During the 1980s, there was a repertory theater group in the East Village called PINK. Its most notorious piece was one in which a woman on a table, surrounded by male actors, described an abortion as she was experiencing it. Her monologue was filled with a kaleidoscope of emotions from liberation to sorrow; it was a masterpiece of nuance and regret and naturally it was picketed by both pro-choice and "pro-life" protesters.
Aliza Shvarts’ controversial Yale performance piece of rapid, self-induced abortions, is, in spite of its shock value, just as nuanced in its implications. Among other things, it reminds us that no abortionist can rival "God" or "Mother Nature" in the numbing frequency of spontaneous abortions or other accidents, including a long history of mothers dying in childbirth. Human stupidity is often an ally, as with the nurses and doctors who laughed at Louis Pasteur, when he suggested that they wash their hands before delivering babies.
Shvarts’ piece is all the more powerful because it exists as artwork solely in our perception of it, starting with the idiotic ex post facto censorship by Yale authorities on the grounds of protecting the artist’s health. Indeed, Shvarts’ masochistic demonstration stands as a Rabelaisian satire of many similar male artistic efforts: Vito Acconci’s wanking; Chris Burden’s self-shooting and VW crucfixion; Keith Boadwee’s paint enemas; Dennis Oppenheim’s sunburn series; Warhol’s oxidization paintings. It as if Shvarts has taken the whole load of their semen up her yoni and spit it out with joyous contempt.
Did I mention Ron Athey? The idea that all art is masochistic by definition, in its pretensions to beauty and immortality, is depressing but justifiable, and Shvarts enjoys the added orgasmic jolt of fame and attention, surely a significant motivation. Last week, the Reverend Al Sharpton described the acquittal of cops in the Sean Bell killing as an "abortion." The negative connotation of this metaphor, even from the mouth of a street radical, shows how powerful abortion’s associations remain in our minds, and highlights all the misunderstandings about it, one of which is that abortion is not an upper-class lifestyle choice, but a powerful means for poor, minority women to take control of their bodies for the first time.
Shvarts spins the notion of control out of control as a means to shock, in a clichéd sense, but also to arouse in an intellectual one. Yale should grant her legitimacy for this reason alone.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).