“I’m not a graphic designer”. Milton Glaser is dead serious as he utters these words, so serious he almost makes us uneasy. Sure, he’s foremost an illustrator and an artist. And the most powerful image that comes to mind – apart from the thousands he produced – is that of President Obama assigning him the National Medal of Arts in 2009, which was presented for the very first time to, well, a graphic designer.
Milton Glaser is 82 years old and has spent a lifetime drawing: graphics, interiors, objects and illustrations. His iconic work has made history and has been displayed at the MoMA in New York and at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But he insists on underlining that “Art and design are not the same thing”. They are being consistantly confused for reasons of convenience, interest, ignorance and superficiality, as if their boundaries were indistinct. But Glaser remains vigil, and reminds us that there are differences, oh yes indeed. “It’s important for people to begin questioning themselves and finding out what these differences are”. Because if design is made of commissions and compromises, “art”, as Glaser explains, “when it isn’t constrained to market objectives, is one of the tools man has used to survive, not to make money. Art can be anything, but history may have a different opinion.”
Not bad for a provocative (or finally realist?) start, but wait to read the rest of the interview and the philosophy behind Glaser’s work, as explained by this decalogue.
Looking back at your body of work, where do you think your design is going?
It’s going towards things I do not yet know. Because the only interesting thing about design as an activity is to discover what it means and that is a lifetime’s work because you never get there. I spent my entire life designing things for a very long time and still I didn’t know what I was doing. And I hope to keep it that way.
In the hyper-technological world of today, it would seem the brain is becoming increasingly disconnected from the hand. How has this affected activities such as graphic design and illustration?
All questions about the brain are very interesting because they are fundamentally unanswerable. But the relationship between thought, which is of course miraculous, and activity, is very interesting. What happens from a thought as it goes down from the brain, through the arm, to the hand and how it transforms itself when the hand begins to respond, because the hand is not independent, it’s an alternative brain. Nobody understands that relationship and you only begin to understand it when you are in the process of making something. The process of making anything is miraculous and the relationship between the hand, the neurological system and the brain is not decipherable. So most questions like that are usually avoided…
You studied fine arts in Bologna with artist Giorgio Morandi. What’s the most important lesson you learned from him?
Commitment. Mr. Morandi taught a group of young women, who were not even art students but just highshool students, the rudiments of engraving. They didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. At all. But what you got from Morandi was his sense of commitment. Which is that he went in, he taught, he left, he went home, he sat down and he started to work. He had a little lunch and he continued to work. His whole life was about work. He did not want anything. He didn’t want sex, money, he didn’t want fame. All he did want was to do the work. There is no lesson more important.
And what are the values you are trying to transmit to your students?
Be careful about what you choose to believe. My favorite expression is “belief is the closing of the mind”. The more passionate you are on a subject, whether religion or beauty or sex, whatever it may be, the more suspicious you should be about your belief.
Since you have studied art, what does the term “fine arts” mean to you?
You have to understand the social reason for these distinctions, “arts” and “fine arts”. In metallurgy, “fine” is an English word that stands for fining gold, heating it to a point where the impurities are removed. People think “fine” means “very well”. So the question is: what are the impurities of art? Because if art is a means man uses to survive, then anything that subverts this survival is an impurity. So when we use the word “fine”, we mean a work that you look at and see reality is different. And it can be a vase, a piece of ceramic. It does not have to be a painting. On the contrary, most paintings are not art because they do not produce this effect. Unless they transform the imagination of the viewer and make him realize “what am I looking at?” and “is it real?”, they are not art, they are something else.
There is so much confusion about art. The only thing people talk about in art these days is the money. How much was a piece of work sold for? And you know that this is the opposite of the intention and the function of art.
How is art so tightly connected to survival?
The reason is, if we can be understood, that art is a means by which we recognize what is real. Art is the mechanism by which I’m looking at a portrait of you and I’m looking at you. And if the portrait is done by a great artist like Piero della Francesca, I will be able to see you in a way that I can’t see without the painting. Art is the means by which we recognize what is real and that is its real and only purpose. Everything else is decorative.
For years design has been a field that has fascinated many. Today it is in fact one of the most popular courses of studies. How has the design market changed and what advice would you give a fresh graduate?
Economics changes everything but what it doesn’t change is the artist’s commitment to his work because it’s essential to him. I spent a large part of my life working and I might as well make it meaningful.
My recommendation in any market climate is to do good work. There is only one aspiration in design and that is to do good work. And that doesn’t change. It’s quite independent of whether you are successful or whether you fail or whether you make a lot of money or whether you are famous. Those are independent events that you may have little control over.
The only thing Giorgio Morandi cared about was doing good work, so he dedicated his life to it. I don’t want to be the most successful designer and have the biggest clients and earn the most money and have the best reputation and go to the parties. That’s not my life. But it is the life of many people in advertising, promotion and other businesses that depend on glamour, success and money. That can be a lifestyle, it’s like being in Hollywood. And many designers aspire to that. They think that being a designer means being glamorous, successful or being in the photographs. That’s what you want and that’s what you get. But that’s not what everybody desires.
In your book Art is Work you wrote that the very famous “I ♥ NY” logo was originally intended as something else. What was that?
It was the simplest typographical thing. It was two lozenges with the word “I love” in one. The “I love” part and the “NY” part were two separate typographical entities. It was very uninteresting.
What makes your work as an artist meaningful?
The worst reason to work is for money, but the world is based on working for money, so you have to discover your own existential relationship to fame, success, money. It defines what you are or who you are and also what makes you happy in life. I am never happier than when I’m at my drawing board and I’m doing something that I have not done before.