Arts·Queeries

A love letter to Keith Haring and Derek Jarman, two of our great queer guardian angels

On the anniversary of their deaths, be inspired by the full and fearless lives these singular artists lived.

On the anniversary of their deaths, be inspired by the lives these fearless artists lived

Artists Keith Haring and Derek Jarman pictured in side by side photos.
Keith Haring in 1983 (left) and Derek Jarman in 1980. (Haring photo by STD/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Jarman photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images))

Queeries is a column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

On February 16, 2024, it will have been 34 years since we lost the great pop and street artist Keith Haring.

On February 19, 2024, it will have been 30 years since we lost the great filmmaker, painter and writer Derek Jarman.

Both men were extraordinary examples of how to live fully, creatively and prolifically as both  queer artists and people living with HIV. When complications from AIDS took their lives, they left us blueprints for how we can live ours. And — along with the great lyricist and playwright Howard Ashman, who I've already written about at length in a previous edition of his column — I have considered them guardian angels of sorts throughout trying to live mine.

Haring started receiving public attention in 1980 for his graffiti on New York City subways, with signature images including a radiant baby, large hearts, barking dogs and figures with televisions for heads. With his HIV diagnosis in 1987, he decided to confront the disease head on through his work. He utilized pieces to advocate for safe sex and generate awareness and activism, creating work more aggressively than ever before, even when he was in and out of the hospital. 

Keith Haring
Keith Haring's Ignorance=Fear, 1989 (The Keith Haring Foundation)

In the years since his death (in 1990, when he was just 31 years old), Haring's visual language has arguably evolved into the most instantly recognizable of any artist from the past 50 years. And Haring wouldn't have wanted it any other way: "art is for everybody" was his mantra.

Jarman was significantly less concerned about his art being for "everyone." All of his work possessed an anarchic spirit, which is what made him such a beacon of transgressive (and often quite controversial) queerness in cinema. His 1978 debut feature Sebastiane, for example, turned the life of Christian saint and martyr Saint Sebastian into a deeply homoerotic film with dialogue entirely in Latin.

When he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, Jarman decided to do something essentially unheard of for cultural figures in Margaret Thatcher's Britain: he lived openly as an HIV-positive person. He also interrogated his relationship to his condition in his work, perhaps most notably in his final film Blue. Released four months before his death, he made it after complications from AIDS had already rendered him partially blind, and only able to see in shades of blue. The film represents that by consisting of a single shot of a saturated blue colour that fills the screen as a voiceover featuring Jarman and several of his other long-time collaborators describe his life and vision.

"The clarity with which you offered up your life and the living of it, particularly since the epiphany — I can call it nothing less — of your illness was a genius stroke, not only of provocation, but of grace," actress Tilda Swinton wrote in a beautiful letter to Jarman in The Guardian years after his death. Swinton made her film debut in Jarman's 1986 film Caravaggio, and would star in all the subsequent films he would make before his death in 1994, at the age of 52.

Tilda Swinton in her debut performance in Derek Jarman's 1986 film Caravaggio.
Tilda Swinton in her debut performance in Derek Jarman's 1986 film Caravaggio. (Cinevista)

I belong to a generation of queer millennial men who came of age in the shadow of those devastating early years of the AIDS crisis that took both Jarman and Haring. We were children when the mainstream media was creating a dangerous and viciously homophobic hysteria around the disease in the 1980s and early 1990, the very hysteria Jarman and Haring were fighting against. 

For many of us (particularly those who, like me, grew up outside major urban centres), we became aware queer people existed not through Jarman and Haring's work (but what a dream that would have been!) but through that hysteria … and that absolutely trickled down into our impressionable little psyches. When we became old enough to start understanding our own queerness, considerable damage had been done. The discoveries of our sexualities often went hand in hand with a false assumption that we would die young because of it. And that — I can tell you first hand — really messes you up in all sorts of ways. 

For me, I had to actively recalibrate myself to undo my miseducation and truly embrace my queerness. And that came in no small part through my exposure to the life and work of both Haring and Jarman, both of whom I discovered by accident many years after they had passed.

In my teens, I became enamored with Swinton after I watched her film Orlando on "The Showcase Revue" (which showed incredibly well-curated, uncut cinema from around the world on Canadian television in the late 1990s and early 2000s: it changed my life — and I am definitely not alone). Making my way through the filmography of Swinton — a living queer guardian angel in her own right — would of course lead me to Jarman. I definitely did not initially comprehend what his films were expressing (or in some cases, what they were even about), but I knew that they were doing something radical and that I needed to keep watching. 

With Haring, it was an accident in the truest sense of the word. On a school trip to New York City in my last year of high school, I happened upon Pop Shop, the store Haring opened as an extension of his work in 1986 (it had continued to be run by his foundation after his death, though it unfortunately closed in 2005, just a couple years after I discovered it). I'm embarrassed to admit I had never even heard of Haring before I walked into that store, which was filled with t-shirts and posters representing his work. Still closeted at the time, I secretly bought a t-shirt depicting two of his iconic stick men embracing under a radiating heart. I hid it in my literal closet until the day I came out of my figurative one, and then wore it constantly after I did.

As I gained more and more access to their work into my twenties thanks to both moving to a big city and the growth of the internet, Haring and Jarman helped me unlearn everything growing up in a small town in the 1980s and 1990s made me internalize about being queer. Though it took me many years after that to fully comprehend what else they were offering me: an understanding of what queer resilience truly looks like. It's something I continue to look to as I forge on in a world that seems to desperately need the spirit and fearlessness of people like Haring and Jarman more than ever.

If you are in Toronto, you can currently see the work of Keith Haring at the Art Gallery of Ontario's show Keith Haring: Art is For Everybody, which runs until March 17th. You can also see Derek Jarman's Blue and Sebastiane on the big screen at the Paradise Theatre on February 14th and 21st, respectively, and find all of his films on various streaming platforms.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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