‘Dogs of the world unite’: Keith Haring and New York’s queer canine imaginary

Speaker: Dr Fiona Anderson (Senior Lecturer, Art History, Fine Art department, Newcastle University)

Fran Lee

For as long as there were radiant babies, there were barking dogs. Dogs and dog-human hybrids feature prominently in Keith Haring’s subway drawings, and in collages, sketches, and badge designs made after Haring moved to New York in 1978. While his dogs are often interpreted as universal symbols of resistance and protection, barking to call out general social injustice, the politically-charged status of both dogs and gay men in New York City in this period suggests that something more complex, and geographically and culturally specific, is at play in Haring’s use of canine imagery. Public anxiety about the number of dogs in New York City, and their potential for spreading disease and disorder, exploded in the 1970s, fuelled by racism, sanitation strikes, and gentrificationPublic health campaigns in the city advocated for taxes for dog owners and for citizens to clean up after their dogs or face steep fines. Dog waste activist Fran Lee urged New Yorkers to think of ‘children before dogs’The heteronormative subtext of Lee’s campaign was not lost on many queer New Yorkers; it echoed contemporaneous homophobic public discourse around gay sex and venereal disease, sparked by the increasing visibility of gay liberation movements. This fear of contagion preceded the AIDS epidemic, but informed public anxiety about that later crisis. At the same time, urban animal imagery, including work with dogs, was appearing in several downtown New York artists, including David Wojnarowicz, Jenny Holzer, and Martin Wong. Their dogs were queer emblems of resistanceplaying with and challenging this dominant narrative of fear and contagion. Reading Haring’s canine work in this cultural and critical context, this talk explores what this proliferating dog imagery can tell us about queer desire and urban alienation, the brutal dehumanisation of queer people in the city in this period, and the imaginative modes of kinship that it produced. 

Dr Fiona Anderson is Senior Lecturer in Art History in the Fine Art department at Newcastle University. Her work explores LGBTQ+ social and sexual cultures and art from the 1970s to the present with a particular interest in gentrification, preservation, and the politics of urban space, mostly in the USA and the UK. She is the author of Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront (University of Chicago Press, 2019). From 2016-2019, she was UK PI for ​Cruising the Seventies: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures (CRUSEV), a collaborative research project which explored LGBTQ social and sexual cultures of the 1970s and their significance for LGBTQ+ people and queer artmaking across Europe in the present.

Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld)