Art versus Consumerism: has the commercialisation of Keith Haring’s work caused it to lose its meaning?

In 1978, Keith Haring wrote “The public has a right to art. The public is being ignored by most contemporary artists. Art is for everybody” in his diary. Nowadays, Haring’s work is as publicly known as it has been in years. His recognisable, colourful figures are everywhere; from clothes, to accessories, to homeware, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find someone who would not recognise his work from anywhere. Even if they did not know that it was by Keith Haring, the likelihood is that they would know it to some degree anyway. In this sense, Haring succeeded in his aim to spread his art to everyone – as he believed that they all deserved to see it. However, in this essay, I will discuss whether this exponential commercialisation of his work has caused its original meaning to be undermined, and almost forgotten, and further explore the potential negatives of the evolution of commercialised art.

 

Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Pennsylvania, and spent his childhood surrounded by art as his father was an amateur cartoonist. He told his biographer, John Gruen, that “[his] dad made cartoon characters for [him], and they were similar to the way [he] started to draw – with one line and a cartoon outline.”  He expressed a keen interest in Disney, Dr Seuss and Looney Tunes characters, figures from which he would draw inspiration, and which would go on to feature in his later works. His passion drove him to study commercial art at Pittsburgh’s Ivy School of Professional Art between 1976 and 1978, before dropping out and moving to New York that same year to instead attend the School of Visual Arts. This less familiar environment was not entirely different from his life in Pennsylvania, as although he grew up quite sheltered in his early years, he started to rebel at the age of 16 and gain more independence. It was there that he met other like-minded individuals like Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who helped him grow in confidence and self-acceptance, especially of his identity as a gay man. The theme of homosexuality would go on to feature in many of his works, eventually in a political manner as the AIDS crisis became a more prominent concern. Other political issues, like apartheid, environmentalism, and how capitalism increases inequality , were topics that he made works about – but not as many as about the struggles that gay people faced.

 

By autumn 1980, Haring had decided that there was nothing more for him to learn at the School of Visual Arts and he quit. With his newfound free time, he decided to focus on publicising his art. He noticed that unused advertising panels, covered with matte black paper in subway stations, were a perfect canvas for him, and so he began to create drawings in white chalk upon these blank paper panels throughout the subway system.  He said, “As I kept seeing these black subway panels everywhere, I realized what I had discovered. Suddenly, everything fell into place.”  Haring would create dozens of works per day, hopping off of one train, creating a drawing, and then hopping on to the next and repeating the process at the next stop. Initially, these appeared to be light-hearted images, but he made sure to spread messages through them – for example, Untitled (1984) is a two-part work showing the alleged dream of money as at first, a figure has a large head with a dollar sign on it, with people cheering around him, only for said head to burst and these same people to run away from the man in the second image. This is just an example of his early passion for creating works about socio-political topics that he cared for, even prior to the peak of his fame. By 1985 however, these images were well known and recognised by subway riders, and he had to stop producing them as people would steal them off the wall as soon as he finished them. When asked who he was making these drawings for, he responded “For everybody, I guess. I mean, I don’t get paid to do it, but I do it down here so lots of people can see it.” , which is made clear as he continued to make accessible art until it was impossible to do so. At the end of the day, he already wanted to be known, and he already wanted his work to be commercial, but in order to spread his art rather than for financial reasons.

During his time working in the subway, Haring was growing at an increasingly fast rate in popularity in New York. He had started to give out badges with some of his most recognisable figures – a small radiant baby, and a dog – to the public in order to further spread his art in the subway, and he then made his first profits by selling pictures, which led him to need to find an art dealer. He made his Soho gallery debut in 1982 at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, a man who he chose for the job. It was a huge success, and Haring was then invited to Milan to paint the walls of the Fiorucci store in 1983, which allowed him to begin to gain international recognition. His newfound fame came with some downsides, like the fact that people kept producing fake versions of his art and putting it on clothes or accessories to sell them. So, in an attempt to provide the public with his merchandise and separate the real from the knockoff items, he opened the Pop Shop in 1986. This allowed him to convert his art into a mass-produced merchandised logo, following Andy Warhol’s contention that “good business is the best art”.  Unlike Warhol however, Haring had a very limited interest in making money from the Pop Shop and would donate the majority of its profits to different charities.  Unfortunately, two years into the shop’s success, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in the autumn of 1988. He spent his final years focusing a lot on the subject in his art, including “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death” (1989), which shows three figures, each covering their eyes, ears and mouth respectively, with the title slogan written above and beneath them. Despite the circumstances, he still prioritised others by setting up the Keith Haring Foundation, which aims to use exhibitions and wider projects to familiarize the broad public with Haring and support charities involved in the fight against AIDS.  In January 1990, his condition had worsened terribly, and he passed away on the 16th February at the age of 31.

All throughout his life, Haring worked to make art accessible to anyone – not just art dealers, or art collectors, but everyone. Now, thirty years since his passing, his goal has come to fruition, as his work is truly as accessible as ever. Along this journey to commercial success, however, I feel that the more meaningful and powerful of Haring’s works have been neglected, as the positive and fun images that he created are the ones that are printed on items that are sold. The commercialisation of his work is not a problem in of itself – he said himself, “If commercialisation is putting my art on a shirt so that a kid who can't afford a $30,000 painting can buy one, then I'm all for it.” It is important to clarify that commercialisation is not necessarily a bad thing, as it means that people can enjoy art, and artists like Haring’s legacies can continue living on beyond their deaths. The issue arises when artists are only known as some guy with some drawings on some t-shirts, and their years of political activism are swept under the rug. This is what I feel is Haring’s fate, as whilst more people now know of him, less people know him. His art about important issues is overshadowed by the colourful cartoon figures that people see anywhere on the streets. It is impossible to miss them – since 2018, at least thirteen well-known fashion brands have done a Keith Haring collaboration. These range from Converse, to H&M, to Levi’s.  Nonetheless, other entirely unrelated brands have done the same, such as Barbie, UNO and Polaroid. Haring is everywhere, and his work is becoming trivialised by the ever-growing commercialisation of it.

Arguably, the immense modern-day commercialisation of his art is a positive thing as it is a decades-late execution of his personal attempt to do so during his life – it would have been very difficult for Haring to reach this level of success when he was alive without being known as mainstream. When he first opened the Pop Shop, several critics labelled him as a sell out , as it was not as normalised in the 1980s to make art accessible in the way that he was attempting to. Brands are not, on the surface, doing anything different than what Haring did – they are making sure that “the public has a right to art”. However, said brands are releasing so many collections that not only may there be a risk of over-saturating the market until consumers lose interest in Haring, but the political meaning may also be lost , leaving what Haring cared about most – the people seeing his art and the symbolism behind it – behind. Haring was keen to capitalise on his profile to raise awareness for important causes.  The line between keeping his work and memory alive posthumously and the over consumerism of it is a fine one, and I believe that it will be crossed eventually, which will erase people’s memory of who he was and what he stood for, and replace it with a simplified idea of him as an artist who drew babies and dogs that ended up being printed on hoodies. This would be undeserved and unfair, but messages like “Safe Sex” or “Free South Africa” are not marketable, and therefore not profitable, meaning that this fate is almost inevitable.

 

This leads me to another problem with the commercialisation of his work – it is happening because brands are making a profit from using Haring’s art, something that he did not care to do himself. As he made his work commercial, selling items with more palatable images on them like brands do now, he would however donate the profits to charities. This meant that although he was not advertising his activist art on merchandise, he was still making a political statement by giving his earnings from it to organizations involved in fighting AIDS. The same cannot be said about modern day companies. Profits from the collections they release in collaboration with the Keith Haring Foundation are, in part, still supporting charitable causes – however, this is because the foundation donates its shares. Capitalist companies do not have this same priority. The difference between the commercialisation of Keith Haring’s work whilst he was alive compared to now, in 2021, is that the intention behind it used to be to share his art as much as possible and still work to educate people about important political issues – now, whilst the intention is still to share his art as much as possible, the political aspect of his work has been put on the backburner and has been replaced by a desire to make financial gain using his art and name. Uniqlo, for example, has done at least seven different collections in collaboration with Haring in recent years – which shows how successful each one is, since there is a demand for more. As this continues to occur, unfortunately, it will keep taking over people’s perception of him as an artist.

 

To conclude, Keith Haring’s work commercialisation and trivialisation has not yet caused it to lose its meaning entirely. Its accessibility allows people to learn about him easily, and therefore keep educating themselves on his life and activism. However, it has led to his political work being diminished, and as the use of Haring’s art on clothing, accessories or other items continues to grow, the idea of him as a man who fought for such important causes will keep fading. I believe that the current treatment of Haring’s work by consumerist society cannot cause it to lose its meaning, because people do not want to let this happen – I instead think that it can cause it to be replaced, until he becomes known for his art being on so many items, rather than for his political engagement. The meaning of his work will remain existent, but it will become discounted as his art continues to be used by brands, until their products overwhelmingly become what the public first think of when they think “Keith Haring”.

 

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