More Than Shock Value

Yale controversy reflects tensions faced by art professors in encouraging risk-taking while also offering guidance and (sometimes) caution.
April 29, 2008

The story should be familiar by now. A Yale University undergraduate said she repeatedly inseminated herself and induced multiple miscarriages to produce a senior art project. Yale administrators said the student assured them her performance piece, exploring the ambiguities of form and function of a woman’s body, was fictitious. In an op-ed subsequently published in the Yale Daily News explaining her project, the student, Aliza Shvarts, said otherwise. Administrators took “appropriate action” against an instructor and adviser, both involved, for their “serious errors of judgment.” Bloggers blogged. Commentators commented. Outrage mounted.

But what is the “appropriate action” for a professor to take when confronted with controversial student artwork? (Such scandals as Yale’s, though of various degrees of salaciousness and reflecting various degrees of artistic merit, crop up like clockwork.) What are the ambiguities of an art professor’s obligations?

“There are no hard and fast rules. You are looking at each case on an individual basis. You are looking at the sincerity of that artist,” said John Carson, head of the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

“If I feel that I can defend the work and it’s controversial, then I would stand behind it,” said Carson -- adding that a responsibility of professors is to encourage students to take risks, be provocative and examine uncomfortable subjects. "I don't think that there should be any subject that should be taboo for art."

But, Carson continued relative to a student responsibility, “I’ve got to be able to stand behind it. I need the justification from the artist. If they can’t give me that, if they can’t adequately defend the work, then why should I?”

The Yale incident aside – many of those interviewed said they lacked a sense of the relative shallowness or sophistication of Shvarts’ project – many visual art professors and administrators have given some thought over the years to the broader topic of when to rein students in and when to let them roam free in controversial directions. “Studio professors are obliged to encourage and demand that their students carry their art-making as far as they can, make it as deep as they possibly can,” said Nicola Courtright, a professor of the history of art at Amherst College and president of the College Art Association. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard one say that a student should rein in anything he or she is doing because of the content. That would be basically giving up your ethical responsibility to teach.”

“But they will say, 'That kind of thing that you’re doing right now, it looks like it’s meant to be provocative, but what else is going on there? Is this really as deep as you could go with this subject? Are you stopping on a superficial level? Are you doing it to get a response?'”

“It has to be about the larger picture, and you can’t do something just to bounce somebody off the walls,” Courtright said.

“The crux is really to encourage students to go where they don’t know the answer and I don’t know the answer,” said Jeanne Jaffe, chair of fine arts and coordinator of sculpture at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.

“There’s always an underbelly that’s un-discussable, even within art, whether it be unfashionable, whether it be something that the culture doesn’t really want to deal with. For me, that’s a really viable and valuable thing to help a student deal with," Jaffe said.

“It’s really about not doing something for the sake of gratuitousness, for the sake of a smart career move,” she explained. "I think motivation's a big part of it. If the motivation for something that might be disturbing is for the sake of being disturbing, it's really not going to be the same object or video or installation or whatever as if it's coming from some depth of understanding of what is this disturbing content really about. What does it do, what does it mean, why is it disturbing, a whole slew of questions."

And, “I think where you rein it in,” Jaffe said, “is if there’s harm to any other sentient being.” (Which, incidentally, is the focus of dispute in the Yale case.)

“The question of reining it in…cuts more deeply in an arts environment than it may in other situations because of how potent the cultural norms of freedom are, as they’re applied to artists,” added Randy Martin, chair of art and public policy and director of the graduate program in arts politics at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He recalled a situation at NYU, for instance, when a student wanted to film actors engaging in a sexual act to explore issues of shock and sexuality, and a case at the University of California at Los Angeles in which two professors retired in protest of what they described as the university's lenient response to a performance piece. At UCLA, a graduate student loaded what appeared to be a gun, placed it to his head and pulled the trigger (as chronicled in this 2005 New York Times article). The UCLA case attracted so much attention in part because of the (art) history of one of the angered professors. Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm in one 1970s performance project, and had himself crucified on top of a Volkswagen in another.

“Safety, health [are primary concerns], the other thing that you have in an art studio is a need for trust," Martin said. "There also needs to be a sense of mutual responsibility. If somebody is doing something that is deeply offensive to another student, if they're dealing with elements that would be considered racially very offensive, I think in a classroom it’s appropriate to point to an issue, to work through them. But in those cases I don’t think the teacher is obliged by artistic freedom to say, ‘Yeah, you can offend anyone you want; that’s fine.’”

Speaking from his perspective as a former associate dean (and acknowledging he doesn't know the details of the Yale case), Martin also questioned the Yale administration's move to publicly suggest that they'd censured faculty. "You certainly could get into situations where you wish that faculty could have made a different call than they did," Martin said.

But so, he said, is it the administration's role "to promote the sense of faculty capacity to make those discernments."

“I do see that there are real limits to what a professor should allow under his or her tutelage, just as in any kind of academic situation,” said Gregory Sholette, an assistant professor of sculpture at Queens College, of the City University of New York, who has taught courses on public and contemporary art, among other topics. “If someone was doing research denying the Holocaust, it seems to me you have a responsibility to question the foundation of something like that. I don’t think that the visual arts should be in some separate category.”

Sholette described frustration with a kind of oneupmanship in the contemporary art world, shock for shock’s sake.

If while serving as an adviser to a student he suspected shock alone to be the motivation, “If it was something I felt was really just participating in this kind of culture of oneupmanship within the art world, I would point that out and really just say, 'Where does this go? What are the theoretical underpinnings of it? What is it about?'” Sholette said.

“Unless they had an extremely sophisticated analysis – which you can always hold out the possibility for – I would really discourage it. And if it were something I actually thought was really dangerous, I would insist that it not happen. At least not under my guidance.”


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