Art is immoral

by Ariana Harwicz

Black and white thinking (Issue II/2022)


Author Ariana Harwicz. Photo: Sebastián Freire

This is no jury box, fortunately, nor is it a list of names to sign up to, I am not here to denounce anyone, cancel anyone, even though the cowardice of writers should be considered a crime. It’s no longer possible to count how many literary prizes, whether, official, anti-official, private or public, how many renowned institutes, including the most prestigious and previously independent, and how many academic departments in Latin America and in Europe have collectively agreed to ascribe to literature a role subordinate to that of identity politics and diversity policies.

To give one example among many. The rules for applying to projects run by the Swedish Arts Council involve explaining if applicants belong to the LGBT community, if the project involves diversity, and certainly if the literary or publishing project presented has an intercultural perspective. If the project in question involves the inclusion of the marginalized. The rules for presenting projects to the Sundance Film Festival asks about the sexual orientation and gender of the filmmaker, expecting applicants to mark with a cross if they are heterosexual, non-binary, gay, trans, etc. Obviously, this gives rise to all kinds of speculation and vaudeville-style comedy potential for identity trafficking on the ‘black’ market (if I can call it that), passing off as someone else in order to win this grant, that stimulus for creative activity.

I remember talented friends with film projects asking me if I thought it would be OK if they passed off as trans people or homosexuals. I remember them saying shamefully that they were just white heterosexuals and that this penalized them. This is where the shift lies: their work and its potential no longer matters, it is deactivated. Instead, it is a question of ‘entering the system’.

“Writing should always be about going out to meet the paradox, about a new semantics”

The terms and conditions for these same applications for financial support demand modesty, morality, an absence of aggressive content, nothing that might cause offense, no obscene words. That is, they ask future writers not to write, but rather that art become a subgenre, an act of ideological collaboration, that the new generations write under a kind of extorsion. Pointing this out has won me enemies in Argentina, but I would feel worse if I said nothing. Many journalists have written to me privately expressing agreement, but saying so in public is something else. ‘We can’t say this ourselves’ they tell me.

What strikes me is not the doxa (as Bourdieu described the opinions and beliefs that society accepts without question) but the fact that writers themselves, so combative until recently, are so ready to join juries on prizes that demand morality; that writers who clamor for feminism and subversion are prepared to accept the rules of writing under the catchphrase of diversity; that we accept translators complaining about an author’s text ‘because it contains racist content’. That this operation of ‘rewriting’ through translation is accepted.

This is a death trap.

If every novel and all writing means putting on trial your inmost itself, as Ibsen thought, an assault on oneself, a demolition, a declaration of war against the world, then writing is incompatible with these new slogans. The immorality inherent in art, as Imre Kertész has put it, the pleasure of transgression, cannot coexist with the present conditions. Thinking about our characters morally is like Glenn Gould refusing to lock himself away to produce his own Bach, in order not to hurt the feelings of his audience.

Writing should always be about going out to meet the paradox, about a new semantics – the very opposite of giving in to market considerations, of becoming known as ‘the writer of ethnic diversity’, ‘the non-binary writer’, ‘the writer of sordid sex’, ‘the official writer of anti-capitalist punk’. Otherwise we end up like the person who won the Booker International, who was asked very little about their work and more about their condition as a non-binary person. As if this determined a style in itself, or an artistic project in itself: the status of being a victim of domestic violence, of being Afro-descendant, and so on – as if this were not deeply conservative.

Translated by Fionn Petch

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