Art in an Emergency

By Amy Walters
Photo by Mo from Pexels

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency

Olivia Laing

Pan Macmillan

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency is a collection of short reviews and essays that the British critic Olivia Laing has written over the past decade for various publications. Its title takes the name of the monthly column she wrote for the US-based art magazine Frieze between 2015 and 2018. As these pieces are infused with a nervousness about populist or authoritarian regimes, the collection has been marketed as a response to Trump and Brexit. Explicit political commentary is not, however, the driving force of the entire collection, with many of the pieces bridging diverse subjects, including the work of Hilary Mantel, the visual artists Chantal Joffe and Sarah Lucas, and the twin catastrophes of AIDS and gentrification in 1980s New York.

Laing’s previous three books of criticism all loosely take the form of travelogue, with a literal journey mirrored in an intellectual one. In To The River, Laing follows the River Ouse, meditating on the environment and the lives of artists, most notably Virginia Woolf; in The Trip to Echo Spring she interrogates the relationship between creativity and alcoholism, especially among male writers, as she travels around America; and in The Lonely City she reflects on her experience of loneliness during a stint in New York City by engaging with the works of artists who similarly dwelt on loneliness and social disconnection.

While the sub-text of Funny Weather explores the role of art in dark times, the collection also raises questions about the role of criticism, and the state of critical culture. In the introduction, Laing states that her goal in writing the column for Frieze was to think through contemporary problems in a decompressed timeframe, such as through the “stopped time of a painting” or “the drawn-out minutes and compressed years of the novel, in which it is possible to see patterns and consequences that are otherwise invisible.”

While her approach to political commentary as critique through art has injected diversity and originality among the cascade of opinion columns in recent years, I can’t help feeling that her stated aspiration is undercut by the short, punchy format of her pieces (although it has to be said that Laing did speed write her novel, Crudo, in seven weeks), and by the format of a column, which is by nature reactive. Rhetoric can take precedence over depth when there is limited room for analysis, but in Laing’s books you have the pleasure of both: lyrical writing matched by sustained, satisfying analysis.

With regard to a critical framework for the pieces in Funny Weather, Laing invokes Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of “paranoid and reparative reading.” Sedgwick argues that when critics constantly call out the existence of oppression, rather than addressing it, they create a kind of paranoid, negative feedback loop which characterises oppression as inescapable. The critic becomes hopeless, as do their readers. Instead, Sedgwick calls for “reparative reading,” which can exemplify “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the object of a culture – even of a culture whose avowed desire has been not to sustain them.”

In line with this approach, in many of the articles collected, Laing elucidates the struggles of artists and their acts of resistance. Making sense of the past is a salient motivation; for the visual artist David Wojnarowicz, art was a way to avoid being subsumed beneath the tidal of wave of a traumatic upbringing, while the writer Hilary Mantel remains perennially fascinated by the way history reverberates in the present. For others, making art is a way to push back against repressive social regimes, from the criminalisation of homosexuality, to the prejudice underpinning the US Government’s response to the AIDS epidemic, to the inhumane treatment of refugees, to misogyny. Consequently, the eponymous “emergency” is broader than the crisis of our current moment; rather, it is a perpetual and looming existential one.

Laing’s focus on artists’ lives poignantly demonstrates that the quest to realise an artistic vision often runs parallel to the quest to be oneself. But how does art affect the way we perceive the other? And how can viewing art or reading literature challenge us to reconsider our responsibilities to people experiencing injustice?

“Empathy,” Laing writes in the introduction, “is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.” The notion of empathy is often considered to be fundamental to the creation and preservation of an ethical system, but it is not often subject to overt critique, which means that the reader is free to fill the void with its popular definition: the ability to see others as “like us.”

The critical theorist Sarah Sentilles has called for this approach to empathy to be abandoned, as it creates an unbridgeable gap between the self and the threatening other: if only those who are the mirror image of us are worthy of our compassion, we don’t feel compelled to act humanely towards those – the refugee, the terrorist – who are not relatable. Instead, Sentilles calls for the adoption of Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of radical alterity, which requires us to embrace the other in the full knowledge that they could hurt us, allowing fear not only to coexist with compassion, but to lead to it. The closest we get to this idea in Funny Weather is the critic John Berger’s concept of hospitality – of welcoming, instead of turning away, the other.

This lack of engagement with critical theories of empathy is understandable considering the length of the articles and their general readership. However, it risks exacerbating another tension prevalent in public commentary about art: the allure of self-congratulation over self-criticism. I used to work in a public art gallery, and it was apparent that plenty of patrons felt that paying a visit to an exhibition was a virtuous act in itself. At various points throughout Laing’s collection, a certain discipline is required to read against this inclination. Of course, powerful art can also be joyful, but at times the reviews made engaging with art feel a little bit too much like a party (“doing the watusi”) and not enough like work.

Her language at times can also become clubby (“a Powellish exchange in a Powellish place”) and a number of the artists she discusses including Chantal Joffe, Joseph Keckler and Richard Porter are also her friends. By the end of the book the roll-call of friendships does start to grate, and it also militates against her broader approach to criticism, which seeks to democratise the art world for the benefit of everybody, not just the snobbish elite. To be fair, there are articles in which Laing explicitly draws attention to the complicity of her readers in oppression; for example, the article on the UK’s treatment of refugees clearly outlines how unfairness is a structural feature of government policy, although, notably, this piece is straight political comment rather than an exploration of the issue through art.

The real power of Funny Weather lies in its reminder that art can illuminate all kinds of constraints that press upon us, not just political ones. The briefer articles often left me wanting more, which is a sign of good writing, but also a demonstration of the limitations mainstream publications face in being able to offer space for cultural criticism. This collection is best read as an entrée to Laing’s book-length criticism, where the critical and artistic antidotes to the times really lie.

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