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

The composite creation of a physician, a thinker, a poet, and a carver, the word empathy in the modern-day sense only came into use at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for the creative act of predicting yourself into a work of art, into a world of feeling and experience other than your own. And yet this notion cinches the main paradox of art: Every artist makes what they make with the whole of who they are– with the totality of experiences, beliefs, impressions, fixations, youth confusions, heartbreaks, inner conflicts, and contradictions that constellate a self.

That may be why the lives of artists have such singular appeal as case studies and models of turning the confusion, intricacy, and unpredictability of life into something long lasting and lovely– something that harmonizes the disquietude and harshness of living.

Stressing these biographical sketches laced with bigger questions about art and the human spirit are Laings individual essays showing, through the lens of her own lived experience, on existential questions of liberty, desire, solitude, 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 really human venture, made by people with identities and bodies and beliefs typically at chances with the cumulative imperative; art as “a zone of both enchantment and resistance,” art as sentinel and witness of “how fact is made, diagramming the phases of its building, or as it might be dissolution,” art as “a direct action to the paucity and hostility of the culture at big,” art as a buoy for isolation and a fulcrum for compassion.

Red Hill and White Shell by Georgia OKeeffe, 1938In 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– celebrations an uncommon present of unselfing through the lives and worlds of painters, poets, novelists, filmmakers, and artists who have actually imprinted culture in a profound way while living mostly outside the requirements and stabilities of society, embodying of James Baldwins piecing insight that “a society need to presume that it is steady, but the artist needs to know, and he must let us know, that there is absolutely nothing steady under paradise.”

Summertime 1964 by Agnes MartinLaing writes:

When we checked out Dickens, Empathy is not something that takes place to us. Its work. What art does is supply product with which to believe: brand-new registers, brand-new areas. After that, pal, its up to you.
I do not think art has a duty to be gorgeous or uplifting, and some of the work Im most drawn to declines to traffic in either of those qualities. What I appreciate more … are the methods in which its interested in resistance and repair.

A writer– a good writer– can not blog about art without composing about those who make it, about the lives of artists as the crucible of their imaginative contribution, about the delicate, triumphant art of living as a body in a soul and the world outdoors standard society. Olivia Laing is an outstanding author. Out of lives as varied as those of Basquiat and Agnes Martin, Derek Jarman and Georgia OKeeffe, 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 belief to which I relate in my own technique to historic lives, Laing frames her approach of inquiry:

Im going as a scout, searching for resources and concepts 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 totally free, and particularly in how to discover a freedom that is shareable, and not dependent upon the oppression or exclusion of other people.
[…] Were so typically informed that art cant truly change anything. 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 uses other lifestyles.

Throughout these brief, scrumptiously insightful and sensitive essays, Laing draws on the lives of artists– the extremely uneven topographies of extremely 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 OKeeffe– who transformed modern-day art while living alone and impoverished in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the worlds very first worldwide war– Laing observes:

How do you take advantage of whats inside you, your desires and skills, when they knock you up versus a wall of bias, of restricting beliefs about what a lady must be and an artist can do?
[…] From the start, New Mexico represented redemption, though not in the wooden sense of the hill-dominating crosses she so typically painted. OKeeffes redemption was earthy, even pagan, made up of the cold-water satisfaction of working unceasingly at what you enjoy, burning stress and anxiety away underneath the desert sun.

Georgia OKeeffe, Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, 1923 (Georgia OKeeffe Museum) In an essay about another artist– the painter Chantal Joffe, for whom Laing sat– she echoes Jackson Pollockss observation that “every excellent artist paints what he is,” and writes:

You cant paint reality: you can just paint your own location in it, the view from your eyes, as manifested by your own hands.
A painting betrays feelings and dreams, it bestows charm or takes it away; ultimately, it supplants the body in history. A painting is complete of desire and love, or greed, or hate. It radiates state of minds, similar to individuals.
[…] Paint as fur, as velvet, as brocade, as hair. Paint as a way of entering and ending up being somebody else. Paint as a device for stopping time.

Art by Basquiat from Life Doesnt Frighten Me by Maya AngelouIn another essay, Laing provides a charming counterpoint to the barbed-wire fencing off of identities that has significantly made the complimentary reach of human connection– that basic material and end product of all art– hazardous and damnable in a culture bristling with ready indignations and antagonisms:

In a sense, the whole book is a peaceful manifesto for unselfing through the art we make and the art we treasure– a unfaltering and subtle act of resistance to the attrition of human connection under the cultural forces of self-righteousness and sanctimonious othering, a stance versus those fashionable and destructive forces that so often arraign as appropriation the mere act of discovering beautiful things from each other.

An author I was on a panel with stated, and Im paraphrasing here, that it is no longer desirable to compose about the lives of other individuals or experiences one hasnt had. I think writing about other people, making art about other individuals, is both essential and unsafe. Theres a distinction in between appreciating peoples right to inform or not inform their own stories and declining to look at all.
[…] It depends whether you think that we exist mostly as classifications of individuals, who can not interact throughout our distinctions, or whether you believe we have a typical life, an obligation to regard and discover about each other.

In another essay– about Ali Smith, the subject to whom Laing feels, or a minimum of reads, the closest– she quotes a kindred belief of Smiths:

Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves. Thats what art is, its the product of the human being in the world and imagination, all coming together.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1958. (U.S. Department of State/ Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation) Among the subjects of a subset of essays Laing aptly categorizes as “love letters” is John Berger, whose charming concept of “hospitality” radiates from Laings own work– a concept she specifies as “a capability to enlarge and open, a corrective to the frustrating political important, in ascendance once again this decade, to wall off, separate and decline.” She reviews being stopped up short by Bergers personification 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 unusual it is to see a writer on stage really believing, and how glib and polished most speakers are. For Berger, thought was work, as taxing and fulfilling as physical labour, a taking of something real into the world. You have to sweat and strive; the act is immediate but may likewise stop working.
Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of strangers, visitors or guests, a word that shares its origin with hospital, a location to treat sick or hurt individuals. This impetus towards generosity and care for the sick and weird, the vulnerable and dispossessed is all over in Bergers work, the sprawling orchard of words he tended and planted over the decades.
[…] Art he saw as a common and vital ownership, to be written about with sensuous exactness … Capitalism, he composed in Ways of Seeing, survives by forcing the bulk to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. He put his faith in the people, the entire host of us.

With My Back to the World by Agnes Martin, 1997In an outstanding 2015 essay entitled “The Future of Loneliness”– an essay that bloomed into a book a year later on, the superb and unclassifiable book that first bewitched me with Laings writing and the mind from which it springs– she thinks about how technology is mediating our currently anxious relationship to isolation, and how art redeems the simulacra of belonging with which social networks allure us in this Stockholm syndrome of self-regard. In a passage of chillingly intimate resonance to everyone alive in the age of screens and selfies and the vacant, addicting affirmation of people we have actually never dined with tapping heart- and thumb-shaped icons on cold LED screens, she composes:

Isolation centres around the act of being seen. According to research carried out over the previous decade at the University of Chicago, the sensation of solitude activates what psychologists term hypervigilance for social hazard.
Concealed behind a computer screen, the lonesome individual has control. The screen acts as a kind of protective membrane, a scrim that permits invisibility and also change. Curating an improved self may win fans or Facebook pals, however it will not necessarily treat loneliness, considering that the treatment for loneliness is not being looked at, however being seen and accepted as an entire individual: ugly, unhappy and awkward as well as glowing and selfie-ready.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for an unusual edition of James Joyces UlyssesHaving consulted with Ryan Trecartin– “a baby-faced thirty-four-year-old” of whom I had never heard (stating more about my odd nineteenth-century life than about his art) but whose early-twenty-first-century films about the lurid and discomposing excitement of digital culture prompted The New Yorker to explain him as “the most substantial artist to have actually emerged because the nineteen-eighties”– Laing shows:

I believe composing about other people, making art about other people, is both harmful and required.

My own understanding of loneliness relied on a belief in solid, separate selves that he saw as hopelessly outmoded. In his world view, everybody was perpetually slipping into each other, going through perpetual cycles of improvement; no longer different, but interspersed. Possibly he was. We arent as strong as we as soon as thought. Were embodied but were likewise networks, expanding out into void, living on inside devices and in other peoples heads, memories and data streams as well as flesh. Were being seen and we do not have control. We wish for contact and it makes us afraid. As long as were still capable of sensation and revealing vulnerability, intimacy stands a possibility.

Vulnerability– which Laing unfussily terms “the essential condition of love”– is certainly 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.

Enhance the completely symphonic Funny Weather with Paul Klee on imagination 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 Woolfs garden epiphany about what it suggests to be an artist– which stays, for me, the single most lovely and penetrating thing ever composed on the subject– then revisit Laing on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.

The composite development of a doctor, a thinker, a poet, and a sculptor, the word compassion in the contemporary sense only came into use at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for the imaginative act of forecasting yourself into a work of art, into a world of feeling and experience other than your own. And yet this idea cinches the main paradox of art: Every artist makes what they make with the whole of who they are– with the totality of experiences, beliefs, impressions, fascinations, youth confusions, heartbreaks, inner conflicts, and contradictions that constellate a self. A writer– a good writer– can not write about art without writing about those who make it, about the lives of artists as the crucible of their creative contribution, about the fragile, victorious art of living as a body in a soul and the world outdoors standard society. Out of lives as differed as those of Basquiat and Agnes Martin, Derek Jarman and Georgia OKeeffe, David Bowie and Joseph Cornell, she constructs an orrery of art as an universe of human connection and a sensemaking system for living.