Demystifying the Activist Graffiti Art of Keith Haring: A Video Essay

The art of Kei­th Har­ing emerged in the high­ly spe­cif­ic place and time of ear­ly-eight­ies New York City. Four decades lat­er, it’s vis­i­ble all around the world, yet has­n’t lost its asso­ci­a­tions with its ori­gins. Just the oth­er day, I was walk­ing down a street in my neigh­bor­hood in Seoul and noticed that a bou­tique had put a T‑shirt embla­zoned with one of Har­ing’s artis­tic dec­la­ra­tions that “CRACK IS WACK!!” Drug abuse use was just one of the issues to which he attached his work: oth­ers includ­ed apartheid, nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment, and above all AIDS aware­ness. How, in con­trast to so much activist art, has the Har­ing oeu­vre achieved its endur­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty?

Gal­lerist and Youtu­ber James Payne address­es this ques­tion in his new Great Art Explained video on Har­ing’s life and work. As soon as pos­si­ble after a tele­vi­sion-sat­u­rat­ed sub­ur­ban baby-boomer upbring­ing that did its part to teach him to “sell dif­fi­cult pol­i­tics in the same way Madi­son Avenue sold vac­u­um clean­ers,” Har­ing moved to New York.

With­in its cul­tur­al free-for-all he devel­oped a sig­na­ture style by mak­ing chalk draw­ings on unused ad spaces: “he called the New York sub­way his ‘lab­o­ra­to­ry,’ exper­i­ment­ing with ideas and form,” and only occa­sion­al­ly get­ting into trou­ble for it. New York­ers “looked for­ward to see­ing what he drew next and where, and before long main­stream media noticed him too and almost overnight he became a star.”

As Har­ing’s fame grew, it became clear that “he tru­ly believed in the pow­er of art to change the world. This belief, com­bined with the imme­di­a­cy of his car­toon style, came togeth­er spec­tac­u­lar­ly in the nine­teen-eight­ies.” Indeed, as Kurt Ander­sen writes in the New York­er, Har­ing at his “man­ic, mon­eyed, fun, par­ty-dri­ven, celebri­ty-obsessed, shame­less” prime was a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of that decade. But even after his AIDS-relat­ed death in 1990, the sim­ple exu­ber­ance of his art style lived on, not least in the form of posters and oth­er prod­ucts. “It’s def­i­nite­ly art for the age of mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion,” Har­ing once said of his own work, and its sheer com­mon­ness — as well as its out­ward cheer­ful­ness — make it easy to over­look the sources of its pow­er. As has been said of Walt Dis­ney, for whom he had dreamed of work­ing since child­hood, Har­ing did­n’t just give peo­ple what they want­ed; he want­ed what they want­ed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Short Biog­ra­phy of Kei­th Har­ing Told with Com­ic Book Illus­tra­tions & Music

Kei­th Haring’s Eclec­tic Jour­nal Entries Go Online

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Dogs, Inspired by Kei­th Har­ing

Behold the World’s First Mod­ern Art Amuse­ment Park, Fea­tur­ing Attrac­tions by Sal­vador Dalí, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kei­th Har­ing, Roy Licht­en­stein & More (1987)

What Makes Basquiat’s Unti­tled Great Art: One Paint­ing Says Every­thing Basquiat Want­ed to Say About Amer­i­ca, Art & Being Black in Both Worlds

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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