“Art is a training ground for empathy”

in conversation with Olivia Laing

How do we view our bodies in today’s society? What is her strength and what makes her vulnerable? How mighty or impotent is she? In the series Body and Power(lessness), ArtEZ Studium Generale and Mister Motley delve deeper into this subject. In this interview, Joke Alkema (head of ArtEZ studium generale) and Lieneke Hulshof (editor-in-chief of Mister Motley) talk to the British author Olivia Laing. In her book Everybody she explores what it means to have a body on the basis of her own experiences and the lives of some of the most fascinating thinkers of the twentieth century. This book has recently been translated into Dutch by Henny Corver and is published by Atlas Contact under the title: Ieder een lichaam.

interview by Joke Alkema and Lieneke Hulshof – 22 November 2021


It was on one of our quests for good summer reading material, that we came across the book Everybody. From the first moment we opened it, this fascinating book kept us caught in our hammock for several days. It gives such a wonderfully comprehensive, historical and also personal overview of all the movements and ideas that exist concerning the body. In the book Olivia Laing explores the subject of freedom and relates it to the body. She deals with subjects such as the sick body, the sexual body and the marginalized body. What power does the body have and can the body be vulnerable? Laing looks at the work of many artists such as the Cuban American performance artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), writer, philosopher and activist Susan Sontag (1933-2004), the American singer-songwriter, pianist and activist Nina Simone (1933-2003), the American radical feminist and writer Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) and many others. The main character in her book is the fascinating, yet sad figure, psychiatrist, sexologist, psychoanalyst, biologist and physicist William Reich (1897-1957). He was a student (and later renegade) of Freud, wrote the book The Sexual Revolution in 1920, developed the orgone – a kind of box in which people could sit to improve their health – and died in an American prison for selling his orgone accumulators. It provides ample material for a thorough interview, in which Olivia Laing provides more insight into her motivation for the book, her choice for the artists and scientists discussed and her ideas about its relevance for today.

Why did you want to write this book in this day and age?

Often I will finish a book with an unanswered question that leads me into the next one. When I finished The Lonely City, I realised that it kept coming back to the subject of bodies: sexual bodies, sick bodies, deviant bodies, protesting bodies, bodies in crisis. At the same time, the news was likewise full of stories about bodies in peril. 2015 marked the beginning of the refugee crisis and the global rise of the far-right, that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as United States president. I wanted to understand why certain bodies are stigmatized and subjected to violence and I also wanted to explore my gut feeling; that though our bodies are very vulnerable they also represent a communal source of power. I spent the next five years writing about the great freedom struggles of the twentieth century, exploring bodily issues like illness, sex, violence, incarceration and civil disobedience. I wanted to understand why we were in such a perilous place again, and what we could do about it.

You began your research for this book in 2015. And then in 2020, there was a global virus that threatened to affected all bodies on earth. Did our body, during the pandemic, illustrate themes you had been researching for some time – and if so, what were they?

Yes, absolutely. It was very strange to finish a book about power and vulnerability just as the pandemic began, with its global illustration of how vulnerable our bodies are. I think it really made people and also see how interconnected we are. We are porous, open to each other and our social and economic lives are much more entangled globally than we might have realised. We depend on the labour of other people’s invisible bodies and I think the pandemic made those relationships much more visible. At the same time, the global Black Lives Matter movement was in crescendo. To see the protestors gathering in communal demonstrations against police violence, all masked to protect each other from the virus: that was very moving. Having spent five years writing about the freedom movements of the last century, it was plain that the struggle for bodily freedom wasn’t over yet.”

William Reich

Reich/sexual freedom

In 1920 William Reichs ideas were big and popular and it is known that his work has also been an inspiration to many. His work is still relevant today. What is so interesting about his studies when we talk about the power and vulnerability of the body? Why did you choose him as the leading figure in your book?

I didn’t mean to give Reich such a huge role in the book. But the more I researched, the more I realised that he connected together all the areas I wanted to explore. He was involved in sexual liberation, he’d thought about illness and violence, he was an anti-fascist activist in Hitler’s Berlin who ended up dying in a prison cell in McCarthy [footnote 1]Joseph Raymond McCarthy (1909 – 1957) was an American politician of the Republican Party. He was a Senator for Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. McCarthy became best known for his fierce rhetoric in the campaign against American Communists in the mid-1950s.[/foontote] -era America. His life spans continents, linking together diverse cultural figures who have thought about our bodily lives, from Freud to Sontag to James Baldwin. This is why I used him as the central figure in Everybody. I didn’t agree with all of his ideas, but felt that the way he was punished was also significant – he allowed me to examine how the people who bear witness to and resist the most damaging elements of our culture are also unusually vulnerable to being damaged by it. I think this is the case for many other people in the book, from Andrea Dworkin to Nina Simone.”

Reich became known for his book The Sexual Revolution, that he wrote back in the 1920s. He believed that one could experience freedom through free and taboo-free sex. Can you explain how he envisioned that and why that thought can still be valuable generations later?

Reich believed sex was one of the best ways for the body to lay down its burdens and release the pain and trauma of the past, which he thought was stored in the body. At the same time, he also knew that sex is an intensely political act, bound up with prohibitions and rules of many kinds. It’s this latter message that I think had got lost. After his death, Reich was championed by lots of male writers and thinkers, who embraced his message of sexual freedom without really understanding the political aspect of his work. Reich was not just in favour of great orgasms. The most important thing to understand about his vision of sexual freedom is that it was powerfully against patriarchy. Reich was the child of an abusive marriage. His mother had an affair and when his father found out he subjected her to violent abuse until she committed suicide. He knew – he really knew – what happens to women who engage in sexually free behaviour. He knew that the risks of sex aren’t shared. He knew that access to abortion is crucial and that information about contraception and STDs is necessary for women to participate in sexual freedom. Most of all, he knew the kind of punishment women face. His dream of sexual liberty was a world in which a woman is not beaten or killed for her sexuality. It’s heartbreaking that we still haven’t achieved his vision of freedom a century later.”

Embracing the vulnerability of the body seems to be an important point, taken from the ideas of William Reich. By ignoring our vulnerability, we deny access to the full range of our feelings, thus giving rise to the kind of mechanistic compliance favored by fascism. Can you tell us more about this phenomenon?

This is very well put! As a young psychoanalyst in Vienna, Reich had a profound realization. He saw that his patients were holding their trauma and pain in their bodies, as a kind of permanent muscular tension he compared to armour. He thought this process began in childhood, in part because of the authoritarian way in which children were raised: don’t cry, don’t show anger, sit still, be good. He believed that his patients needed to allow themselves to feel the forbidden emotions of sorrow, shame and rage, to soften and loosen, to listen to their bodies. As fascism became more prevalent in Europe, his work took on new urgency. He thought that the training process against emotional expression in childhood made people more susceptible to authoritarian leaders. I think there’s so much truth in this – that shaming and control in childhood, especially around gender, creates enormous frustration and rage in later life, which can be deliberately whipped up and utilized by the many fascist movements at work today.”

Sexuality and abuse of power

Sex is also very controversial. You describe how Ana Mendieta, in her work as a performer, draws attention to the violence that takes place against women. Do you think it is important for art to take on the role of making problems like these (and of unequal power relations) understandable? How can art contribute to change? How did Mendieta contribute to change?

Art is not the same thing as political change. Art can’t change laws or policing tactics. What it can do is make visible what’s hidden. It can show the hidden epidemic of violence against women, trans people and people of colour and it can show its impact on real lives. Art is a training ground for empathy and a way of bearing witness to reality. I think that’s so important – it seems to me that the first step to making change is to really acknowledge what the reality of a situation is. In the 1970s, when Mendieta was making her graphic, powerful works about rape, it was a completely taboo subject and in many states in America marital rape was not a crime. Refusing to be silent and making people acknowledge that something is happening is absolutely imperative if you want it to change.”

You also write about Marquis de Sade, who describes sexual violence in his books. You then ask the question whether it is allowed to fantasize in books about sexual violence or whether, by doing so, you are creating a climate in which it can actually be applied. This question comes up more often these days, of course. Since the rise of MeToo, books from another era in which sex was primarily described from a male perspective have also come under fire – in the Netherlands, for example, the work of Jan Wolkers. Can fiction be dangerous? And how, in your opinion, should we deal with works about sex that were written in a different time and are now morally out of step with the spirit of the age?

I’m very opposed to judging works of the past by the standards of today. No one’s under any obligation to read or look at them, but I think the drive to sanitize the past is misguided. As a writer, it seems vital to me to understand why the past was as it was. While I was writing Everybody I read enormous amounts of very challenging material, from violent internet pornography to the literature of the Holocaust. I wouldn’t read those things for pleasure but to thoroughly understand the question of violence against certain types of bodies. We have no hope of creating a different future if we cannot face up to and understand why things are as they are. This requires us to look back at the past, with a strong stomach and a clear eye.

As for applying the moral standards of today to the past, I think that also requires nuance. I’m wary of censorship and groupthink and I don’t think cancel culture is the best route to changing the world. Many of the people in this book are imperfect and did things that were morally questionable. Reich and Nina Simone, for example, were both violent. We could judge them and boycott or cancel their work or we could attempt to understand how the enormously valuable and radical work they did also made them unusually vulnerable to damage by the very forces they were trying to resist.

The question of whether fiction can be dangerous is very interesting. I do think fiction and art are very powerful, but I also am certain that there is a space between art and life and think forces can be explored in art that should not be given free rein with real bodies. I disagree with Andrea Dworkin that Sade’s work is the same as rape. Again, there is no need for you to read it, but it supplies a rich source of information about a way of thinking, a type of mindset. It’s a deliberate exploration of violence. But there’s also another category of artistic work, which is the substandard misogynist or racist work that is overpraised and simply replicates the toxic attitudes of the culture at large. I don’t think it necessarily deserves readers or gallery space. Let it wither in obscurity. Let’s move on to something more interesting, challenging, exciting. But let’s keep the books in the libraries and let’s keep the libraries open.”

Ana Mendieta, Untitled from the ‘Silueta’ series, 1973–78, silver dye-bleach prints, 51 x 40 cm. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; photograph: Nathan Keay and © MCA Chicago

There are very clear indications that Mendieta was murdered by her husband, the artist Carl Andre. However, he was never found guilty of the murder. You write ‘with very few expectations, the art world closed ranks around him, just as the literary world has closed around Mailer during his trail for stabbing his wife a generation earlier.’ Here too, parallels can be drawn with the contemporary art world. Not too long ago, a Dutch artist was discredited for sexual and power abuse. The art world knew about it but turned a blind eye and condoned his actions because he was, after all, a great talent. These kinds of events are in line with the Romantic image of artistry that assumes freedom and unlimited possibilities of creativity. How do you see the art world in relation to (physical and mental) freedom? How can art play a role in the liberation of the body as long as the balance of power is skewed?

Yes. I think the Romantic vision of the artist does have a lot to answer for, but let’s remember it’s also part of a patriarchal vision of power, which is founded on the belief that some people’s bodies – specifically wealthy white men’s bodies – matter more than others’. This is the key to both patriarchy and white supremacy: the belief that some bodies are valuable and sacrosanct, while others are objects, discardable resources, prey and so on. It’s no surprise that this kind of thinking is to be found in the art world, since it’s an ideology that can be found everywhere. Art can be deeply conservative and in defence of the status quo even if it pretends to be radical or shocking. I think truly radical work seeks to expose and upend the power structures of society and I would definitely put Ana Mendieta in that category, along – luckily for us – with a great many contemporary artists. So what can art do to resist? Propose alternatives, expose injustice, enlarge everybody’s sense of humanity, joy and power.”

The body and illness

In your book, you also write about Susan Sontag. In her book Illness as Metaphor, she wrote: “Cancer isn’t the result of an emotional blockage or an inability to express anger”. You write that panic is still present in her book, in which Sontag wonders whether it is because of herself or her damaged relationship with her mother that she became ill. That would mean that external forces have such an influence on the body that it can make the body ill. What is your opinion on the matter? ‘Does this require us to rethink the role external forces on the body play in the cause and lingering of the Covid pandemic?’

Illness is the result of many factors. At the beginning of the Covid pandemic people were saying it was a disease that was affecting the whole world equally, but in fact it wasn’t. Like so many things, Covid has become a disease that reflects pre-existing inequalities. It affects the poor more than the rich, it affects people of colour more than white people and it affects people in poor housing and working conditions more than those in more protected environments. This is a sociological fact. But do people become ill because they are unhappy, or traumatized, or angry? New age thinkers, or those in the wellness movement, often argue that this is the case. I think one needs to be very careful here. The Aids pandemic, for example, isn’t caused by people not loving themselves enough. It’s caused by a virus and made worse by sustained government inactivity which was itself driven by homophobia and prejudice. That said, there is growing evidence that trauma has profound effects on the immune system, on the cardiovascular system, on sleep and on the body’s overall capacity to be resilient. The same is true of poverty. We live in networks and we are deeply affected by forces that are invisible to us. I would argue that many of these are political in nature and the problem with new age/wellness thought is that it focuses too much on individuals and overestimates individual power rather than looking at systemic forces. Wellness is essentially capitalist in nature.”

In our Western society, there is a big difference between ‘strong’ and ‘fragile’ bodies and therefore also a difference in privilege. It seems as if we strive more and more for ‘perfect’ bodies and that all bodies that do not comply with this, immediately have a different position in our society. What’s your opinion in this?

“There are people who write very interestingly about this – Dodie Bellamy comes to mind, with her book When The Sick Rule the World. I think the pursuit of perfect bodies is a desperately sad business. At this moment we’re experiencing a particularly intense excrescence of this pursuit, because of how much time people spent on Zoom during the pandemic and the corresponding rise of cosmetic surgery. I think living in bodies is a frightening business at the best of times and part of the great allure of the internet is that it is a disembodied space, in which we can be filtered and perfected. Yet over the past, isolated year we’ve also been able to see that we (still) long to be around other people’s bodies, to be bodies together. Speaking as a trans person; my utopia is one of bodily difference, bodily diversity, a celebration of fragility rather than a disavowal of vulnerability.”

The body and (political) power

You wrote that the political world can make bodies into prisons, but that bodies can also reshape the political world. You describe, for example, how Malcolm X is an exemplary figure. Could you explain how this sentence applies to him?

“Malcolm X grew up under white supremacy. His father was lynched, his mother lost custody of her children and was forcibly incarcerated in a mental institution. Malcolm himself became a hustler and small-time criminal and was consequently imprisoned. In prison, he began to educate himself, mostly by reading his way through an enormous and wide-ranging library. It was then that he began to understand racism and to realize that the experiences of his childhood weren’t just an individual tragedy, but a systemic injustice that had happened because of racism. This is a revelation shared by many people involved in freedom struggles: that what happened to them was not just because of who they were as an individual but a consequence of the kind of body they inhabited. So Andrea Dworkin saw that the sexual and physical abuse she’d experienced was part of the wider story of misogyny, and Nina Simone realized the prejudice she’d experienced as a child was part of white supremacy. This revelation – the realization that what seemed personal and individual is actually systemic and collective – is very painful, but also means seeing that the system can be changed. This ‘system’ exists because people subscribe to it and it can be replaced with a different and more liberating understanding of how bodies matter or are treated.

The body/activism/collective versus individual

In your book you also write about your own experience as an activist. What can the collective bring to the body in terms of power?

“My first protest was in the late 1980s, when I was still a child. I went on a gay rights march with my mother, who is a lesbian. It was a very homophobic era in Britain and she, like many queer people then, was deeply stuck in the closet. It was a secret that had to be protected. So to go from that sense of shame and secrecy to being among thousands of angry, joyful, LOUD queer people, marching across London and filling the streets, felt electrifying. It was my first experience of collective power.

Despite the beauty of the collective, the problem is that they can often be very intolerant of individual difference. I think this is one of the hardest balancing acts. This is why, to me, solidarity is the most important political quality. We don’t all have to be in the same struggle, but we need alliances, and a tolerance of difference. The left has a terrible problem with getting caught up in squabbles and internecine difference, and the right capitalizes on that. Witness the ‘war on woke’.

The body and freedom

You write that our acquired freedoms in the field of, for example, feminism, gay rights and civil rights are never permanent. We have to keep fighting. How do you think we should do that without losing our strength in an inexhaustible and never-ending struggle?

“A big question! These struggles are trans-generational. They have been going on for centuries and they will continue long after we die. For me, realizing that was a game-changer. It reduced my sense of needing to achieve the impossible, that is permanent victory, and made me see that all any individual needs to do is play their small part. It’s an enormous labour, but it’s shared by many people. Each of us have a choice: to join in the work of freedom or to thwart it. You don’t have to achieve the end of climate change or racism single-handedly. You simply have to contribute.

Ana Mendieta, El laberinto de la vida, 1982 (Estate print 2013), Black and white photograph 39.5 x 60 inches (496.6 x 152.4 cm), Edition of 6

Studium Generale

ArtEZ Studium Generale curates and organises gatherings, talks, training courses, podcasts and publications about the state of the arts and its relation to today’s challenges, ranging from immediate societal issues to bold abstract concepts, from climate crisis to identity issues. Our aim is relatively modest. We are not trying to change the world (but if that happens, cool!). Our wish is to create a space to ask probing questions, steer discussions and empower each other to face the future and our (artistic) role in it. Or to put it a bit less boldly, we invite you to get out of your bubble, engage in the debate, meet new people, discover new perspectives, and have a drink.