I pull ribbons from a drawer and offer them to my boyfriends. Their unique design folds rather than looping to economise on fabric. As we dress for the Basquiat | Haring: Crossing Lines opening at the National Gallery of Victoria, we debate its timing. It is World AIDS Day. I insist that it can’t be an accident. Surely, I say. Hours later, I lumber through the gift shop in a halogen induced stupor. This feeling stays with me for weeks which grow, like mould, into months. A novel coronavirus breaks the world. Still, I can’t identify the wound. In the shower and sitting at my desk, there’s a pulsing sting in my chest.
When Keith Haring painted the NGV’s glass facade in 1984, he used no preparatory drawings and made no mistakes. Every line is visceral. He dressed in a tank top of his own design, some paint-stained shorts and his trademark gold-rimmed glasses. The gallery director at the time claimed that the mural was a statement about how institutions value contemporary art. Haring said that it was about life and the things which threaten life. Either way, it proved too much for our delicate sensibilities, and someone smashed it with a brick a few weeks later.
Art confronts us with its claims to truth. The figure of a god or the portrait of a king says something about the world. If the conditions are ripe and we are good listeners, art speaks to us. A work of art has something holy about it, and we perceive its destruction as sacrilegious. Indeed, the word ‘vandalism’ was first used to protest the destruction of art. To destroy a work of art is to violate the world it protects.
This is obvious in the case of a brick being thrown through a window. Still, I think it is possible to transgress a work of art without physically annihilating it. The clever vandal does not need to touch the artefact to harm the people who live within the world it represents. Months after the fact, I realise that I live in a world embodied by Haring’s works. Many queers have an intimate connection with his oeuvre, not for the superficial reason that he is a famous gay artist, but because his symbols communicate our traditions.
Heterosexuals take it for granted that schools, churches and the state transmit their culture and norms. Queers have far fewer opportunities for transference between generations. We who are born in isolation must choose to acculturate, to seize the reigns of our history. The fact that so many of us grow up alone and find community much later in life, if at all, is what makes queer art precious. Sacred, even. I don’t mean to imply that all queer art is good or that any art is beyond critique, Haring included. Only that we treasure it.
The three of us walk through the show, whispering like we’re walking through a cemetery. In this consecrated space, the works glow like stained glass windows. The giant white mosquitoes swatted squarely on the wall drone on. I read each label as if they are contracts. They note, precisely once, that Haring died of AIDS-related complications. The word ‘queer’ appears only in reference to a club; the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ do not appear at all. A nagging feeling rests on the edge between the blades of my shoulders.
One little white satellite ignores a visible dedication to one of Haring’s lovers. Another designates his poem ‘lick fat boys’ a procedural experiment with no further subtext. A satire of Ronald Reagan doesn’t merit comment, nor does the sole phallic work in the collection. ‘The subject matter of many of my drawings was completely phallic,’ Haring said, ‘It was a way of asserting my sexuality and forcing people to deal with it.’ One expects signage to read like nutritional information on a condiment sachet, but not to reduce art to mere curiosities which hold no significance for the spectator.
As we press on the sensation sharpens to a razor edge. It is the sense of being excised, the experience of being pushed out of the temple and landing on its steps. The religious metaphor is appropriate: in Middle English, the term ‘curator’ refers to an ecclesiastical pastor. Curators are not simply the custodians of expensive fine art but the keepers of worlds. Haring understood this. ‘It’s frightening how much power curators have,’ he said, ‘People like that have enough power to write you out of history.’
There is no art without politics and no politics without power. The gallery is a political institution par excellence. The NGV’s influence reaches many people, but, in the inner sanctum, whose prayers are heard and whose idols profaned? I wonder if it comes down to individual beliefs or a commercial decision to make Haring palatable to audiences with ‘family values’. Two ends of the same pillar, really. Who performed the action and whom for? The answer is the same.
‘You couldn’t go to the post office or the grocery store without cruising or without being cruised,’ Haring said, remembering his first months in New York. American poet John Giorno recalls cruising Haring in some subway toilets: ‘He was making love with great energy and focus, affection and delight… the guy’s heart was pouring love and I went with the flow. He sucked my cock, with his eyes looking up into mine.’ Too vulgar for the temple wall. Cut it out and, with a flick of your wrist, discard it as you would disembowel a fish.
The ghost of the curator haunts the space. You walk with their body, see through their eyes. This sight should reveal things you otherwise would have missed. But such authority, inexpertly wielded, is a kind of surgical violence. I can’t help but think that people are better off visiting Haring’s Collingwood mural or cruising anonymous graffiti in bathroom stalls. At least these maintain the radical quality of an artist who once declared that ‘art is for everybody’. Fragile, free and open to all.
Most reviews focus on Haring, but Basquiat isn’t treated with kindness either. His hagiography at the opening of the exhibit explains that he grew up in a ‘racially divided’ America. ‘Divided’ as if in mutual disagreement and not white-ruled apartheid. In one piece Basquiat writes: ‘OK: SO WE DID SUPPRESS THIER [sic] TAR ROOF / TAR ROOF / TARROOF’. White Americans used slave labour, and later black prison labour, to tar roofs and ships. The label volunteers that the work is about the ‘racial complexity’ of an ‘inner-city context’. I don’t know what this means.
It is difficult to shrug off other cavities where history should sit. There is no mention of Basquiat’s heroin overdose. His peers attributed his drug use to exploitation in the white-dominated art industry. The omission feels like a self- interested whitewash on the part of the gallery. ‘I scratch out and erase,’ Basquiat once admitted, ‘But never so much that they don’t know what was there’. What does it mean to scratch out so much the audience doesn’t know who was there?
The coup de grâce comes, decisively, in the gift shop. I flip the tag on a shirt emblazoned with Basquiat’s famed ‘Beat Bop’ cover. Made in Honduras. Honduras, where white companies use child and forced labour. I think of women exposed to toxic chemicals and workers paid less than a liveable wage. More than half of the textile workers in Honduras suffer from muscle disorders due to poor working conditions. The perversity of stitching Basquiat into the systems of capitalism and colonialism merits its own essay by someone more qualified than myself.
So, the gallery wants clout for showing risqué work but doesn’t care for the risk. The history of the colony, the slave, the family, sex, death, kinship and struggle boils down to the platitude that the artists ‘engaged in political issues’. Economic and cultural capital accrue to the gallery, the curators get a feather in their cap. Queers, people of colour, and other boogeymen sit outside the sanctuary, the doors closed to them.
Later, one or two critical reviews hit home, or else someone with influence whispers into someone’s ear. The NGV relents, importing additional Haring works and rewriting the labels. My partner and I visit the exhibition a second time. The curators concede his homosexuality and life with HIV/AIDS, and the name of his lover appears on a label. The sexless, sanitised encounter remains the same. I don’t notice any changes for Basquiat.
I don’t know what I hope to accomplish by writing this, one more essay against the reproduction of compulsory heterosexuality and white hegemony. Possibly I want to lay claim to the works, a vain attempt to place them in their proper context. I keep coming back to the living communities alienated from their heritage, the wasted opportunity for art to confront power with truth. I buy a print of Basquiat’s Irony of a Negro Policeman, a mass-produced memento of the experience. I look at it often and chew the ethical cud of institutional complicity. My jacket hangs on the door, a red ribbon pinned on the breast pocket.
Joshua Badge is a queer philosopher and writer living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne. They tweet @joshuabadge.