The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone is a work of art history and art criticism—among several other genres—but it contains very few images. At the beginning of each chapter, we find just a single black-and-white photograph of the principal artist who will be discussed. The rest of the time, we are at the mercy of author Olivia Laing’s descriptions of the art addressed, unless we choose to put the book aside and dive into Internet rabbit holes searching for David Wojnarowicz’s jarring series of Rimbaud photographs or reading part of Valerie Solanas’s incendiary SCUM Manifesto or watching scratchy YouTube clips of Klaus Nomi and his taut, haunting face, pancaked with white makeup.
Laing set out to explore the ways that New York, art, and loneliness feed off each other, using her own experience as a temporarily displaced writer to form a cohesive narrative. Some of the most interesting questions the book raises have to do with the relationships between art, solitude, and the Internet, especially when we consider Laing’s memoir to be a work of art in its own right. Why are there so few images in the book? What’s the point of seeing art in person in the age of the Internet? And how can art—usually created in solitude—mediate the Internet’s isolating effects?
Laing, who is British, researched The Lonely City while drifting from sublet to sublet in New York after a sudden breakup left her aimless and unattached. As she learned about the type of loneliness particular to cities like New York—where it’s shockingly easy to retreat into your apartment unnoticed and where the delicate choreography of interacting with strangers on a daily basis can become an overwhelming source of anxiety for those enshrouded in loneliness—Laing decided to immerse herself in art. The Lonely City focuses on the lives of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger, artists whose works were shaped by a pervasive, lifelong loneliness.
We follow Laing as she visits museums, is granted access to library archives, watches documentaries, and reads books of interviews and criticism, learning about her art-subjects as they are filtered through her own understanding. Her perspective can be fascinating and informative. Take, for example, her description of viewing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Whitney:
It was hanging at the very back of the gallery, hidden behind a shoal of people. The colours are amazing, a girl said, and then I was drawn to the front of the crowd. Up close, the painting rearranged itself, decomposing into snags and anomalies I’d never seen before. The bright triangle of the diner’s ceiling was cracking. A long drip of yellow ran between the coffee urns. The paint was applied very thinly, not quite covering the linen ground, so that the surface was breached by a profusion of barely visible white pinpricks and tiny white threads. I took a step back. Green shadows were falling in spikes and diamonds on the sidewalk. There is no colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomization of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs.
A tour guide came in then, her dark hair piled on her head, a group of visitors trailing in her wake. She pointed to the painting, saying do you see, there isn’t a door? And they crowded round, making small noises of exclamation. She was right.
The prose here is stunning, precise, dynamic, and visceral. It makes you think hard about the experience of viewing art at a museum: how the motion of a crowd forces you to spend more or less time standing at a particular viewpoint and the overheard observations or smatters of information gleaned from tours can influence your own thoughts about the work in question. And yet despite the excellence and descriptiveness of this passage, after reading it and scribbling on the page, I closed my book and opened my computer so that I could look at Hopper’s Nighthawks in flattened, pixelated form for myself. After Nighthawks, I had to look up Hotel Window, and Morning Sun, and then glanced over the Edward Hopper Wikipedia page for good measure before I finally put my computer aside and took up the book again.
My reliance on the Internet while reading The Lonely City was ironic given that Laing addresses its relationship to loneliness in great depth. She describes entire days spent online, searching for privacy, stimulation, and connection, all at the same time. “I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity,” she writes. “I wanted to hypnotise myself with data, with coloured pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping anxious sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings.” This first-person examination of her own relationship to the Internet takes place as part of a chapter about the interplay between loneliness and machines; she traces a line between the Internet and Andy Warhol’s tape recorder, which he brought with him everywhere and referred to as his “wife.” For the chronically socially-anxious Warhol, the tape recorder acted as a buffer between himself and other people, just as social media allows us to talk to other people without actually talking to them and Google Images allows us to look at art without actually looking at it.
Laing’s beautifully drawn conclusion is that art can have the power to expose, de-stigmatize, and in some cases, heal loneliness. By studying the art of Hopper, Warhol, Darger, and Wojnarowicz, she began to feel less alone, finding that the power of her emotional attachment to these artists’ works gave her a sense of connection to them. “Loneliness is not supposed to induce empathy,” she writes, but for her, art was “one of the things that most medicated my own feelings of loneliness, giving me a sense of the potential beauty present in a frank declaration that one is human and as such subject to need. So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness?”
By writing this memoir, Laing has exposed her own loneliness and unhappiness, completing the circle by creating her own work of literary art with which we can communicate intimately. The Lonely City is a persuasive argument for the emotional power of experiencing art in person. Perhaps the unusual editorial decision not to include images was not designed to drive us onto the Internet, but rather outwards into museums and galleries in search of our own artistic medication. Standing in a crowd looking at a piece of art—just as Laing did with Hopper’s Nighthawks—allows us to feel as though we are all participating together in a moment of humanity. As Laing writes, “Loneliness is collective; it is a city.”