Olivia Laing on What the Lives of Great Artists Reveal About Vulnerability, Love, Loneliness, Resistance, and Our Search for Meaning – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

The composite creation of a doctor, a philosopher, a poet, and a sculptor, the word empathy in the modern sense only came into use at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for the creative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into a world of feeling and experience other than your own. It vesselled in language that peculiar, ineffable way art has of bringing you closer to yourself by taking you out of yourself — its extraordinary power to furnish, Iris Murdoch’s exquisite phrasing, “an occasion for counseling.” And yet, this notion cinches the central paradox of art: Every artist makes what they make with the whole of who they are — with the totality of experiences, beliefs, impressions, obsessions, childhood confusions, heartbreaks, inner conflicts, and contradictions that constellate a self. To be an artist is to put this combinatorial self in the service of furnishing occasions for counseling in others.

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

That may be why the lives of artists have such singular allure as case studies and models of turning the confusion, complexity, and uncertainty of life into something beautiful and lasting — something that harmonizes the disquietude and dissonance of living.

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Red Hill and White Shell by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1938

In Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library), Olivia Laing — one of the handfuls of living writers whose mind and prose I enjoy commensurately with the Whitmans and the Woolfs of yore — occasions a rare gift of counseling through the lives and worlds of painters, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and musicians who have profoundly imprinted culture while living mainly outside the standards and stabilities of society, embodying of James Baldwin’s piercing insight that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

Punctuating these biographical sketches laced with more critical questions about art and the human spirit are Laing’s essays reflecting, through the lens of her own lived experience, on existential questions of freedom, desire, loneliness, 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 truly human endeavor, made by human beings with bodies and identities and beliefs often at odds with the collective imperative; art as “a zone of both enchantment and resistance,” art as sentinel and witness of “how truth is made, diagramming the stages of its construction, or as it may be dissolution,” art as “a direct response to the paucity and hostility of the culture at large,” art as a buoy for loneliness and a fulcrum for empathy.

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