The Broader Picture: Of mice and mass media

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The Independent Culture
ANDREW WARHOLA and Mickey Mouse were born in the same year, 1928. Keith Haring was born 30 years later, and 20 years after that he had his first solo exhibition in Pittsburgh - where Andy Warhol was born. So far so good for the thesis put forward by a new book and touring exhibition (badges, T-shirts, mugs, pencils, tea-towels, carrier- bags . . . ) that links America's three cartoon giants.

For all of them, easily reproducible art had its advantages (though Disney didn't do any of the drawing himself). Mickey was purposely constructed out of a series of circles (try it) to facilitate animation that required 24 drawings a second. Warhol's screen prints, taken from a photograph and reproduced on canvas, provided him with a system of instant portraiture which had the patina of a painting and the slight discrepancies that gave each print its individuality. For Keith Haring, the most prolific and financially successful of the Eighties school of graffiti artists, reproducibility - at speed - was of the essence: most of the skill of being a graffiti artist was the rapid application of the ubiquitous 'tag' all over Manhattan. Part of the thrill was risking prosecution if you were caught.

Haring and Warhol met in 1983 and kept in close touch, collaborating on some works until Warhol's death in 1987. Warhol, like Disney, had already given up his own involvement in the artwork. He said, doubtless in that slow, neutral monotone: 'I think somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me.' This didn't mean he felt any qualms about charging as much as if he'd done them himself. If most painters relied on a unique style to make them famous, Warhol, by contrast, relied on the thoroughly tested advertising ploy of fame by repetition.

For Disney and Haring, a simple line drawing was the key to their ability to reach people on a massive scale. Haring liked the fact that his art could be made cheaply. He made money from it, sure, but when he opened his Pop Shop in New York in 1986 (badges, T-shirts, mugs, inflatable babies, refrigerator stickers, etc . . . ), it was a blatant thumbing of his nose at the idea that 'art' was the preserve of a rich elite. This doesn't mean that his drawings and paintings aren't collected in museums or dealt by dealers. But the concept of a Haring 'original' is even more suspect than a personally executed Warhol.

Haring put his art to work. His death from Aids in 1990 followed a mission of billboard campaigns for the Aids awareness group Act Up and other charities. His little icons - childlike figures surrounded by a halo of the stellar marks cartoonists use to denote chirpiness - have passed into the popular culture of the late 20th century.

Both Haring and Warhol loved Mickey Mouse and drew him in various guises. Warhol gave him the same celebrity treatment as Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. He was, after all, arguably more famous than either. Haring deftly merged his two cartoon mentors together in a colourful little dollar-crazy chap called 'Andy Mouse'. If it was a sideswipe at Warhol's opportunistic pricing, it was an ironic one. What all these three certainly have in common is dollars. And T-shirts. But if the estates of Warhol and Haring earn a pretty sum, the kingdom of Walt Disney probably generates more revenue than our own. Liz Jobey

'Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Walt Disney' is published by Prestel on 20 July, pounds 28.50. The touring exhibition is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, until 15 August.

(Photographs omitted)