Posted by: cctracker | June 20, 2012

Truth-Bearing Riffs in Keith Haring Glyphs

Once a year in the “Postmodernity” unit of my Humanities course,  I give my students a passing glimpse of the art of Keith Haring. He gets under their skin.  They’re curious, engaged, unsettled.

They ask me questions about Haring and his work. What does it mean? What’s he trying to say? Where did he get these ideas? Since I use the images to capture the issues and spirit of the Postmodern era rather than to explore the art itself, I didn’t have any answers. I hadn’t done my homework. I could tell that his basic vocabulary was based on graffiti, but that was about all I had.

A story on Haring in the  NY Times bailed me out. Take a look at it here.  Ted Loos’ commentary  on the Haring exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum gave me my first real look under the surface of his stylized scrawling and the poppy, playful glyphs that caught me the first time I saw them, as they did my students. Reading the article was a confirmation of how great art often emerges not only from hard labor, but from deep reflection, even if neither are immediately obvious on the surface that catches the eye.

Take this piece, for example.

Haring created it in 1983 at the age of 25. The canvas is 30 feet long, the entire surface crammed with designs and pictograms in black and white.  As the article reveals, Haring labored for months over images like these to find satisfying mini-compositions within the whole so that the eye would be pleased and engaged from one end to the other. He formulated a set of aesthetic rules and principles to capture what worked and what didn’t.

But at a deeper level he was telling us a story. He was prophesying. Just as my students intuitively guessed, he was trying to tell us something. If his rules for good design were complicated, his rules for saying what he meant by it all were positively byzantine. He spoke in code, inventing a hippie alphabet of English letters and words. He even went to the trouble of setting intentional roadblocks for translators who might come along one day to try to read his mind. Perhaps he understood that the soul–especially his own– ought to be shrouded in mystery. That anything we utter that reaches for the depths of meaning and experience ought to take time to uncover since only with long engagement and the passing of time can truths like these be truly absorbed.

As I’ve said I’m a rank amateur,  so much of what he might have been trying to say is lost on me and will probably remain so, just as the nuances of ten-thousand year-old North-african symbols carved in stone will never yield for us the nuances they would have communicated even to children of their day.

Nevertheless, as the article points out, we are still close enough to Haring’s day that much of his message is there–right on the surface– for us to read… and to ponder.

On the surface, Haring’s life tells us a familiar story: a gay social social activist working in the 80’s, takes his inspiration from the streets and dies of AIDS by 1990.

But underneath, Haring’s art still carries a thousand hidden messages. He is still telling us stories we may need to hear as we  confront the increasingly disorienting post-modern political, cultural and religious context of our times. Despite our technological sophistication and fractured, over-stimulated  consciousness, we are still Homo Sapiens, gazing at the walls of our caves with a inner spirit–an elan– that hungers for words or pictures from prophet story-tellers. “What does it mean? How shall we live?” One of Harings recurring images–one that the critics say points close to the heart of what Haring believed ought to anchor human values–is what he called “The Radiant Christ:”

Image at

Haring believed that the message of Jesus challenged us never to forget the poor. This image convinces me he was also aware of the so-called “conservative” message that the value of every human life is non-negotiable.

I’m working on a talk I have to give next month  titled: “Obstacles from Technology to the Personal and Spiritual Development  of Adolescents.” Considering the way Haring’s work spoke to me and my students so powerfully, I’m thinking of including images like this to capture the magnitude of the challenge we face in trying to keep our screens from devouring our spirits.

Image at

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