the strange influences on Keith Haring's greatest work

by Janice Ng


In 1989, a young artist named Keith Haring produced an untitled poster, later known as “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death” for the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP New York. Haring's deceptively simple imagery and text provided a sharp social critique of AIDS’ policy, politics, and among other things drug addiction, social outsiders, and gay life. Using a graffiti-inspired style and addressing stereotypes about AIDS, Haring’s poster drew attention to the dangers of prejudice and ignorance. He also distributed the posters free of charge (7) to spread the word to the general public. This is art as social activism, and yet despite all the serious political and social implications Haring never lost his sense of fun.

After losing many acquaintances to AIDS and seeing how “AIDS had changed New York,” Haring increasingly painted pictures dealing with the disease in his final years, although he had no way of knowing that he too would fall victim in 1990 and would become even more famous for becoming a martyr to the cause. When we look at Keith Haring’s 1989 art, we think that is an incredible art. But it is more than just a piece of art; it is also an important moment in history.

To fully understand the poster, you need to know about the history and people that gives this poster its power. The poster was formed by the tragedy of AIDS, President Ronald Reagan AIDS’s policies or really lack of policies, the celebrity Rock Hudson, and the hero of Haring’s work, writer and ACT UP founder Larry Kramer. All of these merge into the protest poster he created, and are a testament to the power of art and activism.


The Scary Path to Understanding and Care

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, later known as AIDS, emerged in the United States in the early 1980s. AIDS is a syndrome caused by a virus called HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). The illness alters the immune system, making people much more vulnerable to infections and diseases (1). It was first noticed in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in 1981, and initially the syndrome appeared in gay communities. When AIDS was first identified in 1982, it was given the name of Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) (2), a name that obviously reinforced the disease with gay sexuality. Until 1989, the number of reported AIDS cases in the USA reached 110,000 and known deaths reached 14,544 (3). In other words, someone died of AIDS every half hour (4).

These are devastating numbers and you can imagine that a young man such as Haring would find this overwhelming. And so one of the beautiful things about the poster is the way he turns this history of death into one of hope.

The White House

The President was a Killer

The White House National Drug Control Strategy did not mention AIDS at all and ignored the need of drug treatment while the numbers of cases were growing. There was a growing complacency toward the epidemic that “many people want to believe is over” (5). As the leader of the country, President Ronald Reagan reinforced the attack on homosexuals by displaying complete and utter ignorance, while he sided with his staff who made gay jokes and called AIDS a “gay plague” (6). "At every level of ‘public’ address and readership, ignorance is sustained on a massively institutionalized scale by British and American media commentary." (4) Reagan ignored AIDS and deepened their attack on homosexuality, while promoting the "ideal" of heterosexuality. It was a horrible response to a disease that anyone could catch.

After four years of AIDS epidemic, Reagan first mentioned AIDS at a press conference, on Sept. 17, 1985 in response to a question at a press conference, vowing to make AIDS research a “top priority.” It was tremendous news for Haring; however at the same time, the response was too late. There were little government and medical support but increasing numbers of deaths each year, ballooning from 447 deaths in 1982 to 6854 deaths in 1985.

Rock Hudson

The Picture of Heterosexual Masculinity was Not

The Hollywood star Rock Hudson died in October 1985 and was the first major celebrity to publically die of AIDS. He was 'heartthrob' of the Hollywood Golden Age. Hudson collapsed and was taken to the American Hospital in Neuilly, where he first said that he had liver cancer. Later, Hudson's publicist confirmed that Hudson did in fact have AIDS in July, 1985 and the general public was shocked. Hollywood movie industry is heavily commited to the image of heterosexuality, and so at that time gay men in Hollywood kept their sexuality a secret.

“Acquaintances often described Mr. Hudson as being homosexual but the actor never publicly commented or acknowledged the reports.” (10) 4 years into the AIDS epidemic, President Reagan mentioned AIDS for the first time 2 months after Hudson death. Was the death of a major “heteosexual” celebrity some much more important than 6,800 unknown gay men? Sadly, that seems to be true, although Reagan’s proposed federal budget for 1986 actually called for an 11% reduction in AIDS spending.Hudson was “synonymous with masculine good looks” and a huge celebrity, especially in the 1950’s and 60’s. He brought a glamor to AIDS that it had never had. AIDS had been perceived as gay related disease and now all of sudden it was Hollywood. Part of Haring’s vision of AID’s suddenly took on a new kind of style.

The Hero

Larry Kramer, hero

Because of the neglect from the government and medical system, the gay community self-organized and formed groups, such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Putting his career as an award winning professional screen writer on hold, Larry Kramer devoted his energies and time to AIDS and gay right movement. He co-founded GMHC in 1982 and then resigned from the organization due to disagreements in policy. He then formed a more vocal and confrontational AIDS organization, ACT UP in 1987.

They fought for new treatments, more funding, and made political connections to “direct action to end the AIDS crisis”(8). Most importantly they came up with the slogan, “Silence = Death.” The slogan is a direct attack on ignorance and turning away. (8) Through ACT UP, Kramer started the gay right era and strengthened as well as extended the gay community, which had previously remained largely underground.

The Poster

More than its influences

Haring joined ACT UP to fight for the gay community and produced an untitled poster, known as “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death.” In it you can see the history of AIDS’, the political anger at the Reagan White House, the glamour of Rock Hudson, and the heroism and theatricality of Larry Kramer and ACT UP.

“Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death” is a horizontal illustrated poster on offset lithograph paper, 43 inches by 24 inches. At the bottom right along right edge is his signature: "_ K. Haring 89". The main element is the three human figures covering eyes, hears and mouths with the hand-drawn bold texts “ignorance=Fear” on the top and “Silence=Death” / "FIGHT AIDS" / “ACT UP” on the bottom. The graphic elements of the poster create a clear and clean message of ignorance of AIDS. The hand-illustrated human figures are in yellow, which suggests no particular race, sex, or age and brings a natural humanity to the work. It normalizes AIDS by saying everyone has a chance of getting it, and that everyone should still be loved. It is a piece of art that aims to debunk common knowledge, which in Haring’s work, is akin to ignorance.

The yellow figures reference the proverb: “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.” In Western culture, the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by looking the other way, refusing to acknowledge it, or feigning ignorance. In the middle of the figures are pink “X’s” that represents the disease of AIDS. The pink triangle is an obvious riff on the Nazi yellow triangle, which they used to identify male prisoners in Nazi concentration camps who were gay. But ACT UP used the pink triangle to symbolize hope and defiance. The poster is drawn in the graffiti style that propelled Haring to fame.

Haring’s design is relatively simple. The lines are clean and the direct. The bright primary colors catch your eye and keep it on the message. It’s has the same immediacy of a movie poster. The use of repeated motion lines convey energy, both positive and negative, and adds dimension to the poster. The composition doesn’t require the viewer to do much, though it continually forces an engagement with the fact of AIDS. You can’t get away from it and that’s the point. Haring would die one year later, another martyr to the cause but one who left us with an amazing piece of art.

Work Cited

[1] Nordqvist, Christian. HIV/AIDS: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments. Medical News Today. April 8, 2016.

[2]Veronika, Glanz. History Of Aids by Glanz Veronika., 2013.

[3] AIDS. Wikipedia. Accessed April 25, 2016.

[4] Watney, Simon. 1987. The Spectacle of AIDS. October 43. The MIT Press: 71–86. doi:10.2307/3397565.

[5] Hilts, Philip J. AIDS Panel Finds U.S. Failure in Providing Care. The New York Times. 1989.

[6] When AIDS Was Funny. Directed by Scott Calonic. 2015. Online.

[7] Kolossa, Alexandra. Haring. Place of Publication Not Identified: Taschen, 2016.

[8] Reed, T. V. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

[9]Sheff, David. "Keith Haring, An Intimate Conversation." Keith Haring. August 1989. Accessed April 25, 2016.!/selected_writing/rolling-stone-1989.

[10] Berger, Josph. "ROCK HUDSON, SCREEN IDOL, DIES AT 59." The New York Times, October 3, 1985.

©Janice Ng and the CCA Arts Review

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