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Rules Writ Large

Keith Haring’s confounding Ten Commandments

Jenna Weissman Joselit
November 19, 2008

While the United States Supreme Court considers the fate of a Ten Commandments monument that hails from Pleasant Grove City, Utah, Keith Haring’s version of the ancient text has landed in Long Island City—where, for one month, ten monumental canvases have taken up residence at Deitch Studios. Before you head out to Queens and make your way down a lonely, deserted, uninviting stretch of urban landscape, and then past a chain link fence at the edge of the East River, know this: Haring’s Ten Commandments are unlike any Ten Commandments you’ve ever encountered at Hebrew school, in synagogue, on the grounds of the Texas state capitol, or in the pages of an illustrated Bible.

Installation view of The Ten Commandments

Roman numerals or wisps of Hebrew phrases are nowhere in evidence. Instead, Haring’s Ten Commandments constitute a heady brew of television sets, dollar signs, x’s, phalluses galore, and the artist’s characteristically faceless stick figures (what Ingrid Sischy calls his “unindividuated little people”). To put it bluntly, this ain’t your grandma’s version of the Ten Commandments, much less that of Cecil B. DeMille, whose filmic depictions of the Decalogue in his 1956 extravaganza, The Ten Commandments, made a point of hewing as close to the original as possible. Scrupulously faithful to history, DeMille’s two tablets not only featured proto-Caananite script but were actually cut from the red granite of Mount Sinai itself. Haring’s Commandments have no truck with the past. Sociology is more his game.

Haring’s acrylic canvases, each of which measures a whopping 17.5 feet by 25 feet, are playful in some instances and scathing in others; they’re decidedly homoerotic and downright mystifying. Like most Decalogues these days, they are also round-topped, but this visual detail has nothing at all to do with longstanding artistic protocol, and everything to do with the constraints of the initial commission by the Musee de l’art Contemporain in Bordeaux, where it was warmly received in 1985. Physical context, not aesthetic convention, dictated their form: each of the ten canvases was designed to fit snugly into the huge stone arches that define the museum’s central arena. But at the airy and unadorned Deitch Studios, where the work is now being exhibited for the very first time in the United States, no architectural elements contain them, save for a group of slender columns that punctuate the center of the gallery. Floating free and standing shoulder to shoulder, Haring’s massive, looming canvases march around the perimeter of an all-white room whose mighty dimensions put one in mind of a cathedral.

Like stained glass windows, Haring’s Ten Commandments light up the space even as a shared palette of defiant yellows and uncompromising reds unifies it. So, too, does their sequencing, which reportedly reproduces the order in which the commandments originally appeared in the Bible. You could have fooled me. If you try hard enough, you might be able to make out some degree of overlap between image and text. The first of Haring’s commandments, for instance, depicts a slew of serpents coming out of a figure’s mouth, which could correspond to what Christians take to be the very first commandment about having no other gods. You could also make the case that the tenth painting in the series—in which a giant outstretched hand dangles a large dollar bill before a pair of smaller grasping hands—relates to the prohibition against coveting. Otherwise, your guess is as good as mine.

Anything but literal, the artist’s take on the Decalogue confounds eight times out of ten. What in heaven’s name do two faces with phallic-shaped noses sucking on—what? a cross? genitalia?—have to do with the prohibition against bearing false witness? Here and elsewhere throughout the exhibition, you’re pretty much left to your own devices when it comes to figuring out how Haring’s canvases interpret the age-old constellation of dos and don’ts. What’s more, there’s no signage to ground visitors, to help them get their bearings and successfully relate text to image. That kind of intervention, I suppose, intrudes too much on the art.

All the same, for those gallery-goers in dire need of orientation, Deitch Studios does provide a laminated sheet of paper which contains two versions of the biblical text. One side bears the King James text; the other the more streamlined New International version. Eagerly, I consulted both the verso and the recto, flipping between them, as did a number of other visitors wearing cool glasses and knitted caps, and bearing the occasional skateboard. It didn’t help.

But perhaps that’s the point, after all. As the artist himself put it in a 1985 interview, “If you did not know that they are the Ten Commandments, you would probably read a different story.” Some say that Haring used the template of the Ten Commandments to challenge—and subvert—longstanding assumptions about capitalism, domesticity, and sexuality. Others suggest that in making his own version of the Decalogue, Haring took on the religious establishment with which he had an uneasy relationship at best. In his teenage years, the aspiring artist from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, had become deeply enamored of Jesus, only to reject organized religion, especially Christianity, with a vengeance as an adult. When seen from that frankly autobiographical perspective, Haring’s Ten Commandments might well be construed as an act of repudiation. Then again, maybe it’s an act of reclamation.

Whatever the artist’s intentions, his creation compels attention—so much so that Deitch Studios, I was told, has experienced more traffic than usual. Do people come out of curiosity? To pay homage to the artist? Or are they on a pilgrimage? Might their visit be construed as a demonstration of faith? It’s hard to say. Each generation has its own reasons for taking the commandments to heart and rendering them in highly specific visual terms. Americans who came of age in the Victorian era, determined to prettify the Ten Commandments and to render them a part of the nation’s domestic culture, festooned them with flowers and laurel leaves. Anxious about the future, postwar Americans sought reassurance in the sight of hefty stone monuments which they planted in the public square. As for us, especially those who take pride in a questioning, ironic sensibility, we seem to prefer a Ten Commandments that leaves just about everything to the imagination.

Jenna Weissman Joselit teaches American studies and modern Judaic studies at Princeton University and is at work on a cultural history of the Ten Commandments in modern America.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.