NGV: Kate Seear presents on Haring, Basquiat and the politics of death

On Friday March 13, DruGS program team members Associate Professor Kate Seear and Professor Suzanne Fraser took part in La Trobe University’s Bold Thinking Public Lecture Series at the the National Gallery of Victoria. The public lecture, delivered by Kate, responded to the NGV’s current exhibition Haring Basquiat, finding much to discuss of relevance to the program’s focus on drug use, gender and sexuality. Kate was introduced by Suzanne, and her talk is reproduced below.

Basquit, Haring and the politics of death

I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and to acknowledge elders past, present and emerging.

I’m really delighted to be talking to you all tonight about the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring: two artists whose lives and work intersected in many ways. Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, I want to talk about another kind of intersection, involving disease and death. I also want to briefly reflect on the ongoing significance of this intersection, three decades after both artists died: Haring, of AIDS-related illness, aged just 31, and Basquiat, of drug overdose, aged only 27.

Now, as you look at the art here tonight, you will see that Basquiat and Haring shared something important in their work; a concern with marginalised and stigmatised people; with those who were ‘Other’. We can see these themes reflected in many of the pieces on display here. Their work examines race and racism; slavery; capitalism and exploitation; violence; sexuality and discrimination; the HIV/AIDS epidemic; poverty, famine and war. Especially important is the way that both artists grappled with the social, political and structural forces that shaped disease and death.

For instance, this piece to my left examines the threat of nuclear war. It utilises the typical visual language of Haring: the radiant baby symbolising purity and hope, the dogs symbolising power and violence and angels symbolising death. It is just one example of Haring’s frequent political commentary on violence, oppression and authoritarianism. His activism extended to other topics including, most notably, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. You will soon pass by some of these works. Haring’s visual language is again on display. He used dots to represent people who had been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. This was an issue of special importance to Haring; as an openly gay man living through the 80s AIDS epidemic, he lived through the deaths of many close friends and lovers.

Violence and marginalisation was a theme in much of Basquiat’s work, too. A classic example is his painting Defacement. Not on display at the NGV on this occasion, it was recently exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York. It tells the story of Michael Stewart, a 25-year-old black graffiti artist, apprehended by police on the New York subway in September, 1983. Witnesses said that Stewart’s apprehension was brutal, while police claimed he had simply fallen while trying to escape. Either way, Stewart required hospitalisation and a few days later, was dead. The three white police officers who arrested him were tried but acquitted. Basquiat, deeply affected by the incident, said “It could have been me”. Defacement became one of his most personal and powerful works. A commentary on how black lives matter – or don’t – decades before the Black Lives Matter movement. You will see another of Basquiat’s commentaries on race, policing and power towards the end of this exhibition. It’s called “Irony of a negro policeman”.

Haring was also deeply affected by the death of Michael Stewart and produced his own response; a visceral, shocking work, dominated by the figure of Stewart being strangled and beaten. The painting contains the figures of three other people, covering their eyes, wilfully blind to the ongoing legacies of racism and white supremacy in the United States. These works reflect both artists’ acute sensitivity towards the lives of marginalised people, and their concern with the way that some bodies are more dispensable, more vulnerable, less human, than others.  

Some establishment art critics misunderstood these works or dismissed them as unsophisticated. Most famously, the Australian art critic Robert Hughes called them “Jean Michael Basketcase” and “Keith Boring”, respectively. When Basquiat died, Hughes wrote a “requiem for a featherweight”, claiming that Basquiat would be quickly forgotten. This was emblematic of a tendency among white scholars to view Basquiat’s work, in particular, through a white, Eurocentric, gaze. In a famous essay on Basquiat’s legacy, the black feminist scholar bell hooks instead described Basquiat’s work as ‘engaged in an extended artistic elaboration of a politics of dehumanization’. hooks believed that Basquiat’s art was often deliberately ‘grotesque’. He took things traditionally depicted as beautiful and demanded instead that we acknowledge the brutal realities throughout society, including the treatment of black bodies.

In one of his final journal entries, Haring wrote: “Nobody can escape death”. Yes, death is inescapable, but both artists saw it as apolitical. Each recognised health, disease and death as intrinsically social processes. It is, I think, one of the most important and valuable lessons of their art.

Wandering around this exhibition, I keep thinking of the work of the American feminist philosopher Judith Butler. She argues that we don’t grieve all lives in the same way. Some deaths are felt deeply and grieved publicly, while other deaths are ignored altogether. When thinking about all of this, Butler asks: ‘Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?’ A key point of her work is that how we remember people in death is important; it tells us something about who and what we value in life; about who counts as human and who does not.

I like to think about the work of Basquiat and Haring through this lens; as political interventions on the causes of death and disease, on the one hand, and as works that command us to experience and reflect on grief or its lack, on the other. They ask us to reflect on the lives of others, those often forgotten, stigmatised or marginalised, and they ask us to remember, memorialise and to grieve them. In doing so, we are asked to reflect on who counts as human, which lives count as lives, and what makes for a grievable life.

It is a shame, given this, that much of the public commentary surrounding their own deaths has been so problematic.

In the aftermath of Basquiat’s death, many people said they weren’t surprised; that it was inevitable. In essays and biographies, Basquiat is often described as ‘self-destructive’ and his demise romanticised, as if he was destined to shine brightly, burn out, and die young. This also obscures the forces that shape overdose deaths, including the legacy of the war on drugs, the lack of drug treatment services for those who want them and gaps in harm reduction services such as supervised injecting facilities. A drug overdose death is not inevitable but shaped by these forces. This remains a critically important legal, political and social problem three decades on. In the USA and Canada, drug overdose deaths have soared in the last 3 years. This has driven a decline in the overall life expectancy of both nations, a phenomenon usually only seen in times of war. In Australia, the rate of overdose death has more than doubled in the past 10 years. What might Basquiat have made about a seeming indifference to these lives?

Haring once described himself as a prime candidate for AIDS, noting that once his former lover became sick with AIDS-related illness ‘It became apparent to me that of course, I’d eventually get sick too’. But Haring’s seemingly fatalistic view of HIV/AIDS and death makes some sense when viewed through the lens of the time. When Haring was diagnosed, in 1988, HIV was still deeply misunderstood. In Ronald Reagan’s America, his advisors openly laughed about the so called ‘gay plague’, and were slow to action. It was a period of profound stigma and discrimination among people diagnosed with HIV, marked by fears of contagion, and by a belief that people who got the disease somehow deserved it. As he was dying, Haring sat down for an extended interview about the disease in a bid to shed light on all of this. He said:

AIDS has made it even harder for people to accept, because homosexuality has been made to be synonymous with death. It’s a justifiable fright with people that are just totally uninformed and therefore ignorant. Now it means that you’re a potential harborer of death. That’s why it is so important for people to know what AIDS is and what it isn’t. 

More than 32 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses since the early 1980s. Almost 40 million people live with HIV today. Treatments have improved, but there are still major inequalities in access. Stigma and discrimination continue to be major barriers to testing, prevention and treatment. These structural, political, social and legal factors continue to shape the scale and form of the epidemic, and make HIV transmission and death anything but inevitable.

I wonder how Haring and Basquiat would feel about the ways their own deaths have been politicised, and how they might reflect on the ongoing politics of HIV and drug overdoses. I suspect both artists would have much to say. Both of them acknowledged that who dies, and under what circumstances, is inescapably political. I invite you to reflect on their concerns in the remainder of the exhibition, and especially as you come to my favourite piece here – Haring’s stunning tribute to Basquiat, which you will encounter in the final room.