May 13, 2013

A Continentalist in Paris: Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris Special Exhibit: Keith Haring

One of the largest Keith Haring exhibitions ever held focuses on the political dimension of his work - which indirectly addresses the role and responsibility of art in society.

Note: this article discusses mature topics and includes photographs of Haring's work - which is heavy on phallic and similar imagery.

I was first consciously exposed to Keith Haring through an exhibit I attended as a kid - I must have been in the 8 to 10 range. And though I was a relatively worldly child, I remember being shocked and disgusted at the man / dog bestiality drawings, partially since I don't think I'd ever encountered the concept of bestiality before.

I generally agree with the tenor of this article on a 2012 Keith Haring retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, which examines the dilemma of taking children to see provocative works by artists like Haring. Still, I took Lee along to see the special exhibit "Keith Haring: The Political Line" at Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (on until August 18, 2013), mostly because her babysitters (i.e. my sisters) were either coming along or had other plans. I was hoping that the sexual element of the drawings would go over her head, and that, given the political focus of the exhibit, there wouldn't be many pictures of this nature on display anyway.

Fortunately, this is just what happened: Lee was fascinated by the pop-artiness of the exhibit but completely missed the genitalia (or she just didn't find the pictures of flying phalli and the like especially interesting), and the one bestiality painting I saw was too high up for her to notice.

Taking the preschooler angle out of the equation, the exhibit is incredibly comprehensive. The curators have brought together some 220 of Haring's works, divided into eight sections. These are organized thematically rather than by date:

The individual against the state


Works in the public space

Religion and Mass media


Ecocide, nuclear threat, apocalypse

Last works: Sex, AIDS and death

The exhibition space is used effectively, and the introductory panels to each section - in French and English - are informative and concise. However, the extensive nature of the exhibit is also its downfall: there's a sameness about Haring's work, which makes many of the works somewhat indistinguishable (note that most of his pieces are "Untitled") and means that the divisions into separate categories seem arbitrary at times. The pieces themselves are accessible to the point that they have very little subtext, and I assume their shock value was a lot higher two decades ago. This Independent article touches on the contradiction of Haring wanting his art to be accessible while concurrently profiting from this accessibility by selling his works in pop-up stores.

I know I risk coming across as a one-trick pony since I frequently seem to discuss modern art from the viewpoint of simulacra in the age of mechanical reproduction in a democracy (see entries here and here). Still, the ease by which Keith Haring's work and other pop art can be reproduced (consider Warhol's Factory and its outputs) brings up some complicated questions on the nature and function of art, especially in the 21st century.

Perhaps of these reasons, my favorite piece was the painted yellow track in "Works in the public space" - it's purely a public piece of art which can liven up a dreary space out in the city which is definitely not fit for private display or consumption. Unless your living room can accommodate it.

And the 16th is lovely - I'm very grateful to my mother for showing me a nook next to the Palais Tokyo (where the museum is housed) which provides a perfect view over the Eiffel Tower.

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