A British journalist and cultural critic investigates how loneliness shapes art.
When she first came to Manhattan, in her 30s, Laing (The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, 2013, etc.) found her loneliness intensified by living in the city, surrounded by millions of people. Loneliness, writes the author in this absorbing melding of memoir, biography, art essay, and philosophical meditation, “doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.” Her own inability to connect was caused partly by her “anxieties around appearance, about being found insufficiently desirable,” and her discomfort with “the gender box to which I’d been assigned.” Laing’s mother had been a closeted gay woman until she was outed in the 1980s; her mother’s partner was an alcoholic; and Laing grew up witnessing “chaotic and frightening scenes” and “coping with a simmering sense of fear and rage.” The artists she features emerged from their own sources of pain, which fueled both a sense of isolation and a “hypervigilance for social threat,” which causes the lonely person to grow increasingly “suspicious and withdrawn.” Drawing on biographies, interviews, oral histories, and archival material, Laing sensitively explores the lives and works of artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and Klaus Nomi. Hopper’s urban scenes, writes Laing, evoke “the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure.” Wojnarowicz’s paintings, installations, photography, films, and performances focus “on how an individual can survive within an antagonistic society.” Outsider artist Darger, a Chicago janitor, produced over 300 paintings, many disturbingly violent. His art “served as lightning rods for other people’s fears and fantasies about isolation, its potentially pathological aspect.”
Although art may be generated by loneliness, writes Laing in this illuminating, enriching book, it has a significant “capacity to create intimacy.”