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COVID-19 Epidemics and Gender HIV Social activism United States

Communicating disease: Keith Haring’s AIDS paintings as a means for social activism

Picture taken by the author at a recent Keith Haring exhibition at the Bozar in Brussels (2019-2020)

by Viola Ziehaus, MA

The current crisis triggered by the COVID-19-pandemic can be described as many things, including as a giant magnifying glass that sheds light on the injustices and the systematic political and social malfunctions of the world. For many of us, it might be the first time experiencing such a pandemic. Nevertheless, it is not the first time in history that a health crisis unleashes profound changes that not only affect the sanitary domain, but also economics, politics and, more broadly, development itself by generating fears, inequalities, but also a sense of hope for a better world. There are different ways in which individuals deal with the threat posed by a disease, including art, an activity that constitutes a pivotal component of the social world. This blog post focuses on how the US-American artist Keith Haring used art as a means of social activism in order to raise awareness about AIDS and help people to make sense of the disease in emotional and cognitive terms.

Why art matters in times of crisis

Artists have always played a crucial role in communicating the injustices of the world, nurturing hopes through their work, acting as spokespersons for those who do not have the means or the power to raise their voices and being a motor of social activism. Especially in times of crisis, art has proven itself to be a tool that allows mankind to process experiences, to find a source of strength and comfort, to feel connected to a holistic experience, to understand each other on a deeper level and to see ourselves within a larger society. While it could never save lives in the way that science may be able to, art can nevertheless deliver a strong message – as American artists Keith Haring once said, “Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.”

When AIDS hit the world

This ideology of delivering a message through art was particularly prevalent during the AIDS pandemic that had its outbreak in the early 1980s. The illness is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, that is transmitted through bodily fluids and that attacks the body’s immune system. According to the World Health Organization, HIV is still one of the world’s most serious public health challenges. For the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus originated in Central Africa and may have jumped from chimpanzees to humans in the late 1800s. At that time, it spread slowly across Africa and into other parts of the world, and eventually also arrived in the United States around 1970, even if it did not come to the public’s attention until the early 1980s. In that decade, one American city was hit especially hard by the crisis: New York City.

There‘s a new guy in town

The AIDS pandemic led many artists and activists in New York City to identify new forms of supporting social causes by using art as a mean of resistance. Among those artists was Keith Haring, an openly gay advocate for safe sex. Haring grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1978 where he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and dived into the art and social scene of the East Village. There he found an alternative art community outside of galleries and museums. He started experimenting with chalk graffiti over unused advertising spaces in subway stations. Little did he know that with a piece of chalk and a combination of pop art and graffiti, he was setting the scene to changing the world. Throughout his career, Haring devoted his time to public works that often-carried powerful social messages. Especially during the last years of his life, Haring generated activism and awareness about AIDS during a time where little was known about a virus that not only was a taboo topic, but particularly affected the gay community.

A social construction of reality

In his work, Haring created attention and awareness of HIV and AIDS by breaking with taboos and using explicit sexual iconography to inspire the general public for a more open conversation about the virus and its prevention. He promoted safe sex campaigns and constructed a social reality, in which he portrayed the virus not as a biological entity, but as an enemy – the devil of the people. Since the pioneer work of sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann[1], scholars have studied how social reality is constructed in intersubjective exchanges and interactions. As a constitutive domain of the public sphere of a society – including the global –, art is a major field for the construction of reality. By representing AIDS though black shapes that somehow resemble a devil with horns, Haring loaded the disease with specific negative connotations, which help raise awareness about the dangers it poses to human beings. Even if this was not Haring’s only approach to deal with the disease from an artistic perspective, it showcases clearly how he intended to provoke discussions about AIDS by depicting the disease itself as a threat to humanity and by employing resources that are easily linked by the audience as evil.

Why Keith Haring’s work still matters

Haring was diagnosed HIV positive in 1988 and died of AIDS related complications in 1990 at the young age of 31. But his art has never been forgotten. Even though he might be dead for more than three decades, his work keeps inspiring people, organizations and movements all over the world. If he were still alive, public spaces would probably already be painted with coronavirus-images, depicting it as an “evil enemy” or a “social monster“, bringing it to life by means of representations that are beyond the scientific domain to educate people about the illness rather than live in fear of it. Just like Haring created a sort of visual identity for AIDS, he would have probably also created one for the coronavirus, accompanied by words like “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death”[2] in order to enact social change and bring conversations into the mainstream. There is no better way to summarize Keith Haring’s intention than with his own words: “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.”


[1] Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

[2] Whitney Museum of American Art: https://whitney.org/collection/works/46387, accessed 24 January 2021.

General References:

HERO Magazine. 12.08.2020

Dazed Digital. 29.06.2017

https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/36252/1/important-lessons-keith-haring-taught-us-about-life-and-art

The Guardian. 02.06.2019. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jun/02/public-has-right-to-art-keith-haring-tate-liverpool-exhibition

Deutsche Welle. 21.08.2020

https://www.dw.com/en/relevant-as-ever-keith-haring-works-on-show-in-essen/a-54623367

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, accessed 23 January 2021

https://www.hiv.gov/federal-response/pepfar-global-aids/global-hiv-aids-overview

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed 23 January 2021

https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html

New York City AIDS Memorial, accessed 24 January 2021

https://www.nycaidsmemorial.org/timeline

The Keith Haring Foundation, accessed 24 January 2021

https://www.haring.com/!/about-haring/bio

Moreno Barreneche, S. “From a Biological Entity to a Social Monster. A Semiotic Construction of the Coronavirus During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Revista di Sociologia del Territorio, Turismo, Tecnologia 7, no. 1 (2020) http://www.serena.unina.it/index.php/fuoriluogo/article/view/7041


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