The Arts: Exhibits Designed to Shock

A German artist wants to install a terminally ill patient in a gallery as an exhibit. In Nicaragua last year, an artist displayed a starving dog, tethered just out of reach of food, as conceptual art. In New Haven, Conn., an artist claims to have made multiple attempts to impregnate herself and then induce miscarriages as a work of art. All these artists say their projects are intended to start conversations. But apart from all the shouting about indecency and insensitivity, are any ideas actually being exchanged?

When Gregor Schneider, who previously installed sunbathers in cages on an Australian beach, announced his search for dying patients, gallery owners were quick to say they would refuse the exhibit. Meanwhile, animal-rights activists are demanding that Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas be banned from the upcoming Central American Biennial art exhibition after Vargas displayed the dog tied up in a Nicaraguan gallery. And last week Yale administrators banned senior Aliza Shvarts's induced-miscarriages exhibit, which includes sheeting smeared with what she says is her blood, unless she admits it was a hoax.

Shvarts has refused to talk to the media, with the exception of a statement in the Yale Daily News, in which she wrote, "for me, the most poignant aspect of this representation … is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood." According to Shvarts, because it would be unclear if the blood in the work was the result of a miscarriage or her menstrual cycle, the piece is ultimately about the narrative she has constructed. (Doctors have pointed out, however, that blood samples could be tested for pregnancy hormones.) Feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and Ana Mendieta have long used blood as a medium; performance artists (Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic) have manipulated their bodies in the name of art. However, Shvarts's coy refusals to verify how much, if any, of the project actually took place aligns her more with conceptual provocateurs such as Vargas and Schneider.

When word of Shvarts's piece spread earlier this month, both pro-choice and pro-life groups denounced the work. But now that Yale has banned the piece, some critics have taken up Shvarts's cause as a free-speech issue. In the Yale Daily News, art lecturer Seth Kim-Cohen wrote "the University has decided not to allow the rest of us to make up our own minds. I am considerably more troubled by their action than by hers."

If galleries do refuse to show Schneider's work, or the Biennial bans Vargas, the art community will most likely defend them in similar fashion. These controversies highlight the problem with art as a means toward fostering conversation—the resulting discourse is rarely about the artist's stated topic, or even about art. What constitutes free speech is always an important conversation, but it is unclear what the Shvarts controversy adds. Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," which depicts a crucifix submerged in urine, was condemned by Jesse Helms; Rudy Giuliani tried to shut down a museum show that included Chris Ofili's painting "The Holy Virgin Mary," which incorporated elephant dung. In both cases, supporters asserted the artists' rights to freedom of expression trumped the relative artistic merits of the work. As wrongheaded and unsubtle as Shvarts's piece may be, Yale comes out as a censoring bully. The real loser, though, is an already art-averse public, who will doubtless take the Shvarts saga as proof that all an aspiring artist need do for celebrity is create a piece offensive enough to be banned by an institution.

More important, there are real topics that get lost amid all the hand-wringing about indecency. Earlier this month Italian artist Pippa Bacca began hitchhiking from Italy to the Middle East wearing a wedding dress, for a work intended to foster "marriage between different peoples and nations." Bacca was picked up by a trucker in Turkey, who raped and strangled her, then dumped her naked body. The conversation Bacca wanted to inspire about international unity has been overshadowed by her death, underscoring the difficulty for any artist to dictate the terms of discourse about a work. But even if it wasn't the conversation Bacca intended, the question of why a woman still cannot travel alone safely in much of the world seems a more valuable topic of discussion than whether a college student lied about her menstrual cycle.

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