The Art of Being Alone
Blog: FS - Smart decisions
Loneliness has more to do with our perceptions than how much company we have. It’s just as possible to be painfully lonely surrounded by people as it is to be content with little social contact. Some people need extended periods of time alone to recharge, others would rather give themselves electric shocks than spend a few minutes with their thoughts. Here’s how we can change our perceptions by making and experiencing art.
At a moment in time when many people are facing unprecedented amounts of time alone, it’s a good idea for us to pause and consider what it takes to turn difficult loneliness into enriching solitude. We are social creatures, and a sustained lack of satisfying relationships carries heavy costs for our mental and physical health. But when we are forced to spend more time alone than we might wish, there are ways we can compensate and find a fruitful sense of connection and fulfillment. One way to achieve this is by using our loneliness as a springboard for creativity.
“Loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed but simply that one is alive.”
— Olivia Laing
Loneliness as connection
One way people have always coped with loneliness is through creativity. By transmuting their experience into something beautiful, isolated individuals throughout history have managed to substitute the sense of community they might have otherwise found in relationships with their creative outputs.
In The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing tells the stories of a number of artists who led isolated lives and found meaning in their work even if their relationships couldn’t fulfill them. While she focuses specifically on visual artists in New York over the last seventy years, their methods of using their loneliness and transmitting it into their art carry wide resonance. These particular artists tapped into sentiments many of us will experience at least once in our lives. They found beauty in loneliness and showed it to be something worth considering, not just something to run from.
The artist Edward Hopper (1882–1967) is known for his paintings of American cityscapes inhabited by closed-off figures who seem to embody a vision of modern loneliness. Laing found herself drawn to his signature images of uneasy individuals in sparse surroundings, often separated from the viewer by a window or some other barrier.
Why, then, do we persist in ascribing loneliness to his work? The obvious answer is that his paintings tend to be populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress. But there’s something else too; something about the way he contrives his city streets . . . This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near unbearable exposure.
While Hopper intermittently denied that his paintings were about loneliness, he certainly experienced the sense of being walled off in a city. In 1910 he moved to Manhattan, after a few years spent mostly in Europe, and found himself struggling to get by. Not only were his paintings not selling, he also felt alienated by the city. Hopper worked on commissions and had few close relationships. Only in his forties did he marry, well past the window of acceptability for the time. Laing writes of his early time in New York:
This sense of separation, of being alone in a big city, soon began to surface in his art . . . He was determined to articulate the day-to-day experience of inhabiting the modern, electric city of New York. Working first with etchings and then in paint, Hopper began to produce a distinctive body of images that captured the cramped, sometimes alluring experience of urban living.
Hopper roamed the city at night, sketching scenes that caught his eye. This perspective meant that the viewer of his paintings finds themselves most often in the position of an observer detached from the scene in front of them. If loneliness can feel like being separated from the world, the windows Hopper painted are perhaps a physical manifestation of this.
By Laing’s description, Hopper transformed the isolation he may have experienced by depicting the experience of loneliness as a place in itself, inhabited by the many people sharing it despite their differences. She elaborates and states, “They aren’t sentimental, his pictures, but there is an extraordinary attentiveness to them. As if what he saw was as interesting as he kept insisting he needed it to be: worth the labor, the miserable effort of setting it down. As if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’ strange, estranging spell.”
Hopper’s work shows us that one way to make friends with loneliness is to create work that explores and examines it. This not only offers a way to connect with those enduring the same experience but also turns isolation into creative material and robs it of some of its sting.
Loneliness as inspiration
A second figure Laing considers is Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Born Andrew Warhola, the artist has become an icon, his work widely known, someone whose fame renders him hard to relate to. When she began exploring his body of work, Laing found that “one of the interesting things about his work, once you stop to look, is the way the real, vulnerable human self remains stubbornly visible, exerting its own submerged pressure, its own mute appeal to the viewer.”
In particular, much of Warhol’s work pertains to the loneliness he felt throughout his life, no matter how surrounded he was by glittering friends and admirers.
Throughout Warhol’s oeuvre, we see his efforts to turn his own sense of being on the outside into art. A persistent theme in his work was speech. He made thousands of tapes of conversations, often using them as the basis for other works of art. For instance, Warhol’s book, a, A Novel, consists of transcribed tapes from between 1965 and 1967. The tape recorder was such an important part of his life, both a way of connecting with people and keeping them at a distance, that he referred to it as his wife. By listening to others and documenting the oddities of their speech, Warhol coped with feeling he couldn’t be heard. Laing writes, “he retained a typically perverse fondness for language errors. He was fascinated by empty or deformed language, by chatter and trash, by glitches and botches in conversation.” In his work, all speech mattered regardless of its content.
Warhol himself often struggled with speech, mumbling in interviews and being embarrassed by his heavy Pittsburgh accent, which rendered him easily misunderstood in school. Speech was just one factor that left him isolated at times. At age seven, Warhol was confined to his bed by illness for several months. He withdrew from his peers, focusing on making art with his mother, and never quite integrated into school again. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1949, Warhol moved to New York and sought his footing in the art world. Despite his rapid rise to success and fame, he remained held back by an unshakeable belief in his own inferiority and exclusion from existing social circles.
Becoming a machine also meant having relationships with machines, using physical devices as a way of filling the uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable space between self and world. Warhol could not have achieved his blankness, his enviable detachment, without the use of these charismatic substitutes for intimacy and love.
Later in the book, Laing visits the Warhol museum to see his Time Capsules, 610 cardboard boxes filled with objects collected over the course of thirteen years: “postcards, letters, newspapers, magazines, photographs, invoices, slices of pizza, a piece of chocolate cake, even a mummified human foot.” He added objects until each box was full, then transferred them to a storage unit. Some objects have obvious value, while others seem like trash. There is no particular discernable order to the collection, yet Laing saw in the Time Capsules much the same impulse reflected in Warhol’s tape recordings:
What were the Capsules, really? Trash cans, coffins, vitrines, safes; ways of keeping the loved together, ways of never having to admit to loss or feel the pain of loneliness . . . What is left after the essence has departed? Rind and skin, things you want to throw away but can’t.
The loneliness Warhol felt when he created works like the Time Capsules was more a psychological one than a practical one. He was no longer alone, but his early experiences of feeling like an outsider, and the things he felt set him apart from others, like his speech, marred his ability to connect. Loneliness, for Warhol, was perhaps more a part of his personality than something he could overcome through relationships. Even so, he was able to turn it into fodder for the groundbreaking art we remember him for. Warhol’s art communicated what he struggled to say outright. It was also a way of him listening to and seeing other people—by photographing friends, taping them sleeping, or recording their conversations—when he perhaps felt he couldn’t be heard or seen.
Where creativity takes us
Towards the end of the book, Laing writes:
There are so many things that art can’t do. It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change. All the same, it does have some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who have never met and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.
When we face loneliness in our lives, it is not always possible or even appropriate to deal with it by rushing to fill our lives with people. Sometimes we do not have that option; sometimes we’re not in the right space to connect deeply; sometimes we first just need to work through that feeling. One way we can embrace our loneliness is by turning to the art of others who have inhabited that same lonely city, drawing solace and inspiration from their creations. We can use that as inspiration in our own creative pursuits which can help us work through difficult, and lonely, times.