We’ve heard it before—a picture is worth a thousand words. If one can capture an idea or a feeling completely and powerfully with a simple image, suddenly, a movement is born. During the beginning of the AIDS crisis in New York City in the early 80s and 90s, artists banded together to create art in order to muster a feeling of protest and camaraderie. The more the public knows and cares about the deadly reality of AIDS, the greater the numbers of those marching and demanding a cure.
Public art, graffiti, and activist art emerged as rallying points during the terrifying decades of the beginning of HIV/AIDS. It seemed that the only way to be heard was to force images into a person’s everyday life: to paint subway walls with protest symbols, and paste Xeroxed posters on sidewalks.
According to Will Travers, founder and executive director of the cultural and political resistance website lokashakti.org (http://www.lokashakti.org/), art is a logical way to unite people, and to spread a message. “It seems like using art as a medium for protest is particularly effective because it's accessible to so many different kinds of people. Street art even more so. Just looking at something forces you to have a reaction,” said Travers. Travers’ organization promotes social awareness by posting information about protest rallies and social justice issues that are happening now, around the world, along with a separate blog about protest art http://www.protestart.org/ . It’s like social networking for activism, the goal being to be ‘in the know’ and prepared to join a cause as quickly as Google maps on can load the directions to the start of a march or location of a demonstration.
However, in the early 80s and 90s, there was no Internet to spread the word about protests or local activism. At a time when HIV/AIDS activism desperately needed unity, artists struggled to connect their art with the public. It was not as simple as creating a Twitter account and getting a large number of followers; getting the word out required a unique persistence.
Keith Haring was among the artists who changed the way art was distributed and digested. For those just getting up on Haring, he was a young, gay artist in the time of ACT UP and Paradise Garage — which was a warehouse that hosted DJ dance parties primarily for the gay community. He is known for his bold figures — the ‘radiant baby,’ the dog, and the UFO — and for his prevalence in street art.
According to the Keith Haring Foundation website, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1989 (http://www.haring.com/archives/interviews/index.html), Haring talked about his experience creating chalk drawings in subways. “It was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence,” said Haring. “The subway pictures became a media thing, and the images started going out into the rest of the world via magazines and television.”
|Keith Haring: 1978–1982 at Brooklyn Museum|
A picture of one of the chalk drawings Haring did with his artist friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, another pioneer of symbolic graffiti in the 80s and 90s, was recently featured among pieces at the Keith Haring exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. I had a chance to check out this amazing exhibition, which was the first large-scale exhibition to explore his early career. By drawing where he was not allowed, and forcing the public to confront whatever was put in front of them, Haring and other activist artists made the public aware of important issues.
Haring also clipped headlines from newspapers, arranged them in ridiculous ways, and then posted them on the streets. “The idea was that people would be stopped in their tracks, not knowing whether it was real or not… so they had to confront it and somehow deal with it,” said Haring in the Rolling Stone interview.
Here’s a picture that I took of those newspaper clippings, again at the Brooklyn Museum:
|Keith Haring: 1978–1982 at Brooklyn Museum|
But Haring did not just do street art. He used his talent to promote other artist friends, and raise awareness about issues important to him.
Haring made this painting in 1988 to promote safe sex. The image is bold and explicit, depicting two men jerking each other off, but as is the general idea of protest art and graffiti: get in touch with your audience by bringing the art to the people, even if the images are alarming.
Other artists continue this legacy today when approaching current political and social issues. Molly Crabapple is one such contemporary artist (http://mollycrabapple.com/). She makes protest art for Occupy Wall Street, among other artistic endeavors. “I don’t really believe in putting things in boxes, I think things should be pervasive everywhere,” said Crabapple. She went on to talk about the importance of creating a visual language—repeated and powerful symbols that come to represent a movement. This was the same for Haring, as Julia Gruen, executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, stated to me as we traded emails. “He developed a visual language and alphabet based in part on semiotics, influenced by comics and graffiti, and synthesized those disparate influences into a vocabulary at once unique and yet somehow readable as part of a collective unconscious.” The Keith Haring Foundation — a foundation Haring created — was establised to ensure that his philanthropy would continue, and that his images would be used for appropriate causes. Gruen served as Haring’s own assistant from 1984 until his death from AIDS in 1990.
Similar to the work that the Keith Haring Foundation continues to do to support AIDS research and other worthy causes, the west coast based Alliance Health Project also supports AIDS research by holding a big art auction in San Francisco every year called Art For AIDS (http://artforaids.org/ ). According to dk haas, artist and organizer of the event, Art For AIDS “was started by some artists who were either themselves infected or knew of other people who were affected by the disease.” The Alliance Health Project was among the first in the country to offer anonymous testing for HIV, and continues to offer health support for the LGBTQ community.
It’s just another way art connects to activism. Whether its raising funds for research, or getting the word out by way of an image, art is essential to unity and progress. “I’ve been saying for a long time that contemporary art was very not engaged with the outside world, and I think that with political people of the last few years, not being engaged, and just sticking with your galleries has become a cop out,” said Molly Crabapple.
Here’s an image to leave you with, done by Haring in collaboration with ACT UP. It’s an image of the pink triangle, which has visual significance outside of the AIDS crisis; the pink triangle was used by Nazis in World War II to identify homosexuals, and then again used by ACT UP as a protest against the negative stigma of AIDS. Here it is superimposed by images of the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” and ACT UP’s motto: “Silence = Death.” His art is telling us that if we don’t talk about being gay, safe sex, and finding a cure, the consequence will be tragic.
|Silence = Death, 1989, Copyright Keith Haring Foundation|
Here is a link to the Keith Haring Foundation website, where a lot of Haring’s work is archived digitally: http://www.haring.com/cgi-bin/art_search_lrg.cgi?id=00604&search=safe%20sex&start=40
Having completed its run at Brooklyn Museum, Haring’s ‘radiant babies’ and more will travel to Santiago, Chile (8/20 - 9/29); Udine, Italy (9/2 – 2/15/13); and Paris, France (4/19 – 8/18/2013). Keith Haring is also included an upcoming group show at New York’s New Museum entitled “Come Closer: Art Around the Bowery, 1969–1989” (9/19 – 1/6/2013). New Museum 212-219-1222.
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