Socialist Worker

When art from streets raged at the silence over HIV and AIDS

Artist Keith Haring’s work came out of the New York graffiti and gay scenes. A new exhibition in Liverpool charts his too-brief career, writes Noel Halifax

Issue No. 2658

Haring was frequently arrested for his graffiti on the streets and subway systems of New York

Haring was frequently arrested for his graffiti on the streets and subway systems of New York


There has been a tension between art and the art market for a very long time.

The very fact that art is given a price illustrates a contradiction at the heart of society. It dehumanises and commodifies something which is intimate, human and unique.

Pop art of the 1950s and 1960s played with this contradiction, both making fun of and ­highlighting its foolishness. The art movement intentionally blurred the lines between high and low art—between art and advertising, for example.

Silence = Death was one of Haring’s most outspoken attacks on the way the HIV/AIDS epidemic was hidden and regarded as somehow shamefu

Silence = Death was one of Haring’s most outspoken attacks on the way the HIV/AIDS epidemic was hidden and regarded as somehow shameful

The early Andy Warhol was adept at playing this game, but also introduced tension into the relationship by holding a mirror up to that world.

But there was always a danger that such games could fall flat and the art succumb to commercial pressures—becoming what it was trying to expose.

The later Warhol fell into the celebrity trap and his art lost most of its edge.

He became part of the shallow world of the Studio 54 disco scene, rubbing shoulders with the rich and meaningless debutantes.

In the 1970s and 1980s a second wave of pop, or post-pop, developed in New York alongside the now-establishment world of Warhol.

On the streets of the run-down and semi-abandoned areas of New York, tagging and graffiti street art blossomed.

It was an art movement from below that revived and broke through the dead world of pop establishment art.

Keith Haring was one of these new artists that did their work on the streets.

His art came from the street tagging and subway art movement and the gay disco and bar scene of lower Manhattan.

Along with such artists of the time as Robert Mapplethorpe he also represented a new confidence in gay expression.

It was a post-Stonewall art celebrating the hedonism and vibrancy of New York.

Along with Jean-Michel Basquiat, he also represented a meeting of the street art with the older established pop art of Warhol. As Basquiat did, Haring worked with Warhol. Haring’s breakthrough came with what was to be the event that destroyed him and the world he was showing.

HIV/Aids came along, and with it a reactionary backlash.

When Haring became HIV positive he engaged his art to express the fight against this homophobic ­backlash, and to become part of it.

His art became the face of Act Up, the LGBT political street activist ­movement challenging the

government and the medical establishment to support research to fight HIV/Aids.

Haring strived to put his art to the service of the campaigns to challenge the right wing reaction to the disease.

Suffered

His art has long been out of fashion as it has been criticised for being too much like advertising.

But this exhibition shows the wide range of Haring’s work, though his career was brief—he died of Aids in 1990.

It is the biggest exhibition of his work ever seen in this country and most of it has never been seen here before.

He worked with many other ­artists of the time—Madonna, Grace Jones and Vivienne Westwood, to name some—making sets designs for videos and performances. Some of that work is on display here.

His art became an art of political engagement, of a community ­fighting back and retaining a vibrancy and a defiance in the ­darkest of times.

Keith Haring is at the Tate Liverpool from 14 June to 10 November.
For tickets and more information, go to bit.ly/HaringLiverpool
£12.50, £10.50 concessions

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