perhaps as much as any academic controversy since a how-to conference on women’s sexuality at the State University of New York at New Paltz, in 1997, the episode at Yale has prompted questions about what constitutes legitimate academic work and how far universities should go in giving voice or providing a platform to students who express outrageous and offensive opinions.

The incident also has caused people who already are skeptical about what they see as an anything-goes attitude in higher education to feel even more alienated from the world of academe.

“To the extent institutions are prepared to condone this sort of thing, or see it as part of the educational experience they provide, that really suggests a loss of all moral compass,” said Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars. “This is not an issue of what the student could do out in the public square. It’s about what a university is prepared to legitimate as part of its own education.”

Art in the Blood

The controversy began on Thursday, after the Yale Daily News, a student newspaper, published an article about a coming exhibit by Aliza Shvarts, a Yale senior majoring in art. On April 11, at a forum of art students, and last Wednesday in a news release, Ms. Shvarts said she had repeatedly inseminated herself with donated sperm over about nine months’ time, and then prompted abortions by using herbs.

She said her actions were part of an art exhibit in which she planned to suspend a large cube from the ceiling of a room in the gallery of Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall. She planned to wrap the cube in sheets covered with blood from the abortions, she said. She also planned to project onto the sides of the cube video images of herself inducing the abortions in her own bathroom, while she experienced cramps and caught blood in a cup.

The extraordinary story quickly hit the blogosphere and prompted widespread shock and disgust. Then late Thursday, Yale issued a statement saying the abortions had never really happened. It said Ms. Shvarts had acknowledged to administrators that the apparent abortions depicted in her video were not real and that her exhibit was performance art, not real life.

“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,” Helaine S. Klasky, a university spokeswoman, said in Thursday’s statement. She also said Ms. Shvarts “is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art.”

The story took another turn on Friday, however, when Ms. Shvarts was quoted, once again in the Yale Daily News, as saying that the abortions were real—something that Yale officials said she told them she would do if they issued a statement calling her work fiction.

“Her denial is part of her performance,” Ms. Klasky wrote in an e-mail message to the Yale Daily News. “We are disappointed that she would deliberately lie to the press in the name of art.”

Yale officials asked Ms. Shvarts again late Friday whether she had actually induced abortions, and again, Yale said in another statement, she told them she had not. That’s when Yale’s deans got involved—issuing harsher statements saying the project never should have been approved.

Inspiring Some Discourse

Whether or not the abortions actually happened, some people wonder why Yale professors approved the project for academic credit.

“Which is sicker: if she really did it, or if she made it up?” asked one post on American Digest, a blog. “Either way Yale is a loser,” it said. “Why do we give them a tax exemption?”

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said the issue was not so much Ms. Shvarts and her work but academic oversight and professional judgment. “Yale ought to be focusing not on Shvarts, but on the institutional framework that (she claims, at least) approved and supported this project,” Ms. Neal said in an e-mail message to The Chronicle.

Ms. Shvarts told the Yale Daily News that her project had been supported by administrators and by her thesis adviser, a lecturer in art who has not talked to reporters about the controversy.

“I hope it inspires some sort of discourse,” Ms. Shvarts told the student newspaper. “Sure, some people will be upset with the message and will not agree with it, but it’s not the intention of the piece to scandalize anyone.”

‘What Is Going On?’

Roger Kimball, a co-editor of The New Criterion, a magazine devoted to arts criticism, said the episode at Yale called into question the foundation of higher education, especially at the elite level. “What does a higher education mean, and what is going on in these privileged, expensive redoubts of educational endeavor?,” he asked in a conversation with The Chronicle.

John K. Wilson, who writes about academic freedom and runs a Web site called College Freedom, said that the student’s artwork was a prime example of why intellectual freedom is important. Yale should use the episode to explain that universities need to worry that such incidents can tarnish their image with the public, alumni, and donors, he said, but “academe is about having standards of intellectual freedom, even when they are unpopular and when they make you look bad.”

Robert M. O’Neil, a free-speech expert at the University of Virginia, agreed that displaying Ms. Shvarts’s artwork was about freedom of expression.

“Art departments have always been and must remain shelters for creativity which sometimes offends and often challenges,” said Mr. O’Neil, who is director of the university’s Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. But he also acknowledged that such a message “doesn’t usually go down terribly well with people in the outside world.”

Mr. Balch, of the National Association of Scholars, said the academics who devised the AAUP’s 1915 statement on academic freedom “would have fainted dead away” to hear the Yale student’s art project described as academic work that should be protected.

“The justification of academic freedom was that it would allow people to find out about what was true and do it through scientific inquiry,” he said. “Those who care and wonder and are often appalled by things they see going on at universities are going to be carried to a new level of disgust by this.”


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