There’s a startling collage on the wall of Artspace on the corner of Orange and Crown. Cropped photos of Tawana Brawley, Anita Hill, and Monica Lewinsky. A photo that looks like a crime photo from a rape scene. All scattered throughout four grids amid a series of quotes, many as potent as the images. “Genovese syndrome,” reads one. “I believe the women,” reads another. “She used her menstrual blood as a way to inscribe her message and was not heard.”
But then there are others that don’t hit so immediately. That are puzzling. That seem to be about something else, though something striving for connection to the subject at hand — violence against women, the ways we talk about it, whose stories we believe, whose we don’t.
“‘Having pain’ may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to ‘have certainty,’ while for the other person it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt,’” reads one. Another: “I hate to say it, but the conviction that artists are somehow ‘asking for it’ bears a striking resemblance to the logic once used to justify rape.’” Another: “Did you ever read my words or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us?”
Aliza Shvarts‘s Cite/Site is a heady piece, blazing with ideas and emotions. But what does it add up to?
You just need some familiarity with poststructuralist theory to find out.
Oh, do you not know what that is? Well, too bad.
That was the (presumably unintentional) message at Artspace’s opening reception to Shvarts’s new exhibition, “Off Scene,” which runs at Artspace until June 30. “Off Scene” features a number of Shvarts’s recent works and reaches back to her senior thesis at Yale in 2008. That piece created an international stir when it appeared that Shvarts, a performance artist, was performing a series of self-induced miscarriages. According to a statement from Yale in April 2008, this turned out not to be the case. “Ms. Shvarts is engaged in performance art…. She stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages. The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman’s body.”
“She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art,” the statement read. “Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.”
As it turned out, Shvarts’s senior thesis was the beginning of an international career as a performance artist. Since 2008, she has appeared at MoMA PS1, Abrons Art Center, Lévy Gorvy, and the Matthew Gallery in New York, and at the Tate Modern in London, among other prestigious galleries. She has a long list of publications and university appearances to her name and has been a guest commentator on MTV. And she has lined up grants and fellowships to propel her forward; she’s currently completing a PhD in performance studies at New York University.
But whom is her art really intended for?
The conversation about Shvarts’s decade of work began with Robert Post, a professor at Yale Law School and admirer of Shvarts’s work, returning to her senior thesis. He pointed out that the depictions of menstrual blood only appeared that way because, initially, the public was told it was menstrual blood.
“It’s the telling which controls it,” he said. He then turned to Cite/Site, on the wall nearby. The women in the piece, he said, “can’t control the content of their own representation.” The meaning of the incidents — from Brawley to Hill to Lewinsky to the present tectonic shifts in sexual politics with the #MeToo movement — keeps changing. Which Post then connected to poststructural theory. Social conventions, social mores, these things that keep changing so rapidly, are the “grammar of society,” he said. “The artist draws attention to the fact that the grammar isn’t working right.” To make this point, he invoked the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure, a turn-of-the-last-century linguist and semiotician whose ideas proved foundational to poststructuralism, which got going a few decades later.
Which is where it’s time for a time out.
It’s insane to try to boil poststructuralist theory down in a couple paragraphs, but here goes nothing. At the root of poststructuralist theory is the idea that some things, you don’t get direct access to. You can’t observe someone’s unconscious mind; I can’t even observe my own unconscious mind. You can’t ever know what a word truly means, only what it appears to mean in context. Everything you experience, you experience through a filter. Your own thoughts and ideas, your perceptions, are what bring meaning to something. But social context matters — a lot — down to the point that it shapes each of our words, our thoughts, and our perceptions of the world way more than we’re initially aware of.
Poststructuralist theory at its best is a very sharp analytical tool. It’s great for pointing out political and cultural biases, for dragging into the light the deeper and more insidious ways racism and sexism are still very much alive in society, for calling attention to the ideas and opinions of marginalized people — those who don’t usually get a chance to talk. At their most constructive, the ideas in poststructuralist theory can point the way toward a more egalitarian, just, kind, and adaptable society.
At its worst, however, poststructuralist theory becomes a shell game for the elites of the academy. If we can’t know what anything really means, the game says, then we can just play, and play, and play. The jargon gets pasted on like frosting, until there’s more frosting than cake. It’s what allows artists to say they’re performance artists who don’t perform, and that’s the performance — get it? — and the audience nods sagely, because they’re in on the joke. It allows statements that the subject of a piece of art is absent, and that’s what makes it profound, rather than empty.
Saying that words are slippery and facts are very hard to establish — and require you to not only do a great deal of investigative work, but a great deal of checking of your own biases and assumptions, down to the singular words you use — is a powerful force for intellectual rigor. Taking one tiny step further, and saying that facts are essentially impossible to establish and everything is up for grabs, makes nonsense of the world.
In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, submitted an intentionally bogus paper to a poststructuralist academic journal. He made sure his nonsensical paper used all the right jargon. It was published. Sokal revealed his hoax in a follow-up article and set off an academic debate that has persisted for years. There were a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of names were called. But Sokal had a serious reason for his stunt.
“For most of the past two centuries,” he wrote, “the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful — not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.”
“I’m a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it,” he added.
I don’t quite agree with Sokal’s 1996 statement. I think the very best of poststructuralist theory contributes to “rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality.” I even think it can help “find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming” by helping us connect better with people around the world and get work done.
But I’m ride or die with Sokal that we can’t “combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.” And nothing makes me want to reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” like dealing with poststructuralist jargon, the verbal equivalent of those gates around Yale’s campus, letting all of us know exactly who’s allowed in, and who’s supposed to keep out.
With the invocation of de Saussure at Artspace, the poststructural jargon was piled fast and furious — by Shvarts, by Post, by everyone in the room who engaged in the conversation, to the point that someone made a joke about it, asking a question that she hoped was “not too jargony, but here I doubt it.”
Peering through the fog of the rhetoric, however, one could perceive Shvarts as a visceral, searching artist who has been thinking and working with ideas that have, at last, come to the fore in society at large. First, about the real violence done to women and the injustices that follow, when a woman’s story is not believed, when a perpetrator walks free. But also about the way women are medicalized, marginalized, still, after all this time, made to be quiet, put into boxes, kept down. Shvarts is keenly aware of these physical and structural hurts, and gifted at finding ways to manifest them in art.
She is also unafraid to put herself in harm’s way, unafraid to make her audience uncomfortable. “The things that seem so threatening are the things I live in,” she said. In response to a thought from an audience member who saw Shvarts’s work as a “successful failure” because it’s “generative” — generative of ideas, of conversation, of perhaps changing a few hearts and minds — Shvarts championed her dedication to performance art as a “useful modality” in that “it draws our attention to what happens, what acts.”
Like in marriage vows, she said. The operative term is “I do.”
That was a powerful moment in the talk, a turn in the conversation when the artist finally stepped out from behind the theory.
The last part of the talk, however, lapsed into a struggle with theory. It’s a tenet of poststructuralism that language is, in effect, broken. It’s a clumsy tool, incomplete. We can never really say what we mean. We will always struggle with misunderstanding each other, with misunderstanding ourselves. It’s a powerful, potent idea, and one that has fueled a million tragedies, both in fiction and in life.
And Shvarts now finds herself caught in it. “How do you speak about truths when the terms will be unavailable to you?” she said. Or when society “renders you illegible?”
“When you make yourself visible,” she said, “you make yourself subject to discipline.” As an artist, she said, she found herself in the dual role of “being misread and being the misreader.”
“How does one find a language that doesn’t cede space on either side?”
They were questions drenched in theory, a set of ideas that, despite the piles of books and papers published in the past few decades, has moved forward with agonizing slowness since its long-gone heyday. It’s as much a shield against society now, a gatekeeper, than it is an engine for change.
Meanwhile, society — and Post’s “grammar of society” — are already changing fast. As one audience member put it to Shvarts, “the reception to your work must be shifting a lot.”
It’s possible the questions that Shvarts raises in her art, and the questions that theory raised decades ago, are now being answered, as Shvarts herself suggested, in the doing. There are glimmers of it in the protests of the #MeToo movement, of Black Lives Matter, in the upswell of civic participation. The record number of women running for office.
And popular culture is on fire with ideas. Afrofuturism, maybe the most vital school of thought in American culture, has exploded into the mainstream. Musicians at the top of the game are making album after album that tackle social issues head-on in increasingly exhilarating ways. People who lived through the late 1960s often say that there was nothing like it before and it will never happen again. But it’s quite possible that, in a few decades, we’ll look back on this time and say the same thing.
Which suggests that maybe it’s time to leave the theory behind. It has served its purpose, and served it well. Time to open the gates, to walk out of the ivory tower, hit the street, and do it. Take what’s old, and make something new out of it.
“Aliza Shvarts: Off Scene” runs at Artspace, 50 Orange St., through June 30. Click here for gallery hours and more information.