"If the world was about to end was there anything she should be doing?" wonders Kathy, the languid protagonist of Olivia Laing's novel Crudo, set in the tense, airless summer of 2017.
Kathy and her contemporaries — the kind of bohemians who go to art fairs and take turns writing each other up in glossy magazines — exist in a state of malaise induced by the constant, passive receipt of half-understood bad news (see also: Twitter). It was all happening — Donald Trump, Brexit, climate change, the migrant crisis — but none of it was quite happening to them.
Laing's new nonfiction collection, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, is a group of essays loosely constellated around the same question: what use is art — and the people who think and talk about it — in a moment of crisis?
These essays showcase Laing as an imaginative and empathetic critic of the arts. She gets at texture, technique, feeling, and politics all at once. Her question is never "Is this good?" but rather "What might this do for someone?" Laing is always interested in a work's liberatory potential.
Take her elegiac essay on the director and writer Derek Jarman, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994. To her, his masterwork is his garden, tended even as he and his friends sickened and died of the mysterious illness descending on them like a plague: little-understood, devastating. "Would there be a future?" she writes. "What to do? Don't waste time. Plant rosemary, red-hot poker, santolina; alchemise terror into art."
Not all of these essays are quite tall enough to ride. Many were previously published, often as columns in the art magazine Frieze, and don't fit naturally into the remit. The scattershot quality is often exciting — we jump from Freddie Mercury to gardening to migration to Ali Smith. But eventually the book feels like a labored attempt to impose retrospective order on work she had already done.
Laing's last nonfiction book, The Lonely City, better answers the question this collection poses, perhaps in part because it was organized around crises that were urgent and personal. It describes a period of intense loneliness in Laing's life, when she turned to the work of artists who particularly spoke to that state: Edward Hopper; Henry Darger; and various gay artists working during the AIDS crisis, which she convincingly argues was a moment of mass loneliness enabled by state indifference.
What did art do in the AIDS crisis? It agitated, it organized, it consoled, it — eventually — memorialized. Think of the indelible photograph of David Wojnarowicz in a denim jacket that read, "IF I DIE OF AIDS – FORGET BURIAL – JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE FDA" (They did better: When he died of AIDS, they scattered his ashes on the lawn of the White House).
The title The Lonely City also, of course, takes on new meaning when the whole world is in a state of suspended alienation, all of us enclosed in adjoining impermeable spheres. The AIDS crisis made our most important and intimate gestures of love potentially fatal, forcing people to show care, paradoxically, through absence, abstinence. Then, as now, art is a form of contactless consolation when the most elemental comfort we have — touch — is unavailable.
Funny Weather does not approach the beauty of, or the depth of feeling in, The Lonely City. But it does have its own more modest power. It's a pleasure to follow Laing as she pokes around companionably, examining the things that interest her and discarding the things that don't. Sometimes this feels irresolute. Laing is rarely if ever negative, nor is she the kind of critic who hands down judgments as if from on high. But having the last word, after all, means ending the conversation.
Laing returns throughout Funny Weather to the idea of hospitality; to her, this means something specific, in the sense of welcoming immigrants, and also something abstract — a posture of openness to new ideas. At her best, she turns criticism into an elevated form of hospitality: Like the host of a good party, Laing introduces you to someone, tells you what she likes about them, and then leaves you to make your own way in. After all, as she writes in the book's introduction, art doesn't just happen to us: "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."