Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear
But as Haring (who had himself been diagnosed with AIDS) and his fellow activists knew, no one was actually talking about it, not meaningfully. The epidemic was exacerbated by shame, blame and ignorance. In 1987 Ronald Reagan gave his two cents on how to prevent the disease: “Don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?” In reality, no lessons were being taught. Many people believed that HIV could be contracted from a kiss, a cough, or even a toilet seat: fears that stigmatised suffers and contributed directly to the mishandling, by doctors and others, of the crisis. Religious organisations bawled that AIDS education amounted to promoting “immoral lifestyles” so governments and individuals stayed silent.
The solution was to make noise. ACT UP, a group of activists, coined the phrase “Silence = Death”, appropriating the pink triangle with which the Nazi regime marked homosexuals as a badge of pride. Their goal was to make as much noise as possible, and Haring joined the cause. Where his outline figures normally pulsate with life, marked out in cartoon vibrations of motion and emotion, here they seem to be shaking themselves to death in their quest to maintain their own and others’ ignorance. Like the three monkeys of myth, they see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. Precisely because of that, evil, in the shape of AIDS, is continuing its work. It is a bright poster, supremely alive, like all of Haring’s work. But it is also about facing death, something that Haring laconically described in an interview the same year as an “incredible education”. He died of AIDS-related complications less than a year later, but not before doing his best to share what he knew.
Keith Haring Tate Liverpool, until November 10th