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Keith Haring’s Muffled Legacy

In May 2023, an exhibition opened in The Broad in Los Angeles, entitled Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody. The exhibit captures one of Haring’s central aims — closing the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, as well as fighting for social causes. He is known for his fun and cartoonish style, with bold black lines and bright eccentric colours.

But what were his ‘social causes’? This is a question many brands such as H&M, Uniqlo, and Converse fail to sufficiently answer, despite using his work in their products. They present a muted and sanitised expression of his artistic career, obscuring what exactly his “strong social messages” are. It is disrespectful and oppressive to silence him in this way, and Haring deserves to retain the potent clarity of his voice. He deserves to have his life and art remembered accurately, and in full.

Haring was born in Pennsylvania in 1958 and moved to New York in 1978 to study art at the School of Visual Arts, after having lost interest in studying commercial arts in Pittsburgh. His white chalk drawings in subways began his career, and by 1984, his art was so well-known that it was featured on the cover of the February edition of Vanity Fair. After stopping painting in subways and when people began taking the drawings off the walls and selling them, he opened his Pop Shop in Soho in 1986 in order to keep his work within reach of the public. It was during the later part of his career he grew into explicit scrutiny of an immense range of social issues.

His Crack is Wack mural warned the general public of the consequences of taking cocaine, with Haring opposed to the drug due to its addictive nature and its profit-mongering, exploitative production line. Free South Africa was Haring’s call to end apartheid. The Barking Dog represents Haring’s disgust with authoritarianism and abuse of power. And Ignorance = Fear was one of his best known pieces dedicated to obliterating the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS. Reducing the stigma surrounding homosexuality was arguably Haring’s most poignant objective throughout his bitingly short career (he himself died in 1990 of AIDS-related illness). In short, he was a dedicated social activist for a diverse number of causes.

Politics and social commentary were so central to Haring’s art that failing to mention the causes he stood for, ridicules his position as an activist. Yet through being commodified by major-name brands, this is exactly what is happening: H&M praise him for “delivering strong social messages”, but nowhere in their website mention any detail about the content of these “social messages'', let alone outlining his extended background in queer activism. Displaying his art on clothes that can be bought on any high street could be used as a continuation of his attempts towards increasing accessibility in art, but controlling his voice to be more commercially digestible, mutes the potency of his work.

My favourite art piece of Haring’s is one of his earlier, more explorative creations - the Untitled mural from 1982. Densely packed black lines create a chaotic impression of urban life, with angels, atomic explosions in microwaves, an early version of his barking dog, and men running and falling down stairs. This mural deserves to be viewed attentively and earnestly. These pieces, too, are put at risk when his art is cut down for commercial use — only the most popular and least controversial ones survive.

Haring’s legacy has not been fully debased. The Keith Haring Foundation was founded after his death, and supports charitable organisations which work in AIDS related education and care as a way of maintaining his ideals. If the awareness of his art is expanded solely through commercial collaborations, though, there is a risk his activism will be muffled beyond comprehension. We all owe it to Haring to remember what he stood for — a simultaneous artist and activist, deeply invested in queer and class related issues.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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