Some people are under the misconception that performance art is a new thing, invented in the mid-twentieth century by people with no discernible talents for painting, acting, or music, but some hare-brained ideas, a willingness to be naked in public, and a talent for getting government grants. While it can't be categorically denied that this was a factor in the development of performance art, it's worth noting that another sort of performance art — the hoax — has been around since time immemorial. A good hoax should be funny, make people look like asses, and say something about the larger society beyond, "People are dupes." Which is why I tip my hat to Aliza Shvarts of Yale, whose art-hoax managed to set off alarms all over Wingnut Nation.
Shvarts claimed to have impregnated herself many times over the course of nine months, then self-aborted with herbs, and collected the uterine offal for her project. The project played up to every right wing stereotype imaginable about feminists, and even into the hands of white supremacist groups, who were eager to dismiss Shvarts with the blood libel, suggesting that she is a "murdering Jewess" who kills babies for fun. Some feminist bloggers (including me) immediately saw the problem with this story, which is that it's not possible. If abortion was a matter of just sucking down some oregano and waiting in the bathtub, it wouldn't be a political struggle, because it would be hidden from prying eyes, anti-choice protesters, and government authority. The coat hanger is the symbol of the abortion rights movement because self-abortion is a dirty, dangerous task that requires shoving sharp objects into your uterus. Even medication abortion, RU-486, is a long, painful process. If you kept going back to the doctor to get it, red flags would fly.
Within hours of the story hitting the internet, Yale issued a press release, indicating what people who approached this with a skeptical mind realized, which is that it was a hoax. Shvarts, like a good hoaxer, is not backing down, but she has explained her "abortions" in more detail. She injected herself with some (probably old, dead sperm), swallowed some herbs right before her period, and then video-taped her period and suggested that it might be a "miscarriage." But no, it's not likely she was ever pregnant, because if she was, she'd probably have to get a real abortion. In an artist's statement, she indicated that she knew that she probably hadn't been pregnant, but was exploring the grey areas between social and biological definitions of pregnancy.
And by exploring definitions of pregnancy, she pushed a hot button for anti-choicers. Anti-choicers, in an attempt to ban the birth control pill, are working hard to redefining pregnancy as beginning at fertilization, while medical science defines it as beginning at implantation. By combining one lie (about when pregnancy begins) with another (the evidence-free assertion that the pill and emergency contraception work by preventing implantation, when they actually work by preventing ovulation), they hope to create the groundwork for banning birth control. Since any random menstruation from a sexually active woman has the theoretical chance of having a fertilized egg in it, anti-choice rhetoric has collapsed the distinction between getting your period and having an abortion.
Roe has collapsed in Texas, and that's just the beginning.
Stay up to date with The Fallout, a newsletter from our expert journalists.
It's clear that the parameters of Shvarts' piece extend far beyond a bucket of menstrual blood that is visually indistinguishable from an early-term abortion to include the angry reactions. In other words, Shvarts knew she was playing anti-choicers. She writes,
"For me, the most poignant aspect of this representation — the part most meaningful in terms of its political agenda (and, incidentally, the aspect that has not been discussed thus far) — is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood. Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether the there was ever a fertilized ovum or not. The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading."
The fact that this art project wasn't physically possible didn't stop any anti-choicers from believing it, because it spoke to so many of the issues that set them off — none of which are a deep concern for the sanctity of human life:
- Willful ignorance and hostility to science. A quick reference to the medical facts about abortion would have made anyone realize this was a hoax, but god forbid an anti-choice nut touch dirty secular science-based materials.
- Hostility to women's access to public spaces and power. One hot button that made this an inevitable viral story is that Shvarts is a Yalie and an artist. he story confirmed a lot of anti-feminist suspicions about what happens when you untie women from the stove and teach them to read — which is that they go nuts. For all the supposed belief that abortion is bad because of "life," there was a lot of effort wasted in being angry about the fact that Shvarts is a woman who knows big words and apparently spends some time reading books.
- A sense of ownership over women's bodies. The idea that a woman has a right to play with sperm and collect her own menstruation and stick objects in her vagina and put it all on tape, and you, the random anti-choice nut, can't do anything to stop her without being thrown in jail for trespassing has to be maddening. The fact that she's young and unmarried and no one can stop her from having men hand her vials of semen probably makes things even worse.
- The belief that women are subhuman. Rod Dreher called Shvarts a "monster". Mighty Favog likened her to a devil, invoking a history of belief that women need to be second class citizens because Satan has more sway.
At the end of the day, Shvarts pulled an amazing stunt. Essentially, by menstruating into a cup and drawing attention to it, she got the anti-choice movement to play right into her hands. Given the opportunity to have a hate-in against an educated, sexually liberated woman, anti-choice nuts didn't stop to consider that what was riling them up so badly was physically unlikely to outright impossible. She managed to demonstrate the logic that drives things like blood libels and witch hunts, where a group believes the impossible because it confirms their irrational hatred for a person they've turned into The Other.
- Carole Jofee, Yale Performance Art: Where Are the Grown-Ups?