Art as Social Activism - Keith Haring

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

Everyone has the right to raise their voice.

Through a canvas and a paintbrush, Keith Haring did just that.

Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. Haring was surrounded by his father's work, a cartoon artist, throughout his childhood, and as he grew older he became more drawn to the artistic world. When it came to leaving home, he went on to study art at the Ivy School of Professional Art but dropped out after realizing he wished to do more than just commercial art. He then tried to explore the artistic opportunities in New York City’s School of Visual Arts, however, dropped out again, as he was refused credit for any art pieces with social activism attached.

Yet, he still became one of America's most widely recognized artists in the 1980s, and still is today. Although not all of you will recognize his name, many of you will be able to recognize his art. Haring's style, unlike art made solely for visual stimulation, embodied open and honest perspectives on social issues.

Haring used anything and everything he could get his hands on as a medium for his work, from blank advertisement boards by the subways to the street walls in the lower east side of New York.

His iconography is abstract and abundant with colors and symbols. Haring says, “You don’t have to know anything about art to appreciate it or to look at it. There aren’t any hidden secrets or things that you’re supposed to understand.” People vary in what they take away from any piece of art, with or without knowledge of the art. Some may view art as nothing but a visually stimulating piece, while others untangle underlying messages. Haring’s pieces are simplistic but entwined with clear social activist statements if one looks closely.

In 1985, HIV and AIDS were on a frequent rise in the art world of New York, and many of his friends had passed from the disease. Keith Haring was later diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, which struck a chord with him to create more art openly advocating safe sex and homosexuality. He did his first activism-piece later that year titled ‘Safe Sex.’ This poster was the first of many compositions which illustrated messages regarding sexual fluidity and protected sex.

At the time his art aimed to raise awareness to those who were uninformed about such topics. He was concerned about the stigma towards AIDS and homosexuality continuing years beyond his and knew that he didn’t want to stay silent in fear of perpetuating it. Through his art, he conveys an openness towards these topics, rather than sweeping them under the rug until chaos strikes. He wanted people, and especially kids, to discover themselves in an unbiased environment, rather than having others' opinions and beliefs shoved down their throats.

In 1989, Haring established a foundation called The Keith Haring Foundation, to fund AIDS organization and children’s programs. Knowing that his life was ticking away, he strove to do as much as he could with his artistic activism. He taught children art, designed posters for public service agencies, and created murals on health and community centers.

Sadly, Haring passed in 1990 due to an AIDS-related complication.

However, his art continues to raise awareness about homosexuality and protected sex, topics that unfortunately remain taboo today.

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