Art and the Human Spirit: Olivia Laing on What the Lives of Great Artists Reveal About Vulnerability, Love, Loneliness, Resistance, and Our Search for Meaning
By Maria Popova
The composite creation of a doctor, a philosopher, a poet, and a sculptor, the word empathy in the modern sense only came into use at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for the imaginative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into a world of feeling and experience other than your own. It vesselled in language that peculiar, ineffable way art has of bringing you closer to yourself by taking you out of yourself — its singular power to furnish, Iris Murdoch’s exquisite phrasing, “an occasion for unselfing.” And yet this notion cinches the central paradox of art: Every artist makes what they make with the whole of who they are — with the totality of experiences, beliefs, impressions, obsessions, childhood confusions, heartbreaks, inner conflicts, and contradictions that constellate a self. To be an artist is to put this combinatorial self in the service of furnishing occasions for unselfing in others.
That may be why the lives of artists have such singular allure as case studies and models of turning the confusion, complexity, and uncertainty of life into something beautiful and lasting — something that harmonizes the disquietude and dissonance of living.
In Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library), Olivia Laing — one of the handful of living writers whose mind and prose I enjoy commensurately with the Whitmans and the Woolfs of yore — occasions a rare gift of unselfing through the lives and worlds of painters, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and musicians who have imprinted culture in a profound way while living largely outside the standards and stabilities of society, embodying of James Baldwin’s piercing insight that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
Punctuating these biographical sketches laced with larger questions about art and the human spirit are Laing’s personal essays reflecting, through the lens of her own lived experience, on existential questions of freedom, desire, loneliness, queerness, democracy, rebellion, abandonment, and the myriad vulnerable tendrils of aliveness that make life worth living.
What emerges is a case for art as a truly human endeavor, made by human beings with bodies and identities and beliefs often at odds with the collective imperative; art as “a zone of both enchantment and resistance,” art as sentinel and witness of “how truth is made, diagramming the stages of its construction, or as it may be dissolution,” art as “a direct response to the paucity and hostility of the culture at large,” art as a buoy for loneliness and a fulcrum for empathy.
Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.
I don’t think art has a duty to be beautiful or uplifting, and some of the work I’m most drawn to refuses to traffic in either of those qualities. What I care about more… are the ways in which it’s concerned with resistance and repair.
A writer — a good writer — cannot write about art without writing about those who make it, about the lives of artists as the crucible of their creative contribution, about the delicate, triumphant art of living as a body in the world and a soul outside standard society. Olivia Laing is an excellent writer. Out of lives as varied as those of Basquiat and Agnes Martin, Derek Jarman and Georgia O’Keeffe, David Bowie and Joseph Cornell, she constructs an orrery of art as a cosmos of human connection and a sensemaking mechanism for living.
In a sentiment to which I relate in my own approach to historical lives, Laing frames her method of inquiry:
I’m going as a scout, hunting for resources and ideas that might be liberating or sustaining now, and in the future. What drives all these essays is a long-standing interest in how a person can be free, and especially in how to find a freedom that is shareable, and not dependent upon the oppression or exclusion of other people.
We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living.
Throughout these short, scrumptiously insightful and sensitive essays, Laing draws on the lives of artists — the wildly uneven topographies of wildly diverse interior worlds — to contour new landscapes of possibility for life itself, as we each live it, around and through and with art. In the essay about Georgia O’Keeffe — who revolutionized modern art while living alone and impoverished in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the world’s first global war — Laing observes:
How do you make the most of what’s inside you, your talents and desires, when they slam you up against a wall of prejudice, of limiting beliefs about what a woman must be and an artist can do?
From the beginning, New Mexico represented salvation, though not in the wooden sense of the hill-dominating crosses she so often painted. O’Keeffe’s salvation was earthy, even pagan, comprised of the cold-water pleasure of working unceasingly at what you love, burning anxiety away beneath the desert sun.
In an essay about another artist — the painter Chantal Joffe, for whom Laing sat — she echoes Jackson Pollock’s’s observation that “every good artist paints what he is,” and writes:
You can’t paint reality: you can only paint your own place in it, the view from your eyes, as manifested by your own hands.
A painting betrays fantasies and feelings, it bestows beauty or takes it away; eventually, it supplants the body in history. A painting is full of desire and love, or greed, or hate. It radiates moods, just like people.
Paint as fur, as velvet, as brocade, as hair. Paint as a way of entering and becoming someone else. Paint as a device for stopping time.
In another essay, Laing offers an exquisite counterpoint to the barbed-wire fencing off of identities that has increasingly made the free reach of human connection — that raw material and final product of all art — dangerous and damnable in a culture bristling with ready indignations and antagonisms:
A writer I was on a panel with said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that it is no longer desirable to write about the lives of other people or experiences one hasn’t had. I didn’t agree. I think writing about other people, making art about other people, is both dangerous and necessary. There are moral lines. There are limits to the known. But there’s a difference between respecting people’s right to tell or not tell their own stories and refusing to look at all.
It depends whether you believe that we exist primarily as categories of people, who cannot communicate across our differences, or whether you think we have a common life, an obligation to regard and learn about each other.
In a sense, the entire book is a quiet manifesto for unselfing through the art we make and the art we cherish — a subtle and steadfast act of resistance to the attrition of human connection under the cultural forces of self-righteousness and sanctimonious othering, a stance against those fashionable and corrosive forces that so often indict as appropriation the mere act of learning beautiful things from each other.
In another essay — about Ali Smith, the subject to whom Laing feels, or at least reads, the closest — she quotes a kindred sentiment of Smith’s:
Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves. That’s what art is, it’s the product of the human being in the world and imagination, all coming together. The irrepressibility of the life in the works, regardless of the times, the histories, the life stories, it’s like being given the world, its darks and lights. At which point we can go about the darks and lights with our imagination energised.
Among the subjects of a subset of essays Laing aptly categorizes as “love letters” is John Berger, whose lovely notion of “hospitality” radiates from Laing’s own work — a notion she defines as “a capacity to enlarge and open, a corrective to the overwhelming political imperative, in ascendance once again this decade, to wall off, separate and reject.” She reflects on being stopped up short by Berger’s embodiment of such hospitality when she saw him speak at the British Library at the end of his long, intellectually generous life:
It struck me then how rare it is to see a writer on stage actually thinking, and how glib and polished most speakers are. For Berger, thought was work, as taxing and rewarding as physical labour, a bringing of something real into the world. You have to strive and sweat; the act is urgent but might also fail.
He talked that evening about hospitality. It was such a Bergerish notion. Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers, a word that shares its origin with hospital, a place to treat sick or injured people. This impetus towards kindness and care for the sick and strange, the vulnerable and dispossessed is everywhere in Berger’s work, the sprawling orchard of words he planted and tended over the decades.
Art he saw as a communal and vital possession, to be written about with sensual exactness… Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be generous to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us.
In a superb 2015 essay titled “The Future of Loneliness” — an essay that bloomed into a book a year later, the splendid and unclassifiable book that first enchanted me with Laing’s writing and the mind from which it springs — she considers how technology is mediating our already uneasy relationship to loneliness, and how art redeems the simulacra of belonging with which social media entrap us in this Stockholm syndrome of self-regard. In a passage of chillingly intimate resonance to all of us alive in the age of screens and selfies and the vacant, addictive affirmation of people we have never dined with tapping heart- and thumb-shaped icons on cold LED screens, she writes:
Loneliness centres around the act of being seen. When a person is lonely, they long to be witnessed, accepted, desired, at the same time as becoming intensely wary of exposure. According to research carried out over the past decade at the University of Chicago, the feeling of loneliness triggers what psychologists term hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, the individual becomes hyperalert to rejection, becoming inclined to perceive their social interactions as tinged with hostility or scorn. The result of this shift in perception is a vicious circle of withdrawal, in which the lonely person becomes increasingly suspicious, intensifying their sense of isolation.
This is where online engagement seems to exercise its special charm. Hidden behind a computer screen, the lonely person has control. They can search for company without the danger of being revealed or found wanting. They can reach out or they can hide; they can lurk and they can show themselves, safe from the humiliation of face-to-face rejection. The screen acts as a kind of protective membrane, a scrim that permits invisibility and also transformation. You can filter your image, concealing unattractive elements, and you can emerge enhanced: an online avatar designed to attract likes. But now a problem arises, for the contact this produces is not quite the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person: ugly, unhappy and awkward as well as radiant and selfie-ready.
Having met with Ryan Trecartin — “a baby-faced thirty-four-year-old” of whom I had never heard (saying more about my odd nineteenth-century life than about his art) but whose early-twenty-first-century films about the lurid and discomposing thrill of digital culture prompted The New Yorker to describe him as “the most consequential artist to have emerged since the nineteen-eighties” — Laing reflects:
My own understanding of loneliness relied on a belief in solid, separate selves that he saw as hopelessly outmoded. In his world view, everyone was perpetually slipping into each other, passing through perpetual cycles of transformation; no longer separate, but interspersed. Perhaps he was right. We aren’t as solid as we once thought. We’re embodied but we’re also networks, expanding out into empty space, living on inside machines and in other people’s heads, memories and data streams as well as flesh. We’re being watched and we do not have control. We long for contact and it makes us afraid. But as long as we’re still capable of feeling and expressing vulnerability, intimacy stands a chance.
Vulnerability — which Laing unfussily terms “the necessary condition of love” — is indeed the bellowing undertone of these essays: vulnerability as frisson and function of art, of life itself, of the atavistic impulse for transmuting living into meaning that we call art.
Complement the thoroughly symphonic Funny Weather with Paul Klee on creativity and why an artist is like a tree, Kafka on why we make art, Egon Schiele on why visionary artists tend to come from the minority, and Virginia Woolf’s garden epiphany about what it means to be an artist — which remains, for me, the single most beautiful and penetrating thing ever written on the subject — then revisit Laing on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.
Published February 25, 2021