The Artist’s Isolation – Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City

When in the throes of personal isolation and loneliness, we tend to blame ourselves first and foremost for the emotion’s appearance. Yet, no matter the circumstances, we might be placing too much blame on ourselves. Although we may view ourselves as the primary culprit, perhaps we’re not asking ourselves the right questions. Instead of solely blaming ourselves, perhaps we need to be asking where the beginnings of loneliness emerge from? How do we interact with other people, even within heavily populated environments, that still lead us to feel isolated from the world around us? Does technology push us further away from intimate, human interactions? When lonely, how is our perception of the world affected, and how do portray ourselves to others when given the opportunity?

Living in the heart of New York City, in her mid-30s, and becoming wrought with the negative effects of loneliness and oncoming depression, Olivia Laing began to reflect on her then isolated lifestyle. In attempt to escape the cyclical loneliness brought about by her style of living, she decided to find resolve within the innards of the city. Researching and exploring the history and works of some of the city’s greatest artists and art experiments, she realized that loneliness was one of the most central messages among them. The artists that Laing gravitated towards where those whose loneliness was either self-induced or brought on by society’s misunderstanding or intended repression of their believes and lifestyle. Such artists included the isolated representations of the city by Edward Hopper, the cultural revolutionary works of Andy Warhol, the hoarding, puzzling masterpieces of Henry Darger, to the illuminations of gay culture and the AIDS crisis as documented by David Wojnarowicz.

Per on artistic example, Hopper’s Nighthawks, the artist presents less a diner and more a sterile, encapsulated prison. No one is talking and no one is looking at another. The counter-boy has a distant, cold look on his face, while the room is covered  with a streak of “brilliant jade green.” Wrapping around the diner, like a non-penetrable bubble, is its glass window – a common object in Hopper’s work – and one that isolates the dwellers into those on the inside vs. outside of the frame of reference. There is less a feeling of viewing artistic perspective in Hopper’s work and more a feeling of voyeurism – watching the lives of others while they are unaware of your presence. It intensifies the feeling of loneliness, both to the sole viewer and the portraits, unaware they are being observed. Much of his work dwells on this notion, that of living in within the city and constantly watching the lives of others, while they are unaware of your sight or existence. Not only does it convey an intense feeling of disgust, but it makes us question our own position, whether or not we are the same people that we are watching,  or if someone is currently watching us.

As Laing’s perspective describes, loneliness, like depression, is a state of being that pervades us all, at some point or another. No matter how it is highlighted, whether within the city life, wherein we are surrounded by millions yet feel as if we are the only cognizant soul roaming the streets, or trapped within a technological age that inhibits social/physical intimacy, we find ourselves, at one time or another, confined within a solitary cell in which our emotions are wholly our own and our sense of being is disconnected from the mass collection of others.

Part personal memoir and part thoroughly researched biographies, Laing provides an insightful perspective into what it means to be alone, where that loneliness begins, how it grows and pervades lifestyles once it has begun, and how we individually deal with our personal struggles with it. However, Laing’s imperative message comes from her resolve that this loneliness is not an isolated, emotional response, emphasizing that our experiences are especially human. For those who are currently enraptured within a state of loneliness, this book is not just a historical perspective on the emotional response to the lack of companionship, rather it provides itself as a glimmer of optimism. Transcending depressive realism into one of tragic realism, it shows us that we are not as alone as we may think we are. What we undergo is not a unique experience solely of our own – there are many others that understand our trials and tribulations just as well, whether the circumstance or situation. Personally, I find comfort within that message, since that means that however lonely we might feel at times, we are emotions and troubles are not solely isolated.

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