Art in an Emergency

It happens every now and then that I read something that is an exact representation my thoughts, or translates how I feel about any given situation. Writer Olivia Laing has had this effect lately.

Since the relaxation of the lockdown rules in Belgium, I’ve had conversations with more people about the effect the fairly extreme isolation has had on us. These discussions help, if only in realising that I have not been alone. My thoughts, all of them, are perfectly fine. The lockdown did not need to be performed. There’s no town hall meeting in the end of the pandemic where everybody must present their quarantine achievements. It’s absolutely fine just to have survived it.

In a perfect world, to avoid the daily fall into the bottomless cave of negative COVID-news, we would be able to give our brain some neutral, if positive is absolutely not possible, news about the goings-on of the world. Alas, we are spectacularly far from that. Being surrounded by negative and scary news and devastating, disturbing footage, commentary and imagery does take its toll. It’s exhausting. It’s actually depressing.

Laing’s book Funny Weather – Art in an Emergency is therefore an extremely timely launch (there’s a review also in the July UK Harper’s Bazaar). Laing examines the role art and culture have in our political and emotional lives, especially in the turbulent, “funny” political weather we are currently living in columns, essays, reviews and interviews, encompassing artists, performers and writers. 
Does art have a role as a force of resistance and repair?
Can art change anything?

Yes, Laing writes: “We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living. Don’t you want it, to be impregnate with all that light? And what will happen if you are?

Laing mainly writes on art and culture as a novelist and critic, and is a regular contributor to the Guardian, the New York Times and frieze. Her non-fiction includes Crudo, a personal favourite (I’m yet to read The Lonely City, which kind of catapulted Laing into literary fame on the other side of Atlantic). I wrote about Crudo last year as part of my poolside reading suggestions – it is an imagined story about Kathy (Acker) (who was a real person), who is a writer, in her forties and getting married in 2017 when everything is falling apart in the world – there’s Brexit, Trump, climate change, fascism on the rise, truth dead… why make art when one rogue tweet could launch the whole world into nuclear war?

Funny Weather is a beautiful collection of articles, essays and love letters about artists and to artists. I immediately read her pieces about painters Jean-Michel Basquiat and Georgia O’Keeffe. The collection also includes four artist/writer profiles about Hilary Mantel, Sara Lucas, Ali Smith and Chantal Joffe.

There are essays about literature, too, including I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy, Normal People by Sally Rooney and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. And then love letters to artists, including David Bowie.

In a recent interview, Laing herself described Funny Weather as “a companion in tough times.” I don’t know if there’s anything anyone could need more right now. The New York Times “Vulture” interview about Laing, her life and writing is available here, and I absolutely recommend Funny Weather for the current storm.

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