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The Street Credo of Keith Haring

On May 4th Google honored (or is it ripped off?) Keith Haring with a doodle, even though the internet colossus passed on having a May Day doodle — a touch ironic considering who Keith Haring was.

I distinctly remember seeing my first Keith Haring. I was a teen. It was at some subway station, maybe Lexington Ave, maybe 7th Ave, as I transfered from a one subway train to another — taking the grinding ride as I did everyday when I was in high school from Queens to the Bronx.

Seeing it was like pure music.

It’s like that scene in the Shawshank Redemption when he plays a those two beautiful female voices that grace the dreary all-male prison.

I have no memory of what that Haring image was. And it’s besides the point. The sheer genius of what he did: When an ad on the subway would “expire” — that is when the time the advertizer paid for had ended, and if they didn’t have another ad paid and ready to run — the subway workers would put up a black image.

And that gave Haring his blank canvas, where light would sprout in the glum surroundings of the NYC subway, there would be light in the darkest black. Where creativity would manifest itself when it seemed it was starved of a place to take root.

Several years later, in college in Pittsburg, I passed an art gallery and it had a Keith Haring print in the window. I breathlessly bolted into the gallery: “You have something by that guy from the NYC subway!” Saleswomen: “Yes, that’s Keith Haring, he got his start on the subway.” I had no idea he’d “made it” — I just loved his work.

Haring writes in his wonderful essay “Art in Transit” about how he realized he wanted to reach the general public and not the artistic or glittery in crowd: “I remember most clearly an afternoon of drawing in a studio that large doors that opened onto Twenty-second Street. All kinds of people would stop and look at the huge drawing and many were eager to comment on their feelings toward it. This was the first time I realized how many people could enjoy art if they were given the chance. These were not the people I saw in the museums or in the galleries but a cross section of humanity that cut across all boundaries. This group of different people living and working together in harmony has always been my prime attraction to New York.”

There was a great gustiness and spontaneity to Haring. He’d say “I’ve come to the realization that I can draw anything I want to — never believing in mistakes.”

Photo of Haring drawing muscle tank-man burning money with homeless man in background by Tseng Kwong Chi; from “Keith Haring: Future Primeval.”

And it was in the vein that he started drawing on the subway: “In 1980, I returned to drawing with a new commitment to purpose and reality. If I was going to draw, there had to be a reason. That reason, I decided, was for people. The only way art lives is through the experience of the observer. The reality of art begins in the eyes of the beholder and gains power through imagination, invention, and confrontation.

“Doing things in public was not a new idea. The climate of art in New York at that time was certainly moving in that direction. It seemed obvious to me when I saw the first empty subway panel that this was the perfect situation … and immediately [went] above ground and [bought] chalk. After the first drawing, things just fell into place. I began drawing in the subways as a hobby on my way to work.”

Arrested several times for his “illegal” subway drawings, Haring was in a sense an early “adbuster”: “The drawings are designed to provoke people to think and use their own imagination. They don’t have exact definitions but challenge the viewer to assert his or her own ideas and interpretation. Sometimes, people find this uncomfortable, especially because the drawings are in a space usually reserved for advertisements which tell you exactly what to think. Sometimes the advertisements on the side of the empty panels provide inspiration for the drawings and often create ironic associations.”

Said Haring: “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination, and encourages people to go furhter, It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.”

Sam Husseini’s blog is at http://husseini.posterous.com — see his own art project at http://compassroses.org 

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Sam Husseini is founder of the website VotePact.org

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