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The artist who forced us to talk about AIDS

How Keith Haring’s art forced us to talk about AIDS

Though his work is supremely alive, it is also fearless in confronting death, explains Tim Smith-Laing

Though his work is supremely alive, it is also fearless in confronting death, explains Tim Smith-Laing

Tim Smith-Laing | June 13th 2019

Keith Haring’s work screams fun. Or rather, it is fun but it is also screaming: an alarm call saying that life is good but terrible things conspire against it. Ignore the words and “Ignorance = Fear” looks fun: Haring’s trademark simple lines, the three primary colours with a dash of pink, three figures, jumping, perhaps dancing. Take in the words, and you hear the scream. By the late 1980s, AIDS felt like the most visible threat to life in America. When Haring (above left) created “Ignorance = Fear”, one American was being diagnosed with HIV every minute. Four people were dying of AIDS every hour. By 1991 the epidemic had claimed the lives of 100,000 Americans. 

Ignorance = Fear 1989, Poster
Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris

But as Haring (who had himself been diagnosed with AIDS) and his fellow activists knew, no one was actually talking about it, not meaningfully. The epidemic was exacerbated by shame, blame and ignorance. In 1987 Ronald Reagan gave his two cents on how to prevent the disease: “Don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?” In reality, no lessons were being taught. Many people believed that HIV could be contracted from a kiss, a cough, or even a toilet seat: fears that stigmatised suffers and contributed directly to the mishandling, by doctors and others, of the crisis. Religious organisations bawled that AIDS education amounted to promoting “immoral lifestyles” so governments and individuals stayed silent. 

The solution was to make noise. ACT UP, a group of activists, coined the phrase “Silence = Death”, appropriating the pink triangle with which the Nazi regime marked homosexuals as a badge of pride. Their goal was to make as much noise as possible, and Haring joined the cause. Where his outline figures normally pulsate with life, marked out in cartoon vibrations of motion and emotion, here they seem to be shaking themselves to death in their quest to maintain their own and others’ ignorance. Like the three monkeys of myth, they see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. Precisely because of that, evil, in the shape of AIDS, is continuing its work. It is a bright poster, supremely alive, like all of Haring’s work. But it is also about facing death, something that Haring laconically described in an interview the same year as an “incredible education”. He died of AIDS-related complications less than a year later, but not before doing his best to share what he knew.

Keith Haring Tate Liverpool, until November 10th

Untitled 1983
Vinyl paint on tarpaulin
Collection of KAWS

Untitled 1983
Acrylic on vinyl tarpaulin
Courtesy Laurent Strouk

Safe Sex! 1987, Poster
Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris