The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Loneliness and art in NYC: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The Lonely City is a fluid book, part memoir on loneliness in New York, part history of art and certain artists in the later 20th century, and part exposition on how being alone and being different has affected different kinds of art. The witty subtitle, ‘adventures in the art of being alone,’ summarises the reading experience: it is an adventure, not always a happy one, through art and loneliness and the sometimes harsh environment of the city.

The title initially drew me to the book, which I didn’t realise was about art and the lives of artists in New York as well as about loneliness in a big city. As someone who knows extremely little about art, I found it easily engaging and a fascinating look at artists of varying levels of general fame. Chapters focus around elements of her own time in New York and a specific artist and their work and history, but later chapters bring together aspects of previous ones to form the larger picture. From Warhol to various artists working in photography, music, and other media, the way in which Laing draws lines between art, loneliness and New York, particularly in relation to the AIDS crisis and LGBT communities, is deeply interesting and moving. Gender and sexuality play an important part throughout the book, which I did not expect from the blurb but was pleasantly surprised to find.

The kinds of loneliness on display in art and in life, being physically isolated and emotionally alone and socially outcast to name a few, are discussed to show that the concept of ‘the lonely city’ is not a simple one. Ultimately, Laing focuses on positivity that can come from looking at loneliness as well as on great pieces of art in different forms. The way in which The Lonely City blends ideas of loneliness, self, and art, not rigidly in one genre or focus, makes it a versatile and engaging read for anyone interested in social issues, art, LGBT history, or how cities can shape the people and work within them.