New York Magazine, I♥NY, 60s psychedelia, postmodernism, and American design. Milton Glaser's articulate work has stayed in constant dialogue with the changing times, in turn transforming the contemporary moment itself. Unceasingly integrated in the now, he has extended his reach to up-and-coming designers in teaching at New York's School of Visual Arts where students have had the outstanding opportunity to study with a man so in control of his tools. As fellow professor Steven Heller put it in the brilliant documentary Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight (2008), "Because the world itself, this small world, is so interested in design, design becomes this Esperanto. Milton speaks the Esperanto well." In search of some Glaserian wisdom for the Bluecanvas community, I sat down with the great to solicit his views of how to continue promoting design as a cultural value that provides a public service in 2011.
Margarita Korol: At a time of popular feelings of powerlessness and malaise in regards to politics and international trends that benefit systems in power over the public good, artists are equipped with tools of communication with which they can do something on behalf of ideas. Can you provide some insight as to the power and responsibilities up-and-coming artists have as their art enters a dialogue with the world around them?
Milton Glaser: Responding to your question, because it is so cosmic and so broad in its implications, starts with some of its own questions: What is an artist, to begin with? Is there such a thing as a real artist and a fake artist, an authentic artist an inauthentic artist? What are the criteria by which we judge an artist or artistry? What is the role of art in culture? How can you separate artifact from art?
There is a funny quote recently about inspiration, somebody asked Chuck Close about it and they said, "What inspires you?" He said that real artists don't deal with inspiration, they just turn up. And I thought, that whole question about what is an artist and what isn't an artist becomes a very complex one.
My own definition of art is that it is a survival device, that it is a device to help the human species to survive. If it were not, it would not have persisted so long in human culture. So you ask the question, well what is it that artists do that helps the culture survive, or what can it do? And all it can do, in my judgment, is make you attentive. Art is like a meditation, which is that in the presence of art, you become more aware of what is real. And that distinction between what is illusion and what is real is a very necessary distinction in human experience. So we can say the role of artist in society is to help people define what is real and to help rid them of their preconceptions of reality which are often wrong.
MK: So allowing the population to ask questions that were not asked previously, that's one way that artists inform. In the scope of 2011 and current affairs in America and internationally, are there specific applications of this that would facilitate service to the public good like the work you did in the 60s and 70s engaging social issues while in turn assigning design as a cultural value?
MG: Yeah, but that's a big responsibility to provide a new way of thinking. But again, the question then, is to change existing beliefs when they are erroneous. But you cannot have the arrogance to believe that your beliefs are correct and others are not. So all you can do is help in this evaluation, to present what you believe and encourage people to stop believing so much. I mean belief is the closing of the mind. So what people believe, and the role of artists in recent times in say, the last couple hundred of years, has been to disrupt people's perceptions or beliefs by offering alternative ideas. Right? So the great revolutions in art that occurred at the turn of the century, occurred in Russia, and occurred in the United States and then some were all about challenging the assumption of, in this case what art is, but it wasn't important what art was, what was important was what is reality? What is real? What is credibility? What can you believe in? And the end of that question is that you should believe in very little and try to find out what not to believe.
MK: And so what not to believe in right now?
MG: Well, first you have to understand the nature of power itself as a form. And people who have power are always diminished or changed by it. And therefore, sources of power always have to be challenged or modified. The question is what is the best challenge to power that exists? Right? And how do you effectively change existing conditions without either putting the culture in jeopardy, without hurting people, without—it's a complex system.
But fundamentally, the role of art is to provide an alternative vision of what is real.
Now, there is a real political issue in the United States about the economics of the country, and it's where most people are being affected. So, I think, and I've always thought, that art has to assume some political role, and by that I mean some response to power. And I think artists have to be on the side of what is right in addition to what is true, and sometimes other things altogether. But it's very hard to then determine a non-ideological response, because you can be as stupid as your opposite. I think now more than anything else, artists must engage the political issues of our time. They cannot be isolated. They cannot feel separate from the culture. They have to realize that they are part of the system and they have to voice an alternative view. Their role basically is to offer alternatives. MK: Would you view that as a responsibility?
MG: Well, if you believe that being part of your time is a responsibility, yes. If you are of the notion that people should participate in their times in their community, in their city, in their country. If participation is a human responsibility, yes. But, that may not be your belief. And for some people, they're not good at it. As you know, artists perform better in isolation by themselves, their vision of life is not easily transmittable, and so they do their work and their work becomes the source of understanding. And so even when people don't participate necessarily on the picket line or march, the work itself remains a vehicle of transformation. So the main thing is, do your work.
MK: Do your work. And, how could artists do work toward promoting a more humanist philosophy in a diverse and challenging system without moving to New York?
MG: Someone once said that a teacher affects more by what they are than what they say. So it is your behavior in life that determines your effect on others, not your ideology. Artists have to be what we hope people are—they have to be decent, caring, empathetic, one hopes non-egocentric. But unfortunately, egocentricity breeds a lot of artists. So, they have to really care about other human beings. But if you're indifferent to human beings and are simply ideological, you can do very little. You can be at the center of a movement that basically elevates you to importance and makes you the significant center, but ultimately that is not the way a transformation can occur.
MK: So in that vein, is it important to distinguish yourself or to have a more communal view of art and design when starting out as an artist professionally?
MG: I think you just do your work. I mean the most important thing is not the ideas behind why you're there, it's your work, whatever that work is. And that's where the meaning of your life is, it's in your work.
MK: There are decisions to be made, though, as an artist, whether you are going in the direction of strictly fine art or whichever industry you end up in.
MG: Nobody ever makes those choices objectively. They go into whatever activity they can live by. And if you can find a way of living and doing your work and that's the category of work that appeals to you, thats great. And if you can teach and do what artists, so-called painters do, that's fine. And if you can't, you just do artist work in another category. I mean, the distinction is an odious one between real artists and fake artists and fine artists and...
I was just talking to somebody about fine art. Fine art, the word fine, I say this to all my classes, do you know what fine means in the term fine art?
MK: What does it mean?
MG: Fine is a term used in metallurgy, you heat metal until the impurities evaporate. That's as fining gold means that gold has been submitted to the heating process. So you say, well, what are the impurities of art? Because if art without impurities is what we mean by fine art, what are those impurities that you've gotten rid of in art?
Any withdrawal from your spiritual purpose is a corruption of art. So if you're doing art for money for instance, you're out of the fine art business because you're in the money business. But I know very few people who don't use art for money. And the entire art world is built on money. So it's all a bullshit illusion, all of that, the idea that there's fine art and not fine art when the essential role of art is a spiritual one.
MK: Anything else you'd like to convey to artists?
MG: Do your work. There isn't anything else. I tell the story of when I studied with Giorgio Morandi in Bologna in the early 50s. He'd never talk about art. But if you took a copper plate and were about to put it in the acid and etch it without knowing what would happen, he would always say, Coraggio. Courage. And that's what you have to have, you have to basically be willing to plunge into life and do your work.
December 8, 2010, New York City