Keith Haring and Our Quest for Meaning, Part 1

In the spirit of open and egalitarian inquiry, I urge you to delve into Keith Haring’s complex and mysterious imagery and create your own kind of meaning. This is the best way to respect the artist’s intention. He was sure we would find things in his work that even he had no idea are there.Begin with an image of a human infant. It is not moving toward us. It is not moving away. It proceeds parallel to the horizon and moves either toward the left or the right. The mere act of gazing upon this image illuminates it in the mind, bathes it in the brilliance of consciousness, and causes what began as a momentary external signal to be transformed into a mental image, capable of lasting lifetimes. It “lights up” our minds.Images of femininity, fecundity, and motherhood attach themselves to the concatenating processions of radiant infants, announcing their pre-eminence. They are frenetic, yet grounded on the earth, the planet of our perpetual rebirth. Ecstatic angelic creatures animate a blazing white void.Angels, dolphins, men, women, barking dogs, crawling infants, are animated with the forces of both Eros and Thanatos and energized by our conscious gaze. Combinations of symbols triggering potential meaning by their very interaction move from seeming randomness toward patterned relationship.Are the meanings intended? Are they inherent in the syntax? Are they our interpretations? The answer to these and all other questions regarding meaning is “yes.” Meaning arises as symbols are shifted, juxtaposed, interpreted, associated, experienced, and subjected to reflection. Now, to your ad hoc reflections upon meaning in Keith’s work add aspects of the contemporary technological landscape: televisions, computer screens, electric lights, atom bombs, and spacecraft. Mix in icons inherited from other symbol systems: the crucifix, question marks, spears and arrows. As the patterns become more intricate and the interrelations of signs more complex, potential meaning ineluctably emerges through our eyes and minds. Our minds are meaning creating engines that will create relationships between things simply because that is how we work.All this was mysterious to Keith. His spontaneous hieroglyphic language was, in many ways, as impenetrable to him as it may seem to us. He knew it had meaning – or more properly, potential meaning that would mean different things to different people in different situations. I helped him to become aware of the relationships his visual language shared with other pre-literate and post-literate visual cultures, their iconographies, and their systems of symbols and signs. We talked at length about the philosophical underpinnings of these cultural expressions and how their symbologies revealed something unique about those who expressed them and, perhaps, something about the universe. To be clear however, Keith saw these territories as identical.Haring saw ultimate significance in his pictorial language. He worked hard to comprehend it. Together, we pursued the mystery of it all. He died knowing the concatenations of meaning and interpretations of his work would continue. We had worked on the outline and shape of the key to those mysteries. I will continue to point to the fact that although it is different for each person who pursues it, the key exists. And, as in all things, its significance lies just behind our inherent veils of illusion. *Next: Continuing the quest for meaning*Images: Keith Haring, Bill Jones Dance Poster (3 details), 1982Collection: TFD

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