Art Rooted in Activism – Keith Haring

October 24, 2014

The issue of understanding the notion of activism is a complex one. It is not always a case of acting in accordance with a greater cause. Although this is true most of the time, there are instances when such a definition is not a satisfying one, especially when it comes to art. An artist does not simply “decide” to act as a champion for certain causes, an artist is faced with a different experience of activism. It refers to the notion of a way of life, it is deeply connected to the artist’s existential situation. This means that the creative process itself, as a life force, represents a form of activism. The entire artistic practice unconditionally becomes a way of achieving that which matters the most. In the art of Keith Haring, this can be experienced on so many levels…

Art Rooted in Activism – Keith Harin
Keith Harring, Untitled 1987

The Context of the Creative Impulse

Apart from the existential situation, a context of a certain cultural time period is needed to better understand and, perhaps, appreciate the work of Keith Haring even more. The 1980's in the United States was a time of economic prosperity, reflected in the political economy of Reaganomics. However, this notion also involved a spirit of cultural resistance, embodied in the rise of subcultures which tried to convey a message of inequality and the growing distinction between the elite and “the people.” In the field of art this prompted a vivid dialogue with the popular culture, on two planes: on the one hand, it was celebrated as a field of freedom and, on the other, perceived as a means to “suffocate” the “uncultured masses.” Somewhere in the rift between these two notions, a space for postmodern pluralism emerged, making way to address new and important social issues. All of this exploded in the works of Derrida and Foucault, and continued in the fields of gender studies, queer theory and the viewing of body as a construct. This is the context through which discourses on AIDS and gay rights were able to crystallize in the eyes of the public. It is important to understand that it was the art of Keith Haring that played a role in the anticipation of this theoretical work but also, more importantly, bringing these issues to the surface of wider social dialogue. When talking about overcoming the fear of death, Haring’s art and voice served as spark of optimism in the darkness of discrimination and a new disease. This is something which can be considered to be Haring’s legacy…

Art Rooted in Activism – Keith Harin
Keith Haring in front of Pisa Mural, 1989

The Legacy of Keith Haring

So, what does this existential situation of an artist who is an activist entail? Why does Keith Haring represent a perfect paradigm for this notion? It has become clear in which way his work had influenced human rights movements. It has become clear how he had managed to send messages of support and optimism. But, the form of activism, on which we are trying to shed light, includes a form of acting which incorporates a dialogue with the wider social context and standing side by side with those who might be perceived as underprivileged. To put it simply, Haring had defied the ruthlessness of the market driven society and strived to create for the “ordinary man.”

Art Rooted in Activism – Keith Harin
Keith Haring, Pop Shop 1, 1987

Art and Culture of Everyday Life

Truly believing that art is a force which can touch the life on any individual, from the beginning of his work, Haring knew that the art he had created would reside in the public space. This is the space where Haring found a way to articulate something that was perceived as elitist – fine art – with the culture of everyday life. From the first black surface he touched with his peace of chalk, the artist began to understand that creating art in public  space hadn’t meant solely building an object, but rather a participation in performance act. The act of creating, as well as the object of the creative process, simultaneously played a crucial role of making art accessible. This was one of the greatest gifts for the entire arena of urban and street art – the artist became an integral part of the medium of the creative act. “The context of where you do something is going to have an effect. The subway drawing were, as much as they were drawings, performances.” – Keith Haring.

Art Rooted in Activism – Keith Harin
Keith Harring, Untitled 1986

Beyond the Power of the Market

The bridge which Haring had created between his work and his audience in the subway system began to shape into something that the artist didn’t wish… As time went by, and Haring gained more and more respect for his art, the pieces from the subway started to disappear and reemerge for sale. According to the artist, a set of values that would determine the destiny of art had been formed by groups of people for whom Haring didn't have much respect – critics and curators. The power of these people, which manifested itself on the art market, seemed to represent a force which could rip out art from its newfound freedom of urban space. Even when he became the sought after artist on the market, Haring felt the need to create within the context of the public presence. This is how the notion of the Pop Shop came to be. As his work started to become increasingly expensive, Haring decided to create a place where his art would be accessible, similarly to those days when he began drawing in public space. This was Haring’s way of engaging in dialogue with the political economy and the increasing power of the art market.

Art Rooted in Activism – Keith Harin
Keith Harring, Untitled 1989

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