The art of loneliness


‘Summer Interior’ by Edward Hopper, one of the artists discussed by Olivia Laing in The Lonely City.


The Lonely City is an exquisite meditation on loneliness, but it is also so much more. Laing explores the lives of a handful on American artists who knew loneliness well, and whose work often references that state, either outright, or through suggestion.

The final chapter is wonderful (much of it is wonderful, if truth be told, but I spent a long time on it, and there was a hiatus in the middle when I left it alone for quite a while.) The book offers extensive and marvellously sharp portraits of Hopper, Warhol, David Wojnarowicz (‘generally pronounced Wonna-row-vich’), and the sad and reclusive Henry Darger, resident of Chicago and painter of nude little girls with penises – a truly astonishing account; the singer/performer Klaus Nomi; a summary of the 1980s AIDS epidemic; reflections on her own (Laing’s) loneliness, especially of digital obsessing in her neon-lit room on Times Square, in a building which doubles as a hostel for the homeless and displaced, endlessly scrolling through Twitter:

‘What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity. I wanted to hypnotise myself with data, with coloured pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings. At the same time I wanted to wake up, to be politically and socially engaged. And then again I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.’

The latter sections on the AIDS epidemic and on Warhol’s friendship with Jean-Michel Basquiat are especially moving. She cites extracts from Warhol’s diary and goes to Pittsburgh to the Warhol museum, and she visits Strange Fruit, an installation by Zoe Leonard at Philadelphia Museum of Art in celebration of David Wojnarowicz.

She praises the ability of Art to help heal lives, while conceding that there are many things that art cannot do. ‘It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change . . . It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.’

Finally, on loneliness itself: ‘I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact the result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.’

We are in this together, she reminds us: ‘What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.’

5 Comments on “The art of loneliness

  1. I find this very inspiring but I’d like to hear more from you on this subject as many of us live alone and write and it is a theme to be pursued further, thank you . Oddly every time I type live I get love !!


    • Hi Phillada, Thanks for your comment. I can only recommend reading Olivia Laing’s book – all her books, in fact – as I am not the expert on this theme. However. there does seem to be a lot of writing on loneliness at present . . .


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