Radiant Eros: Keith Haring and Sexuality

“In the world of Oedipal sexuality there is no more wandering around freely and uniting amongst the organs, no interrelation of immediate pleasure. Now there is only one organ, one single sexual organ which stands in the center of the triangular Oedipal relationship as the One which assigns the three elements of the triangle their place. It is this One which accounts for the lack, which determines the despotic signifier (signifiant despotique, Deleuze and Guattari), through which various situations of the overall person develop. It is that complete and isolated object which plays the same role in the sexuality of our society as money plays in a capitalist economy: that of the fetish and the truly universal point of reference of all trade, in the one case economic and in the other of desire (…). “Sex” is, above all, a word for describing the phallus.”1

I do not know whether Keith Haring ever read Guy Hocquenghem’s essay Homosexual Desire from which this quotation is taken, or whether he knew of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus to which the essay referred. In addition, I doubt that the American artist was aware of the theoretical position of the European gay movement. Nevertheless, Haring’s work, analyzed today after a decent interval for reflection, appears to be very close to this liberal opinion of liberation and promesses de bonheur in general, which were current in the cultural and political life of the 1970s. Whether he was aware of this or not, the young artist from Kutztown in Pennsylvania revived these utopias, giving them new sense in the middle of the conservative rappels a I’ordre of the 1980s.

Haring’s innovative, and also politically progressive, strength will only be obvious to his age if the role which sexuality played in his work and in his imagination is taken into consideration; then it will be understood as a vital source of energy which found expression in his unique speech and established a particular philosophy of life.

One of his works, which he produced as a student in 1979 and which is dedicated to Kenny Scharf, is a sheet of graph paper which is divided along its length almost in the middle. Whilst the left-hand surface remains untouched, the right-hand side is completely filled with small marks, all exactly the same and executed with the greatest precision, which turn out to be a multitude of penises. That is quite enough to understand Haring’s stance regarding the sphere in which he began his work: the graph paper recalls the drawings of conceptual art or minimal art, to which the patterned paper covered with penises may be regarded literally as opposition, and conveys the playful and provocative spirit which breathes life into the artist. Even though he showed the greatest respect for the art which preceded his, nevertheless the young student at the School of Visual Arts in New York clearly liked to distance himself from it, and strove to produce more strongly inclusive work for a much less elitist, general public. The ironically treated pictures of sexuality (the same year also saw the appearance of a larger work on black paper in which the penises are aesthetically better executed, each with its small pink glans …) are the most immediate, supporting the climate of younger, anti-academic creativity and street art, with which he soon occupied himself. Short and good, the penis serves first and foremost to kill the father. And not only that.

The display of small penises in complicated, almost decorative patterns, following in the footsteps of Pierre Alechinsky, leads everything back to itself: the penis will once again be a penis, after it has been a phallus. Repetition, it could be said, destroys the despotic value of the signifier …

Let us turn once more to Guy Hocquenghem: “Society is phallocentric, since all society relationships are constructed like a hierarchy in which the transcendence of important signifiers is expressed. The schoolmaster, the general, the office boss, they are all examples of the Father-Phallus because everything is organized as a kind of pyramid in which the Oedipal signifier distributes the levels and the identifications. The body is geared up to the phallus just as society is geared up to the boss: whoever has no phallus but obeys his boss still belongs in the realm of the phallus. That is Oedipus’ triumph.”2

Haring also appears to describe a similar triumph. Let us look at his first drawings (1980-1982) which are incunabula of his main works with regard to their style and theme: a flying saucer emits beams of light which strike an erect penis, which then penetrates an animal, or they strike two men who are fellating each other. Everything that the rays touch becomes radiant itself and is described with the effective graphic speech of a comic. In addition, the radiant dog and the radiant penis are celebrated by the crowd; or the radiation strikes men with obvious erections; or else the penis is replaced by an equivalent, such as a snake or a pole which is used in an ambiguous way almost as a murder weapon by the small figures. It is true that the flying saucer also brings about a happy birth and that in one drawing from 1980 a vagina floats in the air. Nevertheless, the universe described by Haring, in which the future (the flying saucer). the present (the computer) and antiquity (the pyramids) coexist in a timeless world, is a phallocentric universe. In addition, his stylized human figures always portray masculine beings, even when he intends one to be a woman, as is the case later, for example, in the mural executed in 1989 in the Princess Grace Hospital in Monte Carlo. Here a large pregnant figure of a woman can be seen, which he drew in the same way as his masculine figures, though with a bulging stomach. Although the masculine figures are presented as almost neuter and without distinguishable features, in reality these forms of eroticizing are masculine.

Finally the phallus, which functions just as the carrier of meaning, is repeatedly the reason for and the distributor of multi-faceted meanings; these are the penis or its translations, the unearthly radiation which comes from heaven and brings restlessness to the world, which through a wonderful connection seems to be close to the psychotic delirium of President Schreber, who was also obsessed with divine rays and homosexuality, as Freud so strikingly interpreted it.

But conflict exists because Haring wants to overturn phallocracy. He wants at least to set the word, which has basically been instituted by the phallus, against the Babel of languages, where everything is mixed in development and all firm identities are lost, and, as already mentioned, the phallus loses its power and becomes a simple penis again, an organ of the body, which is therefore destined to provide bodily pleasure. In the work following Anti-Oedipus Hocquenghem has said that the artist considered the area of anality as a possibility for revolution linked to pure pleasure which resisted the well-ordered system (the “schizoid trend” instead of the paranoid standstill, etc.). To a certain extent this really was so: Haring’s homosexuality, obsessively and quite subversively given free rein, can be seen to confirm this.

Following Alechinsky in his confrontation of the language of comics and cartoons, Haring undertook the deconstruction of language which caused him first of all to contradict alilogocentric hypotheses, on the advice of Umberto Eco and other semiologists, and in accordance with the example of William Burroughs and the cut-up method. In this case sense was justified in a new way where the Logos defined an original sense. The deconstruction of language into phonemes, which he began as a student with speech-performances taken from videos, led to collages of photocopied newspaper headlines, which he stuck up on the walls of New York. People in authority such as the Pope and Ronald Reagan were attacked in them, with collages of daring phrases which were stronger than any political argument. Haring put nonsense in opposition to well-ordered discussion because nonsense is a direct threat to this. This recalls Jean Baudrillard’s observations on graffiti in the New York subway, that the city has always accepted wall paintings and other political and social appeals, which have never been censored by those in power; graffiti in particular had to suffer this fate and in fact therefore, because it had no content it had no precise meaning, so that it could not be adapted to any other message from the information system. This law is derived from a higher law, which controls our relationships and demands above all that we produce meanings, be it unquestionably the most critical, alternative or perverted one, the same way we produce goods. Goods that can be adapted to all the others, all equal within the “Societe du spectacle.”

Sometimes at least Haring and the graffiti artists worked outside this system and intended to create a language which refused adaptation as much as possible, a language that even saw itself as a source of friction in the great generator of drawings which the city constituted. A pictographic language which was neither exclusively verbal nor exclusively pictorial, and which produced words which were also just pictures and vice versa, was invented. Haring’s work arose via a constant rhythmic and visual repetition which was determined by the serial arrangement of the pictures and was emphasized via the sections of the walls or other surfaces in the form of panels and frames. This repetition created a narrative rhythm which distinguished his work from graffiti art. Graffiti art treated all surfaces, a wall, shutters or whatever, as identical spaces, whereas Haring showed a strong interest in the rules of communication, which he took from comics and popular art culture.

This is the origin of the pictorial scores in which the figures appear to be new hieroglyphs and recall their original function as writing, in which there is still a direct mythical semantic relationship between the word and the object. Haring’s anti-Oedipal revolt is also completed in the name of the original myth; his pictures often take on a “primitive” aspect (in Australia he was even accused of improperly using the Aborigines’ art culture in his murals) which combines well with the artistic and technological energy of his time. Whether archaic or technological, cultured or folksy, Haring’s language found its way into places of communication and had a disturbing effect on public discussion, whether in politics or advertising, culture or social communication. Whether drawn with chalk on black paper which covered the expired advertising posters in the subway stations, or painted on the walls of the city, on the walls inside bars and clubs, on tarpaulins or printed posters which he exhibited in art galleries and gave out at anti-nuclear demonstrations – his messages freely address political and social questions, as well as religious and moral taboos. And although on the one hand the Molochs of power appear in his work as monstrous figures with the bodily form of gigantic worms and heads like computers or televisions, and with huge jaws wide open for swallowing up or vomiting, perhaps also holding Bibles, with green snakes pouring out, on the other hand he exudes playful and vital energy and combines the themes of sexuality, and in particular male homosexuality, with an explicit directness which is rarely to be found in the language of contemporary art.

The expression “childlike”, which is frequently used to describe the emotional tone of Haring’s work, should be understood more precisely in Freud’s sense of a “polymorphic perversion”, because in this form sexual desire appeared in many portrayals, which he deliberately dedicated to this sphere of male life. With a rhetoric which touched on the grotesque, Haring gave back a sex both to those it was stolen from, for example Mickey Mouse and Pinocchio, and also to skeletons and other fantastic beings; with sensually over-heated emphasis he drew demonic scenery for us, in which monstrous figures subject the separate bodily orifices and any others to abuse, and devote themselves to diverse and simultaneous copulations, as though they were translated into our language from Flemish portrayals of the Last Judgment (without the punishment, however…).

Here we find a pansexual urge, which achieved utopian meaning, because he actually described the descent into the abyss of depersonalized and codified desires; these copulations with no physical laws or rules withdrew power once and for all, and converted it into values which were especially created from the liberation movements of the 1970s. Haring’s work is in a certain sense a new formulation of this desire, which in this instance resulted in energy and determination, precisely because nothing comparable had ever been found in the work of any other artist who found his inspiration in the same goals.

In contemporary art sexuality and homosexuality express themselves particularly through suffering, for example in body art and in the rituals of artists such as Gina Pane and Michel Journiac. In their performances desires are so negatively charged that they have to inflict bodily injuries and physical pain on themselves in order to express themselves in an attempt at actually overcoming those psychological traumas which were created by social and ideological restrictions. Later, homosexuality, and especially male homosexuality, expressed itself in art with the reinstatement of “camp” subculture which finally exhausted the aestheticism of painters such as Salome or Luciano Castelli, or that of Robert Mapplethorpe, who portrayed the crude rituals and stereotypes of sadomasochistic circles and the “leather scene” in his perfect photographs in the same way as his gentle calla lilies and tulips.

In all these means of expression drama is the common denominator: all the sexual acts described and evoked have a dramatic side, because, since they were experienced illicitly, they will always carry with them the feeling of guilt with which they were imagined, portrayed and executed. Furthermore, they refer to all those hopes in the common framework of cultural admonition, according to which individuals can only be led to knowledge of themselves and the world by suffering, either physical or moral.

It is homosexuality which embodies this universe in negatively orientated meanings, as a feeling of guilt and loss, and is suited to overcome mourning. Keith Haring is perhaps the first artist who has spoken about homosexuality (and thus sexuality in general) in a completely different way, by removing it from the subculture and the stereotypes, to which its mode of expression was linked. He even invented a new type of speech, and above all lent another framework to cultural relationships in accordance with which pleasure and free sensuality are the means to knowledge, not suffering and guilt. This great effort towards de-dramatization took place just at the time when the drama of the collective tragedy of Aids appeared. If the artists of body art internalized the guilt, then Haring turned it outwards and called it by its true name: political power, religious institutions, anti-sexual morals, phallocracy. The immunodeficiency of which he died did not weaken his positive and de-dramatizing energy. One of his last murals from 1989, which he painted for the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York, portrays bodies and organs of every size and proportion with perpetually happy, polymorphically perverted unions in a fluid and precise style, and in a general tone of over-exaggerated happiness, which is the most beautiful legacy which the artist has bequeathed us.


  1. Guy Hocquenghem, Homosexual Desire. London 1978. (originally Le Desir Homosexuel, Paris, 1972), p. 73.
  2. Hocquenghem (op. cit.), p. 74.