What can art do? And what can it not do?

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone asks both these questions,
with an added dimension – can we make art when loneliness, to the point of extreme isolation, is
the spur?

Laing is a British writer whose books have been published to substantial acclaim. The love affair
that triggered a move to New York City was pulled from under her feet, but she stayed anyway,
learned first-hand the crushing effects of loneliness and shares with us enough of her experience
that, without nullifying her privacy, we understand what drove her to write this book.

The Lonely City is an engaging mix of artists’ biographies, memoir, research and cultural
criticism. Four artists are its main focus. Edward Hopper, an extremely reserved man, painted
loneliness. David Wojnarowicz used his loneliness to reach out to others artistically, sexually
and as an AIDS activist. Andy Warhol’s art, its democratic sameness, gave solace to his phobic
avoidance of touch of any kind, physical or emotional. Henry Darger lived in extreme poverty
and isolation, yet produced hundreds of disturbing paintings and a lengthy memoir, only
discovered after his death.

Laing has viewed the works and dug through the archives of each of these men. She seeks to
define loneliness and understand its causes, and argues against the pathologisation of a chronic
human condition by probing its redemptive value.

Loneliness as lack: lack of companionship, intimacy and meaningful touch. Hopper, a voyeur
who roamed Manhattan in search of subjects that interested him, produced works filled with
unease. The geometry of his buildings is off-kilter, the colours flattened, smothered, oppressive,
the men and women disconnected, both exposed and confined – trapped within themselves,
trapped behind glass. His full attentiveness to human isolation and its underlying despair gives
me the cold shivers, emphasis on cold.

Warhol’s agonising shyness prevented verbal communication, and his belief that he was
“physically abhorrent” blocked him from touch: two means for intimacy. So Warhol reinvented
himself, flaunting his gayness in a homophobic society, making himself into a loner who hid
behind machines among the crowds in the Silver Factory, and embracing Pop Art in silkscreens
that depict soup cans, celebrities and disasters. To what do we pay attention, he asks, and why?
Aren’t manufactured objects lined up on a grocery shelf worth more than a passing glance? What
about the glossy public masks worn by Marilyn and Elvis?

When Laing ventured unmasked into Times Square at Hallowe’en, her vulnerability and sense of
exposure led her to David Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud series, isolated men wearing a Rimbaud
mask in settings like the Chelsea Piers, a haunt for gay men in the 70s and 80s where they risked
brutality for brief intimacy and acceptance. Art and sex: the means of escape from solitary
confinement. I was brought to deep admiration of Wojnarowicz – I’d never heard of him before I
read this book – a man unable to verbalise a shameful legacy of physical abuse, rape and near-starvation, but resisting victimhood and society’s taboo of the body (especially the homosexual
body) by his creativity, sociability and sexual openness. His aim, via his films and his strongly-
hued collages and paintings, was to lessen alienation. Lessen, not banish.

On principle, Wojnarowicz was against cruelty or coercion – what would he have made of Henry
Darger’s art, which has been described as sexually sadistic and pedophilic? Laing refutes such
limitations, referring us to the violence in Goya’s art, for example, and to the goodness opposing
evil and indifference in Darger’s luminous, pain-riddled paintings of the war against child
slavery in his imaginary Realm of the Unreal (when I went online, I found them beautiful and
distressing in equal measure). Darger was sent, very young, to a horrifically abusive asylum for
feeble-minded children – need anything more be said?

Countertenor Klaus Nomi; installation artist Zoe Leonard; social media experimenter Josh
Harris; photographer Nan Goldin: all have roles in this absorbing and discomfiting book, as does
– should you think there is too much emphasis on men – female loneliness magnified and
maintained by objectification and “meat-making.” Throughout, Laing enlarged my horizons,
while her refusal to moralise, her curiosity and sheer persistence (Warhol’s 610 sealed boxes!)
are wonderfully consoling.

Why are we ashamed of our unhappiness, failures and loneliness, Laing asks. Why do we hide
our imperfect lives behind masks? Art cannot erase the scars of stigmatisation any more than it
can “fix” life’s undeniable wounds or the brevity of what Wojnarowicz calls our rented bodies.
But it can enlarge our spirits and our understanding, allowing us to befriend ourselves and others.

Sure, I feel lonely at times – is there anyone who doesn’t? This is the book to take off the shelf!