Art Criticism and Writing | MFA Program

Monday March 25th, 2013
Filed under Spring 2013

On Dieter Roelstraete’s “The Business: On the Unbearable Lightness of Art”

by Eric Sutphin

Raoul de Keyser, "Again" (2010). Watercolor and charcoal on canvas mounted on panel. Courtesy David Zwirner gallery.

Anyone who has ever passed through a painter’s studio knows that the space surrounding “the work” can be as enticing as whatever may be on the easel (or monitor, or notebook, or workbench). When I was packing up my last studio I took pictures of the stacks of works on paper that I had amassed there over two years. “Is this it?” I wondered as I scanned the contents of my nascent archive. I was freelancing during the day, bartending at night and painting when I got home until three or four in the morning.

Well-worn story aside, I began to worry that these activities created stark imbalances in my focus and time. Painting was the first to suffer: without my sustained immersion, it began to seem thin and haphazard. When I read Raphael Rubenstein’s treatise “Provisional Painting” (Art in America, May 2009) and its echo in Sharon Butler’s essay “The New Casualists” (The Brooklyn Rail, June 2011), I felt a narcotic sense of ease that the one-offs I was making finally, maybe, could be identified as a viable “new” form of art, a kind of series of experiments or abandoned starts that could pass as “finished” work. Moreover, a critical net was being cast out for the next new thing.

While doing research I came upon Dieter Roelstraete’s essay “The Business: On The Unbearable Lightness of Art” (e-flux journal, February 2013) and it, too, offered up a new(ish) take on the thinness, airiness and “lightnessness” embodied in much contemporary art. But his text seems to be an indictment of both Rubinstein’s “Provisional” painting and Butler’s  “self-amused but not unserious painters.” Roelstraete writes,

The origins of our current art-world-wide infatuation with the twinned rhetoric of effortlessness and weightlessness—with fleeting gestures and passing glances, minimalist elegance (sold to us as the acme of restraint) and understated subtlety, with the ephemeral and the ethereal, the nimble artifice of a tasteful, pseudo-aristocratic nonchalance—may have a much cruder economic cast…these artful celebrations of effortlessness may well be the result of (or worse still, merely covering up) a simple lack of time, focus and energy for making “work.”

Roelstraete not only criticizes a pervasive aesthetic but also points to the potential causes and conditions under which this type of tentative and harried work has come to be embraced.  Midpoint in his essay the author breaks voice and shouts “attention!:you are working already,” as he relates the myriad activities (reading essays, for one) required of the “arts professional,” who must perform them in tandem with whatever is at the center of his or her career (writing, curating, studio-assisting, etc.).

Roelstraete uses the term “Post-Fordist” to describe the information culture in which we live. In e-flux parlance the term is used as an opaque modifier for “today,” as though to simply say “today” were too subjective, too humanistic. Individual experience becomes subsumed by Post-Fordist theory, which purports to comprehensively describe the sociological conditions under which “we” live and work. Though our activities differ, they are nevertheless played-out under this diagnosis. This irksome bit of International Art English aside, Roelstraete brings us into the problem of work—that it encompasses our every waking moment, so that creative or nurturing endeavors are supplanted by managerial and administrative duties, which reduce not only time for painting but also desire for substance in it. The “artist” becomes a “practitioner.”

Eric Sutphin, "Oblonging," 2011. Oil and collage on glass with painted frame.

As I write this essay I am looking at a painting that I made around the time “Provisional Painting” was published. The tenets of slapdash, spontaneous and indifferent approach are unmistakably celebrated in this strange composition of acrylic on a broken pane of glass set in a painted frame. Whether or not this painting was made in response to an essay, it remains a sort of backdrop against which I write. (I’ve hung the painting above my desk and I see it every time I sit down at my computer.) It might be nothing more than a visual spasm by an overworked, frustrated painter, but it serves as a piece of connective tissue between art making and essay writing. While Rubenstein and Butler celebrate the provisionality of some current painting, Roelstraete urges us to look at how our myriad activities affect our individual efforts. In his conclusion, Roelstraete speaks to engagement and action. Perhaps our current situation quite simply is not conducive to sustained investment in a singular goal, but that does not negate the possibility that in spite of our divided attention we can all make new, carefully considered and rewarding work.

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