Somehow I missed the media uproar over a Yale art student's senior thesis on self-induced abortion until Brian asked about it today.
After browsing a few articles for the various media perspectives (none really have any new or clear info after the Yale student paper), I found The Chronicle's own brief with reader responses. And while I'm not shocked other people are for the most part appalled, I am surprised that no one, not a single person, tried to defend the student -- not her right to free speech, not her creativity, not her position as a student who should have been advised out of this choice. Here's my response -- it's not all I can think to say, but it sums up my thoughts at this moment, as an adviser:
"I’m surprised by the emotional and intellectual level of the responses here. I understand a guttural reaction is unavoidable, but I imagine this forum is primarily populated by educators. Rather than dismissing this student entirely, shouldn’t we respond with ideas more fully thought-out than this project apparently was?
Particularly, comments like this unsettle me: 'Wow, I was going to try something thoughtful, but I decided in retrospect,this girl is just plain crazy and doesn’t warrant anything that deep.'
I wouldn’t refer to any students I know as ‘plain crazy’ and unworthy of my time or effort — and we all certainly hear ridiculous ideas from students all the time.
I don’t pretend to enjoy this art; certainly, while earning my own art degree, this was the type of juvenile, self-indulgent, contemporary mess I hated most. But while I won’t appreciate the process or the product here, I’d criticize more the faculty and staff who failed to advise this student in a different direction, and the student’s own lack of discourse on the subject. There’s plenty that could be said here, and she — as an artist — needs to step forward and contribute to the discussion."
An important, and apparently absent, element of art education is the question of what art really is. Art doesn't have to be beautiful or well-received, or made of pain or clay, or about a specific subject; but art should have to be effective just as much as a project in any other subject. A program developed by a computer science student would not be considered passable if it didn't function. A poorly-designed psych experiment would not be allowed to invite participants. So why do art students get free reign to smear whatever they want on a canvas and call it art, even if no one understands it?
The student wanted discourse about the use of the body in art; she did not achieve that, and she is not stepping up to make that specific dialogue happen. She could use the public revulsion to her advantage: the exploitation of the female body in this piece mirrors the exploitation of women used in orientalist art; her manipulation is Ingres' manipulation of his Odalisque. It would not win over the masses, but at least she'd be acting like an artist.