May 6, 2008

Arts, Schvarts

Bespectacled in a pair of trendy sunglasses, Mark McGowan, a British performance artist, has buried himself up to his neck in the sand on a beach in Britain. He plans to stay that way for 48 hours. He could stay for another 48 years, and I still wouldn’t get what makes it art. It seems to imply that David Blaine is the greatest artist of this century—a conclusion that I’m just not comfortable making.

Regardless, I’m content just to leave the artists to their own devices; I’ve got better things to do, like watch reruns of Home Improvement. This seems to be the general approach of most people, including those who inhabit University administration offices (just replace Home Improvement with office work or whatever). Apparently, though, administrators at Yale have a different approach.

Over the course of the last year, Yale fourth-year Aliza Shvarts repeatedly inseminated herself and then induced miscarriages. I could go into more detail (many media outlets have), but I’ll spare you. She collected the result of each miscarriage and created a video that would make Paris Hilton blush. This piece of performance art was to be Shvarts’s senior project for her art major.

Last month, Shvarts’s project became big news after it appeared on the Drudge Report. For the most part, people were stunned, but many conservatives were just plain indignant. In the face of so much negative attention, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey gave Shvarts an ultimatum: either “admit” that the piece was fabricated or don’t display it.

When Shvarts stood by her story, the dean followed through, blocking the project from being shown.

I’m not trying to defend Shvarts here. Her project seems like a cry for attention. It has no justification beyond the sort of rhetoric that would be torn to shreds at any real school.

Regardless, you would think Yale would make some effort to engage her on those grounds. Instead, administrators immediately gave in to public pressure, and their first course of action was to try to coerce a “confession” out of her. The fact that there is value in protecting the academic and artistic ventures of students seems beyond Yale and Salovey.

Sadly, no one in the press seems to care about how misguided Yale’s efforts have been. Ever since William Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale, conservatives have harped on the educational establishment for placing political correctness ahead of freedom or individualism. The most commonly cited example is the banning of ROTC from most campuses. Interestingly, I haven’t heard anyone quoting Buckley or Allan Bloom in response to the Shvarts scandal.

But even more stunning is the silence from faculty members at Yale. This isn’t some meaningless issue. Performance art (or graphic design), which Yale’s School of Art is well known for, has slowly been going down this sort of road for a long time. If this sort of thing happened at the U of C, faculty and students would likely be up in arms demanding that the administration respect our freedom of inquiry.

Yet this type of thing would never happen at the U of C in the first place. I mean, there are riots when someone changes the curriculum. I think it’s easy to forget, but stuff like the Shvarts debacle is a reminder that the U of C is a pretty unique place. I don’t mean this in the “OMG, look at me, I’m wearing Converse” sense. No, in a genuine way, the U of C seems interested in striving for a level of internal consistency that would dumbfound most other institutions.

The sort of rhetoric that President Zimmer used when justifying his decision not to divest from Darfur is just stunning in comparison to the simplistic logic that Yale apparently used here. For all the grief many of us give activists (and ideologues in general), fighting for the freedom to inquire is critical to the proper administration of most universities. Luckily we’re in good hands.

Alec Brandon is a fourth-year in the College majoring in economics. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.