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The Business: On the Unbearable Lightness of Art


Ô Paresse, mère des arts et des nobles vertus, sois le baume des angoisses humaines!

—Paul Lafargue, Le droit à la paresse, 1880

Full disclosure: I grew up the son of an artist, and after more than ten years in the business, I feel it is about time I finally wrote about it. For although this reluctant resolution may simply be motivated by the mundane tragedy of my own private aging, it has become increasingly clear to me in recent years that much of my current thinking about art was shaped rather decisively (if very indirectly) by that filial experience, and much of the conjecture I am seeking to flesh out in this essay is directly influenced by my first encounters with art—encounters which first took place and shape in front of my father’s modest but well-balanced library, in his ateliers (he must have moved house every two years or so for a whole damned decade), at the opening receptions for the many group shows he was in, throughout the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s, in villages, towns and cities scattered across the Flemish plains. It is not important to know, for now, what kind of art Stefaan Roelstraete made back then (and continues to make to this day, in fact), but it is important to know that this art was heavy—stone, steel, and glass were his materials of choice for most of the period I am referring to here (again, roughly the 1980s—the age of Anselm Kiefer, the age of New British Sculpture). It was also big, and on occasion even hazardous: long, slender columns of steel with lots of sharp edges and thick pieces of broken glass sticking out of their capitals—handling these cumbersome monstrosities was no laughing matter, and the many scars on my father’s hands, arms, legs, and feet are stoic, worn reminders of the risks I naively assumed, for the longest time, to be integral to the artist’s trade. (Other work I was aware of at the time, other than the classics of modern painting, were big sculptures and installations by Anthony Caro, Donald Judd, Henry Moore, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and the like.) Needless to say, I also assumed that art was what an artist actually did, and did him- or herself—I don’t think I ever heard my father utter the word “assistant” once in his whole life (much less studio assistant). Which of course meant that, considering the work’s aforementioned scale and weight, I was regularly recruited to help him install his art (less often after I managed to break an expensive, exquisitely polished pane of glass). Art was that awkward, heavy, occasionally dangerous thing, the actual making of which (“production” was not part of our vocabulary at the time, much less “practice”) more often than not required considerable physical effort—how often did I think to myself: Why doesn’t he make installations in paper? Using post-its or some such? Or if scale is the thing—why not rope and thread? I did not know of Fred Sandback’s existence at the time, but I would have happily encouraged my father to perhaps explore that aesthetic instead—it would have made both our lives quite a bit more comfortable. This, then, constitutes perhaps my oldest criticism in and of art, the juvenile consideration that marks my very beginnings as an art critic: why not make it lighter?

A quarter century on, I have come to look upon the ubiquitous requirement of “lightness” in contemporary art—lightness of all kinds: lightness of touch, lightness of materials, lightness of execution, lightness of concept—in radically different, certainly less sympathetic terms; indeed, it is precisely the unbearable lightness of much current art, its snooty cultivation of that graceful effortlessness that is the supposed hallmark of true genius, that is much more likely to irk my critical instinct these days. (“Really, that’s it?” “Just a little more effort, please!”) Although I am obviously not interested in making a case for the restoration of “weight,” both of the literal and metaphorical variety (as in “weightiness”), as the central determining category of artistic excellence, I do have an interest in the critical revaluation of one of weight’s corollaries, that dirty word named work—i.e., the effort that is required of the handling of weight, not just physically of course (thinking, as long as it is thinking hard, thinking weighty thoughts, is also work), yet also, unambiguously, physically.


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