December 10, 2014

GUEST ROOM | Where is our Keith Haring?

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Over Thanksgiving break, I visited the San Francisco de Young Museum’s exhibition Keith Haring: The Political Line. The extensive show focused on the deeply political nature of Haring’s paintings. Although many remember Haring for his cartoon-like figures and sexual artwork, the exhibit brought attention to Haring’s focus on addressing social and political issues.Through his work, he criticizes racism, capitalism and the stigma against AIDS among many topics.

Shortly after seeing the exhibition, I read an article in the New York Times titled “Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?” In the piece, A. O. Scott comments on the lack of politically oriented art in today’s world. He asks where today’s Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck or Woody Guthrie is hiding. “Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history,” A.O. Scott writes.

I realized that Keith Haring was A.O. Scott’s dream. Haring, a prolific New York City artist, had dedicated his life to political art. Before dying of AIDS, he had produced numerous paintings challenging the stigma against the disease. He believed that Ronald Reagan’s unwillingness to speak up about AIDS contributed heavily to the development of the social stigma against AIDS patients.

In the wake of ebola, I can only imagine the influential impact an artist such as Keith Haring would have in retaliating against the uninformed fear of ebola. I imagine he would strongly advocate for leveled news that does not sensationalize the disease and its contractees. Evidently, both AIDS and ebola have taken the lives of thousands of individuals. However, people often overestimate the ease with which one can contract the disease. Haring dedicated much of his life and money to advocate for safe sex and awareness, even establishing the Keith Haring Foundation to support AIDS research.

In the late 1980s, people could look to Haring’s work to discuss AIDS from the perspective of a more experienced individual rather than a homophobic neighbor. He urged political figures, such as Reagan, to break their silence and speak up about AIDS. Haring wanted people to know the truth.

Beyond his work concerning AIDS, Haring also advocated for racial equality. In the 1980s, Keith Haring paid to print hundreds of his “Free South Africa” posters to distribute at the largest anti-apartheid demonstration in New York City. He produced numerous “Free South Africa” shirts, worn by famous athletes, singers and regular citizens. Haring wanted everybody to have a piece of his political art, for each individual to have the means to advocate for equality. Haring provided an artistic image that embodied the anti-apartheid movement, something citizens could use to stand up for social justice.

Imagine what he would have produced for the Ferguson protests. I picture him feverishly completing a “Justice for Mike Brown” piece to share with thousands. It would become an artistic symbol of one of the most conflictual events this year.

In his article, A. O. Scott questions whether art is fulfilling its political and social needs. I empathize for his unsatisfied desire, as art has historically played an important role in representing the “injustices and worries of the times.” Like Scott, I wonder which artist will step up to give meaning to today’s troubles, a powerful and necessary responsibility.