New Books From Simon Doonan, on Self-Help and Keith Haring

Are you an “emperor of camp” like Liberace, a burlesque queen living in “a satin upholstered jewelry box” like Dita von Teese, or so idiosyncratic that you belong among “the unclassifiables,” à la Phyllis Diller, who has a room dedicated to her wigs? It doesn’t matter, as long as your home is an aria of personal expression. Lack of money, he adds, should not be an obstacle, since, in aesthetic matters, it tends to be inversely proportional to taste.

THE PROBLEM with many self-help books is that they are gauzy and vague, their principles deracinated from any real-life examples. “How to Be Yourself” mostly avoids this common pitfall, as Mr. Doonan takes readers on an anthropological tour of people he admires and includes mini-histories of influential mentors.

Still, reading the second book Mr. Doonan recently published, “Keith Haring,” about the prolific late artist, underscores an idea I have long held to be true: Biography is the best self-help. The principles of living arise organically from the story of an exemplary life — or from a life that was not so exemplary. The lessons have not been detached from their origins.

In this slim volume, Mr. Doonan recounts the story of a driven young man from the small town of Kutztown, Pa., who drew compulsively from a young age, dropped out of commercial art school, and moved to New York City in 1978 “in search of intensity — sexual, professional, emotional, and artistic.”

Inspired by the graffiti movement, he started defacing public buildings and drawing his now famous cartoon iconography — the crawling baby, the dog, the flying pyramids, the dancing man — on vacant ad spaces in the subway. “Art,” he wrote in his journal, “is for everybody.”

In a few short years, he had gained a cult following, and by age 25, he was a world-famous pop artist in the vein of Andy Warhol. Like Mr. Warhol, he treated art as a business, and his Pop Shop, which he opened in 1986 out of an impulse to offer his art in the affordable form of T-shirts and buttons, was one of a kind.

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