I’ve heard different versions of what “art” means. The one I remember the most came from my art history teacher in high school. She said you can call any human representation of feelings or thoughts “art” as long as it’s made with a specific technique. To me that’s, perhaps, the simplest way to define such a complex term. I’ve also heard those who say art is anything that can evoke emotions, as well as esthetic and technical representations of any given object or person. Yet there are institutions that dictate what is and isn’t art, which in turn also shape our personal understanding of what we perceive a creative object to be.
A couple decades ago, a group of visual artists rebelled against this set of rules defining what is art, not only because they limited the work of many, but also because these authorities made the art world belong only to the privileged. These rebels believed in the accessibility of art, as well as the notion of art for everyone. One of those artists, whose legacy continues, not only in museums, galleries, and institutions, but also in our everyday life, filling it with color and wonder, is Keith Haring.
I bet you must be familiar with his cartoonish human figures, all of them faceless, yet very expressive, drawn with bold black lines, sometimes in black and white, other times with bright, neon-like colors. You might have seen them on posters, bags, notebooks, t-shirts, pencils, and any product or souvenir you can think of. Haring believed art should not be exclusive to museums and institutions. He wanted art to be available to everyone, in order to break the walls separating “high brow” from “low brow.” That’s why he made products with his art, just like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But more importantly, he used them to express his own ideologies and for a good cause.
Keith Allen Haring was born in Pennsylvania on May 4, 1958. He started drawing from a young age, inspired mostly by the cartoons of Charles Schultz, Walt Disney, and Dr. Seuss. Even though his art evolved as he grew older and became a professional artist, he would always fill his pieces with the joyful and lively elements of the artists he loved as a child. He enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art, but dropped out because that school was mostly focused on commercial art. Instead, he decided to study art on his own, practicing and improving his drawing skills, until he had his first solo exhibition at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center in 1978.
That year would change the path of his professional career forever. He went to New York to enroll in the School of Visual Arts, but it was the city itself who would become his real muse. Haring became fascinated by underground artists, who would use the streets, buildings, walls, and subway as their canvas. Inspired by these artists, Haring used the NYC subway system to make the world see his work. Using only white chalk, he would draw on the unused advertisement spaces, and although this led to him being arrested more than once, eventually his drawings started becoming so famous that people would take them and sell them. Moreover, he created his works with such a unique style that people would start recognizing his pieces before they even knew who the artist was.
Eventually his work on the subway earned him international recognition, solo exhibitions, and collaborations with renowned brands in the eighties. Although these were only the first steps in his journey to make the art world open to everyone, this would culminate in the opening of Pop Shop in 1986. Here he would sell all sorts of products with his art, but contrary to other artists, his products were affordable. Of course, the commercialization of his works was heavily criticized by many, but fellow artists such as Andy Warhol, the icon of pop art, actually supported this way of presenting his art, especially because Haring did so always keeping social causes in mind.
Between 1982 and 1989 Haring made murals and drawings for charities, orphanages, and hospitals all over the world and gave workshops to children in many different cities. Moreover, he was open regarding his homosexuality, so when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, he dedicated part of his work to raise awareness to this disease as well as to fight discrimination. A year later he established the Keith Haring Foundation –which continues to this day– to fund AIDS organizations and programs through his images.
His untimely death took place on February 16, 1990, due to AIDS complications. Although brief, his career left us with wonderful art pieces that accompany us in our everyday life. Keith Haring’s works redefine art by bringing it down from the Olympus of museums, academies, and collectors. Through his imaginative and vibrant pieces, we can appreciate the wide kaleidoscope of human emotions and expressions: joy, anger, lust, anguish, surprise, and love. This last emotion, in particular, is the one his works seem to exude the most: love for the complexity of humanity, and love for life and its ever-changing rhythms. In the end, he proves that art can be both technique and emotion, but most importantly, that it’s part of what defines us as human beings, no matter what we look like or where we come from.