“At the end it’s not about showing off, it’s about sharing something. The beginning is where you pull towards uniqueness of the self and the end is where you move towards the commonality between us.”
At age 87, Milton Glaser is the quintessential American graphic designer and is responsible for some of the most iconic images of our time. He graciously sat down to talk with us about his own career as well as the importance of art, “making things”, and what motivates him to keep creating in this season of his life.
Creator of the famous Bob Dylan poster, founder of New York Magazine, designer of countless product logos and record covers, one of Glaser’s best-known works is the still-relevant “I Love NY” image.
As Glaser talks about this particular success it is clear that his creative work is motivated by a deep desire to connect and communicate with the world around him. He explains, “I did ‘I love NY’ in 1977 and why it is still around is the question I can’t answer. It’s been called the most frequently reproduced identity in human history. I have no idea why that persists, except for one thing: It was what millions of people were feeling at the time… It was an expression of an emotional reality. That gave it a kind of authenticity and a resilience that it’s still around.”
The Transformational Power of Art
For Glaser, the goal is to create art that communicates with culture. “Art is a means of changing consciousness, which is to say that in the presence of art, you shift your idea of what is real.”
“The one thing we know about art is that it’s transformative. I think above all, art makes you more sociable. It makes you relate more to others, particularly within your tribe. It’s the common currency of everyday life among people who are strangers. I suppose one of the true test of art is whether it makes people feel more like they’re in a community.”
Unlike other more commodified objects like money, jewelry, or affluence, Glaser states that art makes us better humans. “Art at its very best makes you more empathetic, more open to others, more willing to accept other ideas. You can say that without this, the culture has very little to keep it unified and well-intended towards one another. On that face you could say that art is a survival tool.”
With no plans to retire, ‘making things’ is an essential part of Glaser’s identity “I think you have to find something to commit your life to in a sense of making things. It doesn’t matter whether it’s music, or ceramics, or flower arrangement; it just means that it gives you a context to live your life. It’s impossible for me to imagine my life without working, or without making things.”
Glaser continues, “The idea of retirement is so hideous, so scary to me. I realize retirement is an invention to enable new people to enter the workforce. For people, at age 65, to stop having a reason to wake up in the morning…basically go to the beach and take care of the grandchildren? No, I’m sorry. That’s not the answer to life. I’m still teaching, I’m still coming into the office every day and I don’t know what would substitute for that.”
Reflections on Aging
Glaser is reflective about his life and what he has accomplished. “I have had a blessed life and I have lived life exactly as I wanted to live it. I had the right mixture of personal work and work for public use. I’ve made a very good living…I don’t know if I’d change anything.”
While Glaser still regularly works at his studio, he is honest about how things have changed. “In your declining years you’re not as sharp…your eyesight declines, your hearing declines, your manual skills too. I used to be a very good draftsman and could draw very easily; now it’s harder. My hands shake, so it’s harder to produce forms, but even a difficulty produces a different kind of form. What you do is adapt to the difficulty and you do other things.”
Age and creative maturity have also brought a creative freedom. Glaser explains that now, “you don’t have to feel that you’re doing it for approval. At a certain point you’ve already had enough approval and you don’t have to be rewarded by people’s acceptance, which makes the possibility of doing stuff that is deeper to you but riskier… At the beginning, what you want to do is show that you deserve what’s coming to you and demonstrate your skills… at the end, that becomes increasingly less significant, certainly the opinion of others. At the beginning, you want to exercise your difference. At the end, you want to exercise your similarity.”
Along with a move towards similarity, there is a simplicity that characterizes Glaser’s late style work. “Since you don’t have to show off anymore…there is a kind of simplification that often occurs…it’s like downsizing when you’re older. Your tastes change. You’d rather have a good tomato with some olive oil on it than a fancy dish that somebody’s prepared using French elements. It is that kind of clarity and intensity of things when they’re reduced to their most powerful and simplest expression.”
Glaser sums up the gift of being a mature artist: “I don’t have to prove my worth, my reason for existing. I can just be.”
The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.