As the hugely successful Keith Haring exhibition at Tate Liverpool moves into its final month, Jordan Ryder ponders whether there is a battle to sustain the artist’s campaigning sentiment in the face of its aesthetic appeal.
I recently got my nose pierced. Yes, that darkening shape you can see on the horizon is my 30th birthday. Maybe I can blame that. Or I can blame my boyfriend for catching me at a weak moment and making a long held (but crucially hypothetical) desire happen. Regardless, the weight of my already sizeable head has increased marginally and I travel everywhere with a bottle of saline. Both my mother and a number of my male friends have remarked that they like it, it suits me, and “it makes me look more gay”. Brilliant. But, I suppose that was part of the point, when I think about it. This fairly unexceptional act of identity assertion happened aged 29. American artist KEITH HARING died in 1990, aged 31, of AIDS-related complications.
Over the course of his career he challenged the American government’s ignorance of the AIDS crisis, promoted safe sex and addressed the crack epidemic in 1980s New York, as well as highlighting the dangers of nuclear power. In conflating these two I do not seek to elevate my choice of metallic facial furniture to that of confrontational activist art, but rather highlight just how young Haring was to be one of the visual voices of socially conscious art during the Reagan era, and how an earlier knowledge and understanding of his work may have eased my own reconciliation with my homosexuality.
Had I been exposed to his art beyond the T-shirts of my more fashion conscious friends, would I have felt more comfortable in myself? I’d like to believe this is the case. Equally, for any persons unsure of their gender, sexuality or even morality that visits, or has visited, the exhibition. Subtracted from this line of questioning, however, the exhibition is a huge success. Not just for the Tate, but for Liverpool in general.
Returning to my point: if you expand this further, can art, in any format, provide a focal point for solidarity and identification in the same way music can, or is the message of an image or object more firmly rooted in the time and place of production? Does radical art only remain radical for so long, its didactic power only temporal and therefore limited?
Essentially, can an exhibition of political art ever avoid the castration of that art’s political message? Indeed, can a work of art retain its political undertone without being part of a biographical retrospective?
Take Haring’s Silence Equals Death (1989), for example. Building on the campaign of the same name by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Haring’s image recreates the infamous pink triangle on a stark black background. The reclaimed triangle, initially used as a marker of homosexuality in Nazi concentration camps, is plain and flat in the ACT UP poster, but in Haring’s work is overlain with figures representing the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ maxim. The overall effect is striking in a very different way to the ACT UP poster. The tumble of human figures inevitably connote a pyramid of bodies, Haring certainly conflating the AIDS pandemic with the Holocaust, presenting both as a systematic eradication of a group maligned and ignored by the ruling class, the wilful ignorance and inaction of the Reagan administration set alongside the ideological antisemitism of the Nazis.
As a 29-year-old gay man in 2019 this work of art represents not just a period in time and a particular aesthetic style, but a pivotal moment in the history of people like me, one that has shaped not only my perception of what it is to be gay, but also why it matters to not simply accept the superficial equality that is framed as progress. But I wonder whether that is the same for younger gay people, less politically aware gay people, or people who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community. Do they enter the final room of the Haring exhibition – where much of the work he produced around the AIDS crisis and his own diagnosis is situated – and leave with the same hollowed out, ‘there but for the grace of God’ feeling that I did? Or, despite the obvious trauma of those images, are they more preoccupied with Haring’s “attractive and lovely and wearable” designs? And if they are, is that a bad thing?
Exhibitions and Displays Curator at Tate Liverpool Darren Pih endorses the view that Haring created “images that communicated in the moment” and “reflect the paradoxes of American culture”. In a way this supports the idea that the true fire of Haring’s activism is lost in the exhibition of his work, in that it implies that Haring’s work is unextractable from the time and means of production, that his work is both a product of and “symptomatic of the possibility of the 1980s”. The work then becomes historically categorised, situated alongside Bonfire Of The Vanities, Angels In America, American Psycho, and Wall Street as artefacts and touchstones of a time and place, historically important and certainly contemporarily relevant, but reduced in their potency, lessened in their impact. Have they been superseded, are they victims of culture’s desire to historicise and periodise, the easy categorisation much more tempting than asserting their continued relevance?
This question, and others, I ponder as I make my way through the Tate Liverpool retrospective of Haring’s work. The 1980s are not so long ago to feel so distant to teenagers in 2019. I wonder whether the queer and questioning young people who see Haring’s work (maybe for the first time) will allow it to validate their feelings and support their sense of self, or whether, encased in the riverside gallery with Kandinsky, Dalí and Warhol, Haring’s work has been institutionalised, neutered, made part of the static aesthetics of the artistic canon. That is not to denigrate the Tate Liverpool exhibition in any way. It is a brilliantly conceived space that presents Haring’s work in a way that is accessible to strangers and illuminating for acquaintances. The exhibition leaflet is a necessary partner, providing vital details about the consistent motifs that percolate Haring’s work, not simply an illustrative map or reproduction of the text found in the exhibition. Further note must also be given to the exhibition’s wider programme which coalesces around the world of Keith Haring to provide advanced context. Be that in the form of his city’s music, captured on Soul Jazz Records’ carefully curated compilation, fashion displays and talks about LGBTQ+ art and its activist sentiment. But one does wonder whether this exhibition can fully retain the activism and social consciousness of Haring’s work, the radicalism that spurred the production removed so that it is only the aesthetic visual that remains. Pih, believes that one of the values of Haring’s work is that it was “not constrained by the studio”, produced (as much of it was) on walls and in subway stations. If Haring’s work is to have continued significance beyond the aesthetic, if it is to retain its social and political relevance, one assumes that it cannot be constrained by the exhibition.
Cultural leader and collaborator Amy Lamé, who will speak at Tate Liverpool in November about Haring, LGBTQ+ activism and art as part of the Homotopia 2019 programme, believes that Haring’s political consciousness is “inextricably linked” to his art work and that the two are “almost impossible to separate”. But, I wonder if I disagree. Because Haring’s work is “so accessible […so] commodifiable because it’s pop art”, I wonder if it suffers from an inevitable dilution. It looks so natural on T-shirts, shoes, as easily bought wall art. Did the teenage boys that my friends once were realise they were clothed in the socially conscious work of an AIDs campaigner who was heavily influenced by indigenous art and semiotics? As Lamé acknowledges, Haring “was able to use his art to get across really difficult messages in a deceptively playful way that didn’t seem threatening, because it looks like cartoons”. But, for me, this creates a problem. The messages are muddled (or entirely ignored) in favour of the aesthetics. Banksy in many ways suffers from the same fate, existing in reproductions and tea towels, commodifiable to the point that even a self-destructive piece is extortionately valuable and the take home point is sorely glazed over. But where would Haring’s art reside if it not were for the curatorial ownership of his activism taken upon by Tate Liverpool? Faded away on the subway station walls? Hidden in personal collections? While the messaging can be seen to be diluted in its impact and ubiquity, it still has the power to convince when grouped together to be viewed as a time-stamped artefact of his fight. Ultimately, it’s needed. Otherwise it could disappear altogether.
All art is a social commentary in some way, at the very least a visual time-capsule for the means of production of the artist. But for those artists who seek to use their art to convey a political message, I feel that their political reach only extends as far as their life does. Banksy can, in his/her/their own anonymous way, clarify and reclassify the meaning and message of the work they produce. Haring is denied this opportunity and so his work is free to be marketed, commented on and scrutinised with no reply from the most authoritative voice of its existence. While this isn’t entirely perfect, I realise that the exhibition preserves and promotes, and allows those sections of the public to access the work of an undeniably brilliant and important artist. And maybe an aesthetic appreciation will lead to a greater engagement, and therefore will provoke a discovery of the radical activism of the producer of these jelly baby figures, these flat monochromatic images filled with life.
For all my concerns about the constraining and neutralising power of the exhibition hall, I was able to wander around with my mother, avoid her in the more risqué moments, and watch the tears swell as the true fear and horror of the 1980s manifested itself in Haring’s later work. Art and artists are conduits for understanding society, for making sense in a (normally) single space of our multifarious world. As we left the exhibition together, Keith himself watching the exit door, there was understanding where once there may have been unease between our relationship, and maybe that is enough.
Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool runs until 10th November.
Amy Lamé takes part in A Conversation on LGBTQ+ Activism And Art From The 1980s at Tate Liverpool on 4th November, as part of Homotopia Festival. Tickets for the exhibition and talk can be purchased online from tate.org.uk.