Keith Haring on the Importance of Imagination in Art and Life

Alexxa Gotthardt
Sep 30, 2019 9:23PM

“People always ask me: ‘Where do you get all these ideas?’” Keith Haring mulled in a 1984 journal entry. “Information is coming from all kinds of sources, new sources every day…I digest [it], channel it through my own imagination, and put it back into the world.”

Haring was only 26 when he recorded these thoughts, but he’d already established a unique body of work and a vast fan base. Scrawled across subway stations and canvases, his fluid line paintings of radiant babies, barking dogs, and anthropomorphic TVs fascinated street kids and and the art establishment alike. They were symbols that coursed with life, radiated joy, and simultaneously made potent comments about sexual freedom, nuclear war, bigotry, AIDS, technology, and love. “I am continually trying to find new ways to bring these things into the world,” he continued in his journal, “and to expand the definition of what an ‘artist’ is.”

Haring often credited his innovative work to imagination, giving form to the term across his writings and interviews. In another page from his diary, written several months later in October 1984, he traced his imagination back to a relaxed mindset—one that allowed him to digest and remix the references that swirled around him in 1980s New York. “A lot of times images are simply born out of the need to do something different. Sometimes they come from consciously wanting to get some ideas across,” he wrote. “But often it just comes out of my imagination without trying to make it mean anything specific. The challenge is to be in a state of mind which allows spontaneity and chance while still maintaining a level of awareness which allows you to shape and control the image.”

In other words, imagination gave Haring space from everyday life to develop his own impressions and interpretations, while staying grounded in current social and political issues. In a 1992 biography by John Gruen, Haring’s close friend Madonna encapsulated this powerful duality: “From the very beginning there was a lot of innocence and a joy that was coupled with a brutal awareness of the world…I mean, you have these bold colors and those childlike figures and a lot of babies, but if you really look at those works closely, they’re really very powerful and really scary.”

This ability to fuse reality and fantasy, politics and playfulness, and pessimism and optimism set Haring apart from his artist peers. As historian Robert Farris Thompson described in the introduction to Haring’s published journals, “the richness and contrast of his work, babies and nuclear explosions, guys getting it on and angels swimming with the dolphins, a barking dog in the midst of technology, is unprecedented in twentieth-century art.”

It also endowed his paintings with with an almost universal appeal. In Haring’s estimation, his work was only successful if it engaged and inspired a broad audience—their imaginations were as essential to work as his own. “An artist putting as many images into the world as I am should be aware or try to understand what that means and how those images are absorbed or how they affect the world,” he explained in a 1985 interview. “I don’t think art is propaganda; it should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it.”

In a 1984 article in Flash Art, he gave even more agency to his viewers: “Art lives through the imaginations of the people who are seeing it. Without that contact, there is no art.”

And Haring didn’t only revere imagination as essential to art. For him, it was also a panacea for the ills of technology and war. In one of his journal’s most prescient lines—which feels especially relevant in today’s technology-obsessed society—he goes so far as to suggest that the future of humanity depends on it. “The human imagination cannot be programmed by a computer,” he asserted. “Our imagination is our greatest hope for survival.”

Alexxa Gotthardt