Milton Glaser — Thoughts on Art and Creativity
“You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.” ~Milton Glaser
I find it fascinating and inspiring to read about and listen to artists speak about their story, art making, and thoughts on creativity. I believe that we can learn so much from others. In this beautiful and wide-ranging interview from The Good Life Project, Milton Glaser offers an unprecedented tour of his magnificent mind and spirit. Glaser is a well-known graphic designer living in New York. Some transcribed highlights are shown below.
Where the seed of his creativity originates:
I have no idea where it comes from. The thing that I do know is that after a while, you begin to realize, A) how little you know about everything and, B) how vast the brain is and how it encompasses everything you can imagine — but, more than that, everything you can’t imagine. What is perhaps central to this is the impulse to make things, which seems to me to be a primary characteristic of human beings — the desire to make things, whatever they turn out to be. And then, supplementary to that, is the desire to create beauty — which is a different but analogous activity. So, the urge to make things is probably a survival device; the urge to create beauty is something else — but only apparently something else, because, as we know, there are no unrelated events in human experience.
Glaser reminds us that the creative impulse is integral to what makes us human:
There is something about making things beautiful, and we sometimes call that art, that has something to do with creating a commonality between human beings so that they don’t kill each other. And whatever that impulse is, and wherever it comes from, it certainly is contained within every human being. … Sometimes, the opportunity to articulate it occurs; sometimes, it remains dormant for a lifetime.
On his own unrelenting expression of that profound human characteristic:
I imagined myself as a maker of things from the age of five. I realized that to make something was miraculous, and I never stopped.
Recounting the formative moment in which he awakened to art, when his older cousin drew a bird for little Milton on the side of a paper bag and it suddenly came alive for the young boy, Glaser reflects:
I suddenly realized that you could create life — that you could create life with a pencil and a brown paper bag — and it was truly a miracle in my recollection. Although people are always telling me that memory is just a device to justify your present, it was like I received the stigmata and I suddenly realized that you could spend your life inventing life. And I never stopped since — at five, my course was set. I never deviated, I never stopped aspiring or working in a way that provided the opportunity to make things that, if you did right, moved people.
Glaser reminds us that the art of life is not in choosing between opposites but in reconciling them.
You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.
Glaser counsels that the first step to making better life choices is acknowledging the bad ones you have made, and drawing cultivates mindfulness and the essential art of seeing:
The first step is always, in the Buddhist sense, to acknowledge what is — and that’s very hard to do. But, incidentally, drawing — and attentiveness — is one of the ways you do that. The great benefit of drawing … is that when you look at something, you see it for the first time. And you can spend your life without ever seeing anything.
On how welcoming the unknown helps us live more richly.
I can sound as though I know the answers to these things — I don’t know the answer to anything. You have to constantly be attentive to what you deflect in life, and what you pay attention to, and all the things that you can’t see, and all the preconceptions that you do have about everything. Those preconceptions basically blur your vision — it’s very hard to see what’s in front of you.
Thoughts on how technology is changing us:
Everything changes everything. There are no independent events. … The virtual world has created a very different kind of nervous system for people who spend their lives in that world. And it produces different sets of appropriateness — of time, of morality, of ethics, of behavior. … [But] we don’t know what this is doing to the human psyche or the human behavior or any of it — we know it’s changing, we know it’ll be a profound change and it won’t be what it was, but we don’t know what the nature of that will finally be. It will probably have some benefits and significant drawbacks, but it is just emerging. [We] are creating a new kind of person.
On always harnessing the gift of ignorance and never ceasing to expand oneself:
Professional life is very often antithetical to artistic life, because in professional life you basically repeat what you already know — your previous successes. It’s like marketing — marketing is the enemy of art, because it is always based on the past — not that art is always based on the future, but it’s very often based on transgression. So when you do something that basically is guaranteed to succeed, you’re closing the possibility for discovery.
Reflecting on art education and the cultural tension between art and business, Glaser adds to history’s definition of art:
You have to separate making a living … from enlarging one’s understanding of the world, and also … providing an instrumentality for people to have a common purpose and a sense of transformation. … That is what the arts provide — the sense of enlargement, and the sense that you haven’t come to the end of your understanding, either of yourself or of other things.
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