“What is Art, and What is Not?”

Question: What is the difference between design and art?

Milton Glaser: There's this stupid overlap between the two that no one understands. And the lack of distinction between art and design and art and non-art is so puzzling to people. And everybody wants to be an artist because, in terms of status, there's almost nothing better you can be in almost any culture; basically, [this is] because art is terribly important as a survival mechanism for any culture. As a result, the people in primitive cultures who can create art as such are those who are highly respected. And that basically occurs in sophisticated cultures as well. But the only purpose of art is that it is the most powerful instrument for survival—art is so persistent in all our cultures because it is a means of the culture to survive. And the reason for that, I believe, is that art, at its fullest capacity, makes us attentive.

But if you look at a work of art, you can re-engage reality once again, and you see the distinction between what you thought things were and what they actually are. Because of that, it is a mechanism for the species to survive. And because of that, it is terribly important in human consciousness. I also believe, curiously, that beauty, which is very often something we confuse with art, is merely a mechanism to move us towards attentiveness. You realize we all have a genetic capacity and need to experience beauty, but beauty is not the ultimate justification for art. It is merely the device by which we are led to attentiveness.

Anyhow, this is all very complex. And I've been thinking about it most of my life and now I finally feel that I can distinguish between what is art and what is not. And my distinction is if it moves you to attentiveness, it is art. If it doesn't, it's something else.

Question: Is fine art losing its relevance to everyday life?

Milton Glaser: Well, you know, the odd thing about is to examine the art world, so-called, and examine [how] the art world is concerned primarily with money and status. And that's linked to people's need to elevate themselves, and also [a need] to invest in objects that will have a good return. Of course, that is not the standard by which people really interested in art would judge art.

And I'm always amused by the definition of "fine art" because I never knew what the word "fine" meant until I looked it up and found out that "fine" as it applies to art is a term used in metallurgy. It means that you apply heat to metal [with] sufficient intensity so that the impurities are burnt off. Well, with that definition, you begin to understand something about the subject. And also you say, “Well, what are the impurities of art?”

My belief is that the impurities of art are everything that does not contribute to its function of producing attentiveness. And, of course, those impurities are largely status and money. And then you look at what's reported and talked about in the art world and it's always about the money. The leading issue that people care about in the world of art is what the Bonnaud sold for, forty million dollars at the time, which broke all records. And so, well, who cares about what the Bonnaud sold for in terms of art? That's one of the impurities—except that it is the focal point and the central issue in art as it is observed in our culture today.

Question: Describe a profound encounter you had with a work of art.

Milton Glaser: Well, there have been a million encounters at least, but certainly one of them was when a friend took me to the Frick, I was eighteen, to show me the first Piero [della] Francesca I had ever seen. And I almost fainted when I saw it. And that produced a lifetime of exploration of Piero, going all over the world looking for Piero paintings. And I think, finally, having seen most of them—fortunately, he did relatively few—I ended up doing a series of watercolors and drawings based on the work of Piero [that] was sponsored by the Italian government. That was actually shown a few years ago in Piero's home, in Sansepolcro, which has to be one of the great things that could happen to anyone who was as obsessed as I was.

Recorded on:  August 27, 2009

Milton Glaser has spent much of his career straddling the fine line between fine art and commercial design; he gives Big Think the insights of an artist who has found the key to distinguishing between the two.

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