What I’m Reading: Intersections of Art and Loneliness in The Lonely City

Artists may experience loneliness more than anyone else. Making art is an inherently lonely endeavor. To succeed, you must spend hours alone in a studio, with just your own thoughts and frustrations.

I’m well-acquainted with loneliness. Since childhood, I have never felt I fit in anywhere. I always seem to find myself among people unlike me, growing up in an affluent, conservative suburb, living abroad for six years altogether, and now in the midst of an overseas military community hosted in a different culture. My husband travels often, so I find myself rattling around an empty house many weekends. At times, I relish the solitude. Around 4-6 pm, however, in the dead of winter, it can get a little tough.

So, it was fitting one of my first reads of 2017 would be The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. It is a beautifully but plainly written treatise on loneliness, particularly the intersection of loneliness and art. She wrote the book while enduring a bout of crushing loneliness herself, getting over a breakup during a move to New York, a foreign city to her where she knew no one.

She made the most of it, however, by taking the time to delve deeply into the various states of loneliness as reflected in the work of various artists, including Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz.

The Art of Loneliness: (Clockwise from top left) Henry Darger's "Realsm of the Unreal," Alice Neel's Portrait of Andy Warhol wearing the corset he used after being shot,"Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz
The Art of Loneliness: (Clockwise from top left) Henry Darger’s “Realms of the Unreal,” Alice Neel’s Portrait of Andy Warhol with scars and in the medical corset he wore after being shot, Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz

Andy Warhol is known more for his Factory parties, celebrity connections, and bright Pop Art than for his recordings and films. But Laing focuses specifically on Warhol’s project entitled A, A Novel, which is a transcription of hours of recordings he made of the various personalities that drifted through the Factory scene. Warhol was famously reluctant to talk about himself, but was good at getting others to talk, so many of the recordings feature the social misfits and outsiders filling the silence with their own sometimes rambling speech. At times, this talk is desperate and searching.

Laing zeros in on this quality of desperation, which is part of what makes loneliness self-perpetuating, in her estimation. Lonely people who crave nothing if not connection are repulsive to the non-lonely. If speech is a means of connection, it is fraught, which Warhol’s recording shows: “Either you don’t communicate enough and remain concealed from other people, or you risk rejection by exposing too much altogether.”

And what of those poor souls who live their whole life on the margins? Henry Darger is perhaps the most well-known outsider artist of all time. He grew up in institutions and spent several decades working as a janitor by day and making art at night. He never showed his work to anyone until, when he went to live in a seniors’ home, his landlord discovered the mountains of art, made with cheap kid’s art supplies.

Darger’s work revolved around the story he called “The Realms of the Unreal,” involving an epic battle between girl warriors and an evil army of men. The work is unsettling but imaginative and often beautiful. Critics and art historians seem to be evenly split on whether the violence and torture suffered by children in the paintings reflects Darger’s own childhood experiences or, rather, indicates violent pedophile urges on his part.

Laing leans more toward treating Darger with sympathy for his painfully lonely existence. Darger grew up during a time between the discovery of pathogens and the revelation that children needed physical connection and affection as much as they needed food and shelter. In Darger’s time, institutions for orphaned and “feeble-minded” children were cold, lonely places where only the most basic needs of the child were provided: food, shelter, strict discipline and nothing more. Laing wonders, “What on earth would it be like to live the whole of your life like this, occupying the blind spot in other people’s existence?”

She comes to the conclusion throughout the book that art is the antidote. Specifically in Darger’s case, she applies the thinking of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, and the search of the self for internal wholeness through the process of integration. Laing sees Darger’s use of collage, tracing, and appropriated images as a means of reintegrating a broken self.

Loneliness here is a longing not just for acceptance but also for integration. It arises out of an understanding, however deeply buried or defended against, that the self has been broken into fragments, some of which are missing, cast out into the world. But how do you put the broken piece back together? Isn’t that where art comes in (yes, says Klien), and in particular the art of collage, the repetitive task, day by day and year by year, of soldering torn or sundered images together?

Laing concludes her exploration of loneliness wondering why loneliness should be such a pariah state:

What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about failing to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need to constantly inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?

As she must, she spends a good deal of time addressing the role of the internet in the experience of loneliness in today’s world. It is simultaneously easier to disconnect from the real world of physical people and easier to substitute those lost connections with the illusion of community the internet provides.

What I found most valuable in Laing’s book is how she goes deeper into the subject than many would have. She doesn’t stop at examining Andy Warhol’s lonely life ( or rather, the life of Andrew Warhola, the fragile man underneath the corset and wig) but digs deep into the life of the woman who shot him. Valerie Solanas, a creature truly confined the the margins of society, was perhaps an interesting writer and thinker in her own right, as unhinged as she was.

I was also fascinated by the story of David Wojnarowicz and his experience growing up on the streets, first prostituting himself and then later fully engaged in the gay social milieu represented by the abandoned piers in New York. This was before AIDS, which ultimately killed Wojnarowicz, but not before it galvanized his own art and turned him into a spokesman for AIDS activism.

I hesitate to say that marginality was more accepted fifty years ago, but perhaps there were more physical places where alternative lifestyles thrived far away from any apparatus of social control. Yes, of course, alternative lifestyles have gone mainstream now, but now more than ever, there is always a “right way” and a “wrong way” to be marginal, alternative, outsider….

There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a homogenizing, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings — depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage — are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice…

….Or just to the fact that life is painful.

Though this book goes very dark places, it ends on a hopeful note and a call to be more accepting of one another in all of our states: “We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity.”

As for myself, I find loneliness to be a useful state when it comes to making art. Feeling cut off from the world is the beginning of having original thoughts, ugly or embarrassing though they may be. In the quiet solitude, interesting things start to happen. Maybe loneliness is even a necessary component of art-making.

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