IT'S FUNNY. I liked Keith Haring's art better when I first stumbled upon his chalk-on-signboard drawings in the bowels of New York's subway system, way back in the early 1980s. They had a little bit of an edge but were still accessible -- enigmatic but cuddly cartoon creations that raised more questions than they answered. What do they mean? Who made them? Is this legal?
Now I wear a T-shirt with one of his signature barking dogs on it -- a knockoff, no less, and not one of his authorized Pop Shop products -- when I read my son one of Haring's children's books at bedtime. Well, not so much anymore. My son, who's almost 6, has outgrown it.
So have I, I think, when it comes to Haring's now ubiquitous imagery, which no longer feels quite as wild as it used to, except as the word is used as a marketing term (as in "now available in seven wild new colors").
Still, I have to admit I felt a little bit of that old frisson the other day when I saw one of Haring's graffiti doodles, complete with what looks like the original battered metal subway advertising frame still attached. It's part of "Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture," a large and appropriately boisterous survey of what might be called gonzo art that Baltimore's Contemporary Museum is showing in three successive parts this summer. "Painting, Sculpture and Installation Art" runs to July 30; "Photography and Video" Aug. 5 through Sept. 3; and "Design and Ephemera" Sept. 9 to 24.
Just one day after my trip to Baltimore, I felt a twinge of disappointment when I ran into Haring's work again, this time as a print mounted in an expensive-looking frame and put on display as part of Provisions Library's "Change Methods: Hip-Hop, Social Change and Global Influences." The smaller, but more politically minded show coincides with the local Hip-Hop Theater Festival, running through Saturday at the Studio Theatre and other area venues (www.hiphoptheaterfest.org). In the context of the gallery, however, Haring's work seems somehow domesticated.
Not so the work of Packard Jennings, aka Michael Durham, whose work at Provisions consists of three prototypes for a series of "Fallen Rapper" Pez candy dispensers memorializing the late entertainers Biggie Smalls, Easy-E and Tupac Shakur. Prickly yet wry in their poking at the status quo, they're accompanied by Jennings's abortive correspondence with a public relations staffer at the candy company, who politely but firmly rejects the artist's proposal as inappropriate for children.
While there is some outstanding art in each exhibition -- painter Kehinde Wiley's Old-Master-sampling portrait of a young African American man at Provisions, for instance, and Mike Mills's dryly surreal video clips at the Contemporary -- the most salient feature of each is the way in which it forces the question of whether you can still bite the hand that feeds you after you're fat and happy.
In other words, is it possible to go against the grain, as so many of these artists profess to want to do, when you yourself become part of the grain?
"Beautiful Losers" asks this question most directly. It's couched in its very title, which suggests the contradiction between aesthetic acceptance (that's the "beautiful" part) and outsider (as in "loser") status. It's the same issue that comes up with hip-hop artists who are worried about "keeping it real" for their fans once they've become multimillionaires.
In fine art terms, once something finds its way into the mainstream (i.e., the museum or gallery), does it lose its revolutionary credentials? What happens to art that was born as a disruption of the paradigm -- as with the graffiti alterations of advertising posters by the artist known as KAWS -- when disruption itself becomes the paradigm?
Do we stop looking at the impressionists because their work is no longer considered radical, but suitable for decorating coffee mugs?
I, and I think most art historians, would say no.
Look around at the iconography on view at Provisions (which, among other things, includes a brief history of commercial rap album cover art) and at the Contemporary Museum (whose artists appropriate, and throw into a blender, cartoon imagery, advertising logos, graffiti, tattoo design and the often deliberately inept rendering of the art student aping the outsider) and you'll see just how much of what was once transgressive is now tame. What once was young and full of sap can start to feel old and desiccated.
Not all of it, but some.
But isn't that how critiques of the dominant culture are made, from the outside in? As both shows make clear, if you want to keep it real, you don't stop banging on doors after the people inside open up and find you a seat at the table. You -- or more likely your kids -- just go looking for another barrier to break down.
BEAUTIFUL LOSERS: CONTEMPORARY ART AND STREET CULTURE -- Through Sept. 24 at the Contemporary Museum, 100 W. Centre St., Baltimore. 410-783-5720. www.contemporary.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday noon to 5; Thursdays until 7. A one-time charge of $7 ($5 for students and seniors) allows access to all three parts of the exhibition.
CHANGE METHODS: HIP-HOP, SOCIAL CHANGE AND GLOBAL INFLUENCES -- Through Aug. 14 at Provisions Library, 1611 Connecticut Ave. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-299-0460. www.provisionslibrary.org. Open Wednesday-Friday noon to 7; Saturdays and Sundays noon to 5. Free.
Public programs associated with the "Change Methods" exhibition include:
Saturday at 3 -- Panel discussion: "Hip-Hop Arts and Activism: What's the Connection?" Registration required. Call 202-299-0460.
Wednesday at 7 -- Film screening: "Just to Get a Rep."
July 27 at 7 -- Film screening: "Nobody Knows My Name."
Aug. 3 at 7 -- Film screening: "Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop."
Aug. 10 at 7 -- Film screening: "Style Wars" and "Wild Style."