The Alphabet of Keith Haring

My first summer in New York, Keith Haring’s yellow men seemed to be everywhere I went, especially on the Lower East Side and in Soho, where I spent most days. I hadn’t understood their appeal nor their meaning. At 19, I didn’t understand why this was considered such influential art. I was hanging out with club kids and skaters and street artists and I knew his work was important to them but I would never know why.

Twenty years later, I looked into Haring further, just ahead of an exhibition at the Albertina in Vienna and found a deeper meaning in his work than I could ever have read into back in the mid-90s, shortly after the artist’s death.

Perhaps most memorable of his figures were the yellow-colored outlines of people in movement, their arms and legs turned outward or raised to the sky in what looks like break dancing. These dancing characters appear over and over again in drawings, as do variations on a spiky-headed dog, a symbol that some considered Haring’s street tag, or signature.

Always interested in social activism, Haring turned a critical eye to subjects that were on everyone’s minds in the 1980s: apartheid in South Africa, the Cold War and the military-industrial complex, HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ rights. Although his drawings included no words to reflect his political beliefs, the symbolism Haring employed made transparent his feelings about the subjects: dollar signs representing the greed of the go-go decade or mushroom clouds reflecting the artist’s feelings toward nuclear disarmament. These overtly political statements helped the artist garner invitations to create work in cities across Europe, including a mural on the Berlin Wall.

Both a review of the astounding exhibition in Vienna and a glimpse at Haring’s biography, my response is over at Deutsche Welle’s culture page. What I didn’t get to mention — something I’d love to look into further in future — is how great a role fashion and the fashion industry has played in memorializing Haring’s work. And the way that his drawings appearing on accessories has made his art more accessible to the masses.

On Swearing (and Why Germans Love the F Word)

Perhaps one of the most shocking things about globalization has been how widely spread English swear words have become. The words that were banned from my mouth as a child are not censored out on the radio in Germany and as American culture infiltrates everything, they’ve made their way into the average German’s mouth without much appreciation of their meaning. I’ve always wondered why a billboard or advertising campaign here could use a curse without anyone blinking an eye. How in the world could a movie franchise include the F word in its title — albeit one intentionally mis-spelled as Fack — and be a hit? And what does that say about the people who keep that word in their mouth without recognizing its emotional impact? Am I prude for thinking I can keep it in my vocabulary (said under my breath, in the privacy of my home) while German school kids toss it around without thinking twice?

After a European office decided that even in its grammatically incorrect form, Fack Ju Goethe is a vulgar turn of phrase that cannot be trademarked, I talked to an expert on swearing, the scientist Emma Byrne, and found out *so many* interesting things about our perception of curses.

It depends on so many things — your age, gender, the culture that you grew up in. You internalize different taboos. In British English, blasphemy is hardly considered offensive any more unless you’re in your 60s and older. At the same time, for people in their 60s and above, things like the N-word aren’t anywhere near as offensive as people my age and younger consider them to be. So there is no universal standard of swearing; each and every person responds to swearing in a way that’s entirely determined by their upbringing.

Her book, “Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language” is now out in the US and it is an absolute gem. Get your hands on it if you can and learn more about why we bi-linguals revert to our native tongue to curse people out.

On Roxane Gay’s “Hunger”

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) BodyHunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. The very brief chapters, all focused on one particular aspect of the writer’s life and her relationship to her body, her weight, food, family and how they intertwine was a brilliant format for our attention-deprived age. Gay’s honesty, her concision, and her deftness at deciding which parts of her story she wants to tell — her control over the narrative — is a masterpiece for memoirists to model their own work on. More, please!

View all my reviews


The ways museums have tried to increase their visibility and use social media to their advantage in recent years is endlessly fascinating to me. One of the most original — and effective — global campaigns I’ve seen yet is the #MuseumSelfie so I wrote about it briefly on January 17 (now officially Museum Selfie Day):

What that selfie should look like is entirely up to the photographer; it can be a shot of a museum ticket stub, include artworks or dinosaur bones or shiny automobiles in the background, or show a person standing outside the museum’s entrance. The only caveat is to leave the selfie stick at home, as many museums have banned the device out of fear that they will disturb other visitors or might damage works of art.

The campaign also had me sorting through old photos in search of my very own #Museumselfie. I don’t have many — usually I’m too busy looking at the are. But I found this, a bleak and more somber image than most, but here I am at the El-De Haus in my hometown of Cologne, snapping myself in the midst of the memorial to those executed by the Gestapo in the courtyard of the former Gestapo headquarters. It’s bleak, I know. The memorial, though, was new at the time and it’s important for museums to pay homage to both the beauty in art and the ugliness in reality.

Achtung Baby: On German parenting

I’ve been waiting for years for someone to write about the German laissez faire style of parenting, and finally, Sara Zaske has. I got my hands on Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children and reviewed it for The Cut.

Ever since journalist Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébéhit the best-seller list by telling American moms and dads to stop hiring sitters and just take their toddlers along to fancy restaurants like Parisians do, a rush of cultural anthropology has taken over the parenting-advice industry. It seems like everyone all over the world has ideas on how to be a better parent and the general consensus is “parenting: Americans do it wrong.”

The latest in this series comes out of Germany, my adopted homeland …

Read more here….