Why Keith Haring’s “The Political Line” still matters

By Charissa Dechène


Last week I went to the Kunsthal in Rotterdam to see the exhibition of Keith Haring’s “The Political Line” with my best friend (you can (and should) visit the exhibition until February 7, 2016). British social anthropologist Alfred Gell argued that he views art as “a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it” (Gell 1998: 6). He argued that artworks act as social agents: viewers are not interacting with dead matter, but with living persons entering a personal relationship that can provoke love, hate, desire or fear (Gell 1998). Which was exactly, I think, what Keith Haring’s work intends: to change the world and to make you think about what you see in the works he created. Which he does by giving you the opportunity to interpret his work by not giving most of his work a title.

Keith Haring (1958 – 1990) was an openly gay American activist artist who made it his personal mission to address social injustices through art. Art that should be publicly accessible to everyone:

“The public has a right to art. […] The public needs art, and it is the responsibility of a ‘self-proclaimed artist’ to realize the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for the few and ignore the masses. Art is for everybody” ~Keith Haring

About Keith Haring
Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania and learned to draw from an early age from his father and by looking at popular culture around him. In 1976 Haring moved to New York City and got in the School of Visual Arts. While in NYC he discovered a whole new art scene outside the traditional (western) art system that was happening ‘underground’ which was part of the street culture of New York.

In 1980 he found a new medium which enabled him to communicate with a wider audience: unused advertising panels covered with matte black paper in subway stations. During 1980 and 1985 he made hundreds of these Subway Drawings in his “laboratory” where he could work out ideas and experiment with lines. Because he was doing these white chalk drawings in the open (during the day and night), he had to do them quickly because it was illegal and risked getting arrested by doing so. However, he was arrested a number of times because of these drawings. His now famous figures became his ‘tag’. People would stop to see Haring make his art and some of the New Yorkers even removed the artworks with frame and got into the subway.

“Drawing with chalk on this soft black paper was like nothing else I had ever drawn on. It was a continuous line […] it was a constant line, it was a really graphically strong line and it had a time limit. You had to do these things as fast as you could. And you couldn’t erase.” ~Keith Haring


In 1986 he opened the Pop Shop in NY where people could buy his images on t-shirts, buttons, posters, magnets and posters for an affordable price, because in his philosophy art is for everyone. Between 1982 and 1989 he created over 50 murals around the world, most of them for charities, hospitals and orphanages.

In 1988 Haring was diagnosed with AIDS and in the year after he founded the Keith Haring Foundation, which mandate is to provide imagery and funding to AIDS organizations and children’s programs. In his last years he dedicated his work to raise awareness and activism about AIDS and talked about his own illness. Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990.

About his art
Because his work is visually powerful it’s very impressive and forces you to think and rethink current and past socio-political issues. Even though his works of art were created in the 1980s, their messages are still relevant today. Most of his work have been a critique or note on socio-political subjects relating to sex, birth, death and war, but also on the role of money and religion in our society. It becomes clear by looking at his art that those issues, especially the injustices that may accompany them, played a big part in his own life.

“Resist” 1988

He made most of his work in a time (and country) where people were told to look away from the “gay cancer” and its devastating consequences. I think his work can therefore also be understood as a claim of his worth, his right to live and an acknowledgement of his very existence as an openly gay man who was diagnosed with AIDS. This especially becomes visual when looking at his “Silence = Death” in which he used an introverted pink triangle which was used during WOII to identity homosexual men, but also sexual offenders. In this piece of art the figures depict “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.

As a cultural anthropologist with a special interest in visual and pop culture, Keith Haring’s paintings were very interesting to look at. I also liked connecting broader socio-cultural issues to them. The very colourful images are bright and vibrant, yet if you look closely to what the images are representing you will see that they are in fact very politically charged.
Issues as apartheid, war, religion and capitalism are often depicted in his art, making them forms of visual activism.

Keith Haring, Red & Untitled sculpture. 1985

The themes he addresses are still relevant today. Apartheid is banned, but discrimination and racism are still at the order of the day. While HIV/AIDS may not be as scary today in western countries like it was in the 1980’s, the disease, or the ideas about it, are still causing similar problems in some parts of the world. Moreover, being openly gay is not possible for a lot of people in the world without being persecuted, discriminated, encounter physical and/ or sexual violence, or be murdered (For example read some stories of LGBTQ people on Where Love Is Illegal). And religion and war seem to be always a subject where people are engaged in.

Graffiti works like that of Haring challenge existing social issues and become a part of the public space, inviting to public debate. Like I have mentioned in other blogs visual images can tell a lot about a society’s ideas, notions and perceptions of politics, gender, sexuality and culture. Visual images as graffiti have an anarchic quality: it appears and disappears, exemplifies rapid transformations in style, aesthetic sensibilities and political messages (Beck in Beck & Maida ed. 2015: 320). This makes them especially interesting to look at, because they often question contemporary happenings. Today, you can find a lot of murals about the refugee situation, war and economic crisis.

Individuality and agency

Photo 17-11-15 13 48 53
Keith Haring, Encaustic on Wood. Untitled, 1983.

What I found especially intriguing were the figures who were seemingly intertwined with technology. Today almost everything is done via computers, we seem to be attached to our phones (like I mentioned in Wanted: (Your) Opinions) and there were these images of Keith Haring visualizing this particular issue!

“The silicon computer ship has become the new life form. Eventually the only worth of man will be to service and serve the computer. Are we there? In a lot of ways we are”

With this he criticised the beginning of the information society as we now know it, but also the idea of individuality and agency. I interpreted his work as a critique of the lacking sense of individuality in society, where people are seemingly more engaged with groups (wanting to be a part of something like a religion), but also that our societies are growing into a market-driven money focused civilisation, which disables recognizing individuality.

“Most of the evil is done in the name of good (religion, false rophets, bullshit artists, politicians, businessman). The whole concept of ‘business’ is evil. […] Business is only another name for control. Control of mind, body and spirit. Control is evil” ~Keith Haring

Keith Haring, Untitled. 1985

Because of the growing use of technology it is assumed that people have become more individualised. This may be so, but Haring’s work questions individuality and argues through his visual vocabulary that we are not that individual at all, but are constantly forced or made into something else. Therefore lacking a sense of agency, which he (I think) portrays as the hole in some of the figures. In some works the holes are filled with a cross, dogs and money coming out of it.

“It is important to the future existence of the human race that we understand the importance of the individual and the reality that we are all different, all individuals, all changing and all contributing to the ‘whole’ as individuals, not as groups or products of ‘mass-identity’, ‘anti-individual’, ‘stereotyped groups of humans with the same goals, ideas and needs’” ~Keith Haring


IMG_3328 (2)
Keith Haring, Untitled. 1988

I was also intrigued by Keith Haring’s use of terracotta vases. By using a sculpture that is widely known for its aesthetics, especially painted vases from Delfts Blauw to Chinese tradition, he gives the viewer an extraordinary opposition by drawing (1980’s) contemporary and ancient symbols and figures on them.

Lastly, with a continuous interest in where our food comes from (especially meat) and a seemingly need and trend of healthy lifestyles the “Everybody Knows Where The Meat Comes From It Comes From The Store” piece shows the spectator with the use of red and black spatters and stripes that seem to be (cage)bars that one in fact does not know where our meat comes from.. and maybe even suggests that we do not want to know.

Keith Haring, “Everybody Knows Where Meat Comes From It Comes From The Store” 1978

(All photographs were made by me with a Canon DS500 at The Kunsthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands)

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