Keith Haring. Is Art for Everyone?

10 minutes to read
Clara Daniels

Throughout his art career, one of Keith Haring’s main motivations was always to bring people together. His legacy started away from elite galleries with chalk drawings on blacked-out subway station posters in New York, later moving on to paint graffiti-style murals on walls and buildings. The statement “Art is for everyone” became a token of his participation in bringing together and expressing the struggles of marginalised groups such as people of colour or the LGBT community struggling under the emerging AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Yet his art style remains provocatively simple; stick figures and dynamic lines make their way over his urban canvases, through precise but playful brushstrokes while Haring would blast music for hours - rap for the outlines, classical tunes for colouring (Blöß, 2004, p.18).

The clashing of his child-like drawings and chaotic process with socially and politically important messaging is what brought him to complete projects all over the world from Japan to Europe but also within the US. One of these works is “CityKids Speak on Liberty” (1986). Working together with 1000 children, teenagers, and young adults from various social classes and backgrounds.

Haring created an enormous collaborative banner within just three days (Gruen, 1992, p.152). Even though, or exactly because, the graffiti style of Keith Haring is so public yet disruptive, it puts into question how this antagonistic can foster social cohesion. Who can claim art made by a collective in spaces shared by everyone?

"CityKids Speak on Liberty” Keith Haring, 1986

“Talkin' about freedom"

In collaboration with the CityKids foundation, Keith Haring created “CityKids Speak on Liberty” in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty (Gruen, 1992, p.152). Described as a “multicultural venture”, the foundation chose to focus on education outside of high school with a more predominant focus on the issues the youth of the time faced regarding city planning, school curricula, drugs and child abuse (Gruen, 1992, p.150). 

As it is self-run by the “Kids”, Haring saw this as the perfect opportunity to let their individual stories and perceptions of American freedom be heard and publicly displayed (Gruen, 1992, p.152). Keith Haring’s largest-ever project shows an outline of the Statue of Liberty on a 30x60 feet yellow banner in his distinct, cartoonish style, with a few figures visible at the bottom.

The elements, filled with smaller drawings and writing in paint, were added by "CityKids" in 45-minute intervals. Focusing on youths working on the project at a time, Haring noted “They do this with every painting technique imaginable” while remaining in the action, observing, and giving tips instead of standing on the sidelines. The finished piece hung up on a tall building under construction, revealed at a grand opening on July 4th, 1986, Independence Day, with CityKids, Keith Haring, and Yoko Ono among the guests. Since then, displayed worldwide, and last toured in 2022. Notably, it appeared as a backdrop, rising slowly at the 2002 Superbowl performance with Paul McCartney singing "Freedom".

Paul McCartney performing in front of the mural , 2002

Keith Haring: Activist Antagonism

Discussing Keith Haring’s work in terms of its people-focused and collaborative nature first requires a clear definition of what characterises participatory art. Beyond simply being interactive, Claire Bishop (2006) argues that it is a social form of artistic expression with an emphasis “on collaboration and the collective dimension of social experiences” (Bishop, 2006, p.10).

It thus also depends on an active audience willing to co-create the piece rather than just engaging with it, breaking down socio-political barriers and the implicit authority of author versus audience.

The three primary concerns of participatory art are active involvement through social awareness, a sense of authorship for the audience and forming a community around the piece (Bishop, 2006). Beyond the concrete walls of museums and galleries, participatory art often positions itself as a political form. It can be a social event, limited to a shared meal or interaction in a temporal space and therefore “relational” in its participation (Finkelpearl, 2014).

More prevalent in this case is a focus on defining participatory art as activist and antagonistic. Activist art follows the principle of forming communities under one political motivation with shared authorship over messaging and execution to promote positive change (Finkelpearl, 2014).

Antagonism follows a more deviant nature, allowing for pieces to provoke audiences to confront and play with power relations usually imposed on them in daily life (Finkelpearl, 2014). In either of these modes, the interactions that are promoted are seen as the key to participatory art. They do not function as separate entities but are often blended within art projects, depending on the political motivations and audience reactions.

A community-based art project such as “CityKids Speak on Liberty” is built from the artist’s starting point and then relies on audience participation to finish the piece. These “constructed situations”, create “collective environments” which make the audience voices the prominent point of the piece (Debord, 1957).  

“Liberty is Wobbly”

The ambiguity of the term “participatory” and the layers in which it can be experienced are illustrated by Keith Haring’s community-based project. Deemed as a collaborative piece with CityKids, its main participatory aspects seem to be focused on bringing people of different classes and marginalised backgrounds together, the way Bishop (2006) describes an "activated, co-authoring and social group" ready to express their perception of “American freedom” through collectivism.

Haring’s main function here as the “conductor” ties the situated experience together under his recognisable art style and name, providing a platform for voices which usually remain unheard.

Beyond this process of organising and creating “CityKids Speak on Liberty” (1986), its public display on a tall building in the middle of a busy city makes the piece almost performative. As every passer-by is forced to reflect on and react to what they are forcefully confronted with in Haring's art, they become complicit in the performance of it.

The publicity of his art not only serves as a provocation but is a mode Haring explicitly chose as his art needed to be “experienced by as many individuals as possible with as many individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached” (Pih, 2019).

More than a public painter, he saw himself as a “spokesperson for a new generation of Americans” (Pih, 2019) of his time, gravitating towards eye-to-eye social engagement and activism. This publicness necessitates a degree of de-authorisation (Bishop, 2006), which Haring willingly displays by giving up narrative control in “CityKids Speak on Liberty”.

Yet this work also inherently relies on antagonism through his political messaging and artistic practices. Going against the mainstream, the mural works without the intention to display it in a gallery but rather to hang it up on an inhabitable building, confronting an audience without their consent is the provocative and antagonistic approach (Finkelpearl, 2014) that made “CityKids Speak on Liberty” much more accessible to its creator but also a wider audience.

This goes hand in hand with Keith Haring’s philosophy that people outside of the art scene, especially those from marginalised groups lacking resources, capital, and access to it, “are open to art when it is open to them” (Pih, 2019). The meaning of an image is not constituted by its capacity but through the interaction with others (Pih, 2019), making participation more than just the by-product but the main material of artistic production. 

Keith Haring engaging with “CityKids”, 1986

Democratising art for everyone points to actively involving people in the process of creating it. In “CityKids Speak on Liberty” this is especially seen as the intimate thoughts and feelings of the youth are turned into a gigantic, collective political statement (Dujardin & Hemmes, 2019).

This is only elevated through the high accessibility Haring’s childlike style offers with its direct messaging (Phi, 2019). Yet beyond antagonism, the social project follows what Debord (1957) describes as “situationism”.

In a gamified fashion, the participatory project offers the audience the moral choice to make a decision, leaving a mark on the art piece that not only speaks for one's own opinion but contributes to the collective (Debord, 1957). About the Statue of Liberty, Keyonn Wright-Sheppard painted “without her: there’d be no me, no you, no liberty” onto the CityKids mural. With the statement itself already involving the community, the now-adult Keyonn claims that the project made him see that there was more for him at 16 than his everyday life (, n.d.).

With the mutual comfort and trust between Keith Haring and the participants, they made a collective piece that did not fuse into one indistinguishable blur but remained individual within and outside the initial frame (Kaprow, 1966).

Conceptualising a synthetic space for activist discourse, painting “CityKids Speak on Liberty” together in 1986 was far more than a collective or even plannable paint job but followed an initial layout which allowed for experimental expression, engagement, unity, activation and empowerment of a young participating audience (Debord, 1957).

Keyonn’s contribution to the mural

Together with political antagonism, this situationist art piece displays features of counterculture. Borrowing the style and mannerisms from graffiti culture, even Haring’s paintworks offer a demolition of norms and values with murals such as “Crack is Wack” and many phallic elements representative of LGBTQ+ and other minority struggles being part of his symbolic repertoire.

This vocabulary of visual elements and his conscious choice of urban canvases broke down common hierarchies within the visual culture (Dujardin & Hemmes, 2019).

The antagonistic activism of Keith Haring’s work can be described further as “subversive” (De Cauter in Dujardin & Hemmes, 2019). Deeper than just purposefully political, it positions murals such as “CityKids Speak on Liberty” as inherently political as a disruptive tool, opening new doors to deviance (Dujardin & Hemmes, 2019).

The art piece, made to commemorate the 100th anniversary is supporting an American identity it is simultaneously also heavily critiquing. Even though a symbol of peace and unity, Haring comments “Liberty is wobbly” (, n.d.), as an observer points out the elongated arm in his outlines, suggesting a certain awareness of the twisted narrative of American freedom and democracy for minority groups.

Using his platform to address socio-political issues and elevating the unheard voices of his time, Keith Haring turned the art of painting itself into a participatory, subversive practice (Dujardin & Hemmes, 2019) bringing together people and sparking change under his platform to bring about positive change in a provocative manner.

The Future of CityKids

Years later, after Keith Haring’s death and the initial CityKids long grown into adults, their collaborative project still finds participatory value today. Scanned in and digitally divided into many smaller squares, the banner can now be purchased as an NFT ( n.d.), translating it to the cultural economic logic of the 21st century.

This capitalist approach in connection to Keith Haring’s art is nothing new, as the artist himself sold his works as merchandise during his career in the 1980s and the CityKids foundation was sponsored by the fast-food chain Burger King (Gruen, 1992, p.150).

Yet beyond playing into popular culture, Haring’s works mainly enjoyed fame for their subversive way of tackling social issues while simultaneously promoting social cohesion. Seemingly contradictory, “CityKids Speak on Liberty” proves this as it brought people from many different backgrounds, that would usually not meet eye-to-eye, together to discuss their views on freedom during a time of massive global change.

As a situated piece, it also puts into question who takes over the role of the author for a piece so dependent on equal and individualised participation, even when relying on an organised score of 45-minute group intervals. Nevertheless, it flowed organically, proving that enabling the audience to become artists themselves did not take away from Keith Haring as a master of his craft. 

“CityKids Speak on Liberty” - original location


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Cordington, A. (1997) Keith’s Kids In. Sphere Magazine In. 

Debord, G. (1957) Towards a Situationist International, Artist's Writing

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