Keith Haring (Annotated)

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New York, 1983: a decayed monster slowly regaining life
True: the Lower East Side still looks like a battle ground,
42nd Street is still lined with porn shops
Bums still sleep on the curbs in the Bowery
But look! There’s art everywhere, though not everyone recognizes it.
Art to wear, to lean against, to walk on, to wallow in
I’m even sitting on some.
It covers abandoned buildings and billboards, junked cars in Alphabet City.
There are SAMO tags on St. Marks and aliens on the benches in Tompkins Square.

Mostly, I’m struck by the babies
Radiant babies in subway stations,
Along with barking dogs, flying saucers, televisions with arms and legs
It’s funny, cartoonish – just doodles
Primitive drawings in modern caves,
Backdrop for the city soundtrack:
Angry young punks, New Wave poseurs, art school poets
Screaming, rapping, howling, defacing the status quo.

Childish art precociously tackling racism, religion, greed
Here’s an ugly 4-letter word: AIDS
The cancer no one talks about
It will eventually take the father
But your babies continue to radiate with undimmed energy

Artist Keith Haring was just starting his climb to fame and fortune in New York in 1981, only two years before I arrived in Boston. Back then, you could hop on People Express Airlines for $25 at 6:00 in the morning, and be in Manhattan in just a couple of hours. The first time I made this trip was in 1983. I’d like to be able to say I was a hip insider of the downtown art/music scene, but the truth is, I was a wide-eyed Iowan with no knowledge of Keith Haring, the Mudd Club, or any of the other happening stuff.

Who was Samo? It was Jean-Michel Basqiat, who was about to become the art world’s favorite bad boy. The aliens were the creation of Kenny Scharf. That beautiful sound floating above it all was the unearthly voice of Klaus Nomi, who had already become the first start of the New York New Wave scene to succumb to AIDS.

Flashback: Interdisciplinary Artwork

When I read things I wrote in years past, I usually cringe. Here’s an edited piece from ten years ago; it’s almost tolerable:

Interdisciplinary Artwork

The arts are blending all around us today. Pop concerts utilize huge video screens, dancers, and a mix of live, sequenced and recorded music; websites contain graphics, sound, animation, and interactive elements; DVDs include text resources in addition to video; even “books” can now be electronic ebooks, with or without multimedia content. Artists can create sound and light sculptures. Performance artists mix spoken word, music, movement, and visuals. Interdisciplinary art abounds!

This is nothing new. Stage productions have been combining artistic disciplines for decades, even centuries. Words, music, sets, make-up, and costumes all contribute to the play. Ancient Greek dramas were frequently accompanied by music, and actors used large masks for visual effect. The biblical Pentateuch is filled with instructions for elaborate ceremonies designed to stimulate all the senses – artisans, architects, and performers would all participate in what were certainly interdisciplinary events. As much as the various art forms might like to consider themselves divorced from each other, a glance across cultures and through history shows them often joining forces.

Some of the oldest known art is part of an interdisciplinary approach. Episode 4 of the PBS documentary “How Art Made the World” features “Storytelling Aboriginal Style.” Aboriginal paintings, some over 40,000 years old, were just one part of events called “Dreamtime.” These events used music, dance, and storytelling to recreate myths important to Aboriginal culture. The power of the tales, as reinforced by this ancient soundtrack has enabled the stories and ceremonies to last right down to the present day. Elaborate tales are reenacted to the sound of singing, percussion, and didgeridoo, and surrounded by rock paintings of the key images. Performers wear makeup, body paint, and costumes.  The artwork depicts icons easily recognizable to anyone in the culture, relating to these Dreamtime tales.

The work of artist Keith Haring, has often been compared to primitive iconography. Haring’s well-known images, such as his barking dogs and radiant babies appear over and over in his work. Like the Aborigines, Haring often worked and displayed to music, this time an urban soundtrack of rap, New Wave, and punk. His art debuted on fashion stages and nightclubs and in subway stations. The images take on deeper meaning when the viewer can associate them with their original intent in their original setting. This example of modern art hearkens back to some of the oldest known art in the world. The longevity of Aboriginal art and ceremony is evidence that art means more when it has definite meaning attached to it. Furthermore, that meaning is enhanced by the addition of interdisciplinary elements like music, dance, and storytelling.

Interdisciplinary art may seem cutting edge, but it can trace its lineage back to the birth of art itself.