When an exhibition of art projects by Yale University seniors opened on Tuesday, one was missing: that of Aliza Shvarts, whose performance-art project reportedly involved artificially inseminating herself repeatedly and then self-aborting.
A description of the work last week in The Yale Daily News — which said it included videos of her miscarriages shown on a four-foot cube wrapped in plastic smeared with Vaseline and what Ms. Shvarts had described as her own blood — touched off a frenzy of horrified reaction.
But arts professors at universities around the country say they are no strangers to controversy. And they say that while freedom of expression is important in the academic world, so is providing guidance and setting limits.
“I’ve been through lots of very controversial student projects,” said Carol Becker, who recently left the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to become dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts. “Students, when they get caught in these situations, are usually unprepared for the consequences. They don’t know they are going to get this kind of reaction.”
Last week, Yale officials announced that Ms. Shvarts had admitted that her project, her senior thesis, was a fiction, and that she had neither inseminated herself nor self-aborted. But they said later that she had contradicted the denial. They said her project could not be shown unless she submitted an unambiguous written statement saying she did not inseminate herself or induce miscarriages.
On Tuesday, Gila Reinstein, a Yale spokeswoman, said Ms. Shvarts had not signed a statement. Ms. Shvarts has declined repeated requests for an interview.
In some cases, universities have not permitted questionable projects to go forward.
At New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, for example, a student in 2003 submitted a proposal to record actors having sex in front of the class. Her professor initially approved the idea, and she found two willing actors. But when he alerted administrators, they squelched the idea, prompting cries of censorship.
Nor are unusual ideas limited to arts students. Lee M. Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University, recalled an undergraduate student in evolutionary biology who after hearing lectures about the closeness of the species, proposed that she inseminate herself with sperm from a chimpanzee.
“I was flabbergasted,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “It was a thought experiment that I had talked about the night before to a bunch of students. It was an aside, a tangent. I never expected or thought anyone would pick up on that.”
He said he vetoed the idea and talked to the student about problems such a project would create.
“Twenty years ago, you could still do experiments on yourself,” said Dr. Silver, who has collaborated on a play about the episode with the playwright Jeremy Kareken. “But by the time I saw this student in 1994, science professors all knew that even an experiment on oneself had to be approved by our institutional review board. And it was very clear they would never approve.”
Helaine Klasky, Yale’s director of public affairs, said on Tuesday that the institutional review board looked at experiments, not art projects, and had found that Ms. Shvarts’s project did “not fall into their category.”
Dean Becker of Columbia recalled one student exhibition from her tenure at the Art Institute school that included a painting portraying the recently deceased Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, dressed in women’s lingerie. She said that some city aldermen came to the show to physically remove the painting, but then had to turn it over to the police, and later had to work out a settlement with the student for damaging his painting.
Should the school itself have removed the painting or tried to censor it?
“The faculty walked by in the morning, saw it, and said what a bad painting it was,” Dean Becker said. “Nobody realized how seriously people would take it or how upset they would be.”
Another student work at the Chicago school that set off alarms, she said, was an American flag spread on the floor. Thousands of people protested, she said.
Exactly what Ms. Shvarts’s actions were remains a mystery. In an opinion column on her project in the Yale newspaper on Friday, she spoke of the importance of “narrative.”
In an earlier article in the paper, she said she had cleared her project with her instructor and another person. Peter Salovey, the dean of Yale College, issued a statement on Monday that said there had been “serious errors of judgment on the part of two individuals,” and that “appropriate action has been taken.” But he did not say who the individuals were or what sanctions had been imposed.
Jeffrey Zuckerman, a Yale sophomore who was one of the few students at the senior art exhibition on Tuesday morning, said he had come as much out of curiosity about the controversy as about the art.
“I did want to see if there would be a lot of media crowd here,” he said. “But I do think that the other art here is worth looking at.”
Yale officials still held out the possibility on Tuesday that Ms. Shvarts might sign a statement, and that her work could join the exhibition before it closed on May 1. But Ms. Reinstein, the spokeswoman, said it would take a day to mount because a crane would be needed to hang the work from the ceiling.