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Design of Dissent
07.01.05
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NARRATOR: NOW on PBS...

The power of images in today's politics legendary graphic artist Milton Glaser has spent a lifetime creating memorable images. Now he's speaking out about images as political propaganda.

MILTON GLASER: They use the term spin, and of course spin is just a nice way to say lie.

NARRATOR: Glaser is fighting back, promoting the DESIGN OF DISSENT in this exhibit and a new book of over 200 artists. The provocative images question authority, and, says Glaser, speak truth to power.

MILTON GLASER: That's the thing that makes you most crazy the idea of this passive acceptance of an authority. We thought we weren't that kind of people.

BRANCACCIO: Welcome.

This is a state that played a pivotal role in the history of dissent in this country. Think of The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song "Ohio."

There's a new exhibit looking at the design of dissent, the ways that artists can communicate ideas that force us to question the politics of the moment. The project's curator has his roots rather due east of here. Milton Glaser was a founder of NEW YORK MAGAZINE and the designer of the iconic I heart N.Y. campaign. And he has some strong feelings about the role of design in a democracy.

BRANCACCIO: Is this button one of yours?

MILTON GLASER: That's one of my buttons.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, so it says, "Dissent Protects Democracy." I mean, that's a lot of burden for dissent. In what way?

MILTON GLASER: Well, I think it's a rather simple-minded idea that if you examine government, those that have the least dissent are those that are most totalitarian. That is, in fact, the manifestation of dissent that defines democracy, 'cuz it means that there are oppositions to power that are freely expressed and that minority opinion is also considered to be worthwhile. Generally speaking, dissent comes out of a sense of fairness that something is wrong. Power is being used unfairly, and there has to be some manifestation or complaint about it.

BRANCACCIO: If you look through the book that goes with the exhibit that you wrote with Mirko Ilic, there's a lot of heavy duty political images. But it prompts a question: What's the difference between dissent and propaganda?

MILTON GLASER: Well, it's an excellent question actually. And I think there is a difference, which is to say in dissent the dissenters have, it seems to me, the obligation of referring to a central truth and an idea of fairness and a complaint about power.

In propaganda, you have no such obligation. You don't have to tell the truth. You certainly are rarely complaining about power. You're simply expressing ideas that you want to enter into the system in order to persuade people to do something.

BRANCACCIO: And clearly the government in power can't dissent by definition but they can produce propaganda.

MILTON GLASER: They can indeed. But you wouldn't talk about a government dissenting from anything fundamentally, because they are the power. So there is this inevitable dialectic relationship between power and dissent. And those of us who value dissent see that as a manifestation of democratic health.

In the show, there are-- things, for instance, that are anti-Soviet you might say.

BRANCACCIO: Anti-Soviet.

MILTON GLASER: Anti-Soviet. As well as anti fascistic. There are Israelis who are on the side of the Palestinians\. I mean, it's-- you really see that this is not so much a manifestation of left and right. Or radical and conservative. But you really see it more than anything else-- what it is, is a response to power.

And that no matter what the source of the power. Whether it's right wing power or left wing power. Or any other or religious power. That it behaves in the same way. It always attempts to suppress, to subvert, to marginalize opposition. And, for all of us who care about democracy it creates the opportunity to complain. And to try to redress what we perceive as an unequal fight.

BRANCACCIO: When you're down to the exhibit are there certain images that you tend to linger over in particular?

MILTON GLASER: There are many actually, because there are kinds of a range of talents and abilities as there are in any exhibition. There was one about the division of Bosnia that I love which shows a bow and a bridge of a violin and then the body of a violin taken apart. In opposition to dividing Bosnia and basically suggesting that unless you put all the pieces together, you can't make music. I love that, because of its I guess intellectual demand and its grace.

On the other hand, there's a very powerful image of our President with oil around his mouth which is a parody of the "Got Milk" commercial. It says "Got Oil" on it. It's very, very insistent and a image that would penetrate your mind and cause you to think about its meaning. So, there are several such images in the show, and as I say, sometimes words do the job, sometimes the image does the job, sometimes the words and image come together and they do the best job.

BRANCACCIO: What is it about the media landscape in 2005 that may provoke some of these images of dissent to wanna bubble up like this?

MILTON GLASER: Well, there's a real problem with the media landscape and you know certainly as well as anybody else which is that the media in general has become exceedingly passive in regard to its response to government. If we don't have a vigorous questioning, aggressive journalistic community and mythology, democracy itself is in great jeopardy.

You really have seen that this last few years, that the whole democratic underpinnings of America have been threatened by a very weak, journalistic community that simply has not been willing to take on the President or the existing government.

BRANCACCIO: It's not just that we're involved in a war on terror and that the accusation can be levied at journalists or anyone else who dissents: "You're not a patriot." Maybe that's what the major moving force in quieting potential voices of dissent.

MILTON GLASER: Well, if you look at history, that always happens, doesn't it, that when there is fear and a threat, particularly an external threat, power can do anything with impunity at that point, simply because it can justify anything by saying, "Well, if we don't do that, all of you are going to die." That threat of this external power is always the basis for intimidation and repression as far as governments are concerned.

And all of us who are good citizens and feel that there are other ways of dealing with danger and balancing our responses with our own concerns about a repressive society have to speak up in this case. I mean, there is a balance. It is a struggle. There are cases to be made on both sides, but right now, it seems to me that it's all skewered in the wrong direction.

BRANCACCIO: There's one very arresting image that particularly caught my eye. It's a hand like this, only these three fingers are blown off. And I thought a peace symbol. That's what I thought of. When you read the artist's description, it says-- the artist wrote that this is a universal symbol of victory. That's a different notion in a sense.

MILTON GLASER: Well, it is until you follow a certain line of logic. And when you think about it, you realize, well, what is the price of victory? And you discover that there are penalties for being victorious that you don't think of when you think of aggression and war and so on. Even when you win, there could be a profound loss. So, I actually think that's a very engaging idea when you realize that peace, victory and mutilation are all related in some poetic way.

BRANCACCIO: One of the iconic images of the exhibit and I think of our time is embodied in this. There it is. This is a iPod. It says iRaq.

MILTON GLASER: Yeah, very-- very powerful idea and also that's not fully understood except when it's in the context of the existing campaign for the iPod. This poster was actually put up in the middle of the other posters, so that you would scarcely notice it, but when you came across it, it was absolutely shocking. And that link between consumerism and aggression is profoundly made in a very interesting and powerful way.

BRANCACCIO: Well, what do you think about that link, because Milton, you're a fella who has more dabbled in this area of marketing. You know something about what makes the consumer ticks.

MILTON GLASER: I do. It's all about communication, isn't it, and what is effective. How do you create imagery that persists in people's mind and causes them to think or to change? Of course, that's a heart of the matter, and I must say that the right and the Republicans and our existing government has been much better at producing imagery that people respond to than the left has been.

And I think it's one of the reasons that they have triumphed in our time is they have created images and symbolic references that people respond to, regardless of their truth or their accuracy.

But they understand how people respond to images. And to some degree the effectiveness of anything in the show has to do with whether you can convince people to change their opinion. After all, in most cases, you're merely talking to people who already hold your views. The thing that's important about this kind of communication is can you really persuade people to alter a perception that they have.

BRANCACCIO: What's your hunch? It can be done?

MILTON GLASER: Sometimes. I wish it would happen more often. But my experience has been that sometimes things change.

BRANCACCIO: What are you thinking of when you talked about the effectiveness of conservatives in marshaling those images effectively?

MILTON GLASER: Well, when you stop to think about the imagery of the campaign, the heroic images of our President, for instance, the repetition of certain kinds of words and phrases, very often misrepresent intention-- I mean I saw an ad for-- the President's attempt to deal with the Social Security issue.

VIDEO: "Urge Congress to help President Bush save social security."

That construction, that idea that the President wants to save Social Security is repeated often enough until actually some people believe him. It doesn't seem to be going down as well as other things that they've done on the right, but because Karl Rove is a kind of genius and understands communication and advertising and persuasion as well as anybody in America, they have been tremendously effective in convincing people to shift their view of things.

BRANCACCIO: Karl Rove, the President's chief political, really genius?

MILTON GLASER: Absolute-- I think he is a genius. In this regard, in terms of understanding what the public responds to and what phrases and words and imagery will persuade them, there's no one I think that's ever appeared on the American scene that has been more effective.

BRANCACCIO: I want to go deeper on one of these threads. We're very good in America at talking about stuff, often stuff to buy. We tend to talk about our iPods. We tend to talk about cars or new fads. But in terms of sort of grand ideas, like democracy, I don't know, that doesn't-- it's not what-- what you hear when you walk around the city.

MILTON GLASER: Well, those ideas are much tougher to deal with, and of course, we have been processed through the intersection of television and advertising to think of life in terms of what we own and also to think of our dissatisfactions in life with what we don't have and what others have.

I mean, the whole function of advertising to some degree, apart from the fact that it keeps the wheels of our civilization and our economy going, is to create a climate of dissatisfaction that can only be resolved by acquisition. I mean that is thematically what advertising lives on.

BRANCACCIO: Your car from 1999 which runs perfectly well just isn't good enough. You need something newer.

MILTON GLASER: You need something newer, and you need to change your clothes and your style and everything. Okay, we understand that in terms of economic construction. But what that leads to is that happiness is very much linked in America to acquisition and to owning things.

One of the other things that I've always been interested in is that advertising makes people accept misrepresentation, because advertising is always based on amplification or distortion of reality. And so it makes claims that basically are emotional, but not quantifiably true.

BRANCACCIO: Like what?

MILTON GLASER: Well, you know, if you buy this car, your neighbors will envy you and your social condition will be enhanced. Or if you buy this breakfast food, you'll have twice the vitality and you'll lose weight. Whatever it is, you know that sometimes there's a core of reality, but most of the time, the differentiation between identical products is based on the idea that you amplify certain characteristics symbolically.

So. But the fact about this that is most interesting is that even though people know that these are misrepresentations and very often lies, in terms of products and what products will do for you, they still buy the product, if the communication is entertaining enough.

So, there's been a kind of shift, it seems to me in America, from an idea that truth is valuable to an idea that entertainment is more valuable. And as a result of that, it -- lying in public no longer has any consequences, because you get crazy in thinking about all these public lies. You know with-- They use the term spin, and of course spin is just a nice way to say lie. But everything is spun in order to achieve a certain result. The fascinating thing about it is that the public who has grown up conditioned by advertising perfectly accepts political misrepresentation this way.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, I suppose one way to look at it is that maybe we're conditioned to be skeptical. But we often don't see that skepticism translated to the political pronouncements that people are hearing.

MILTON GLASER: No, and I think that's absolutely true, and I think the great, great-- benefit of skepticism in general is that it sort of keeps the-- a kind of protection in place that you just don't accept things at their face value or because they're entertaining or because they're interesting.

I'm convinced that in the last election, the reason President Bush got elected was because he was much more entertaining than Kerry. It was really Kerry's lack of ability to entertain, more than anything else, that caused part of the public to basically say, "Ah, I don't wanna sit still for this guy for four years."

BRANCACCIO: Sort of the tedious dinner guest versus the entertaining dinner guest who you may not agree with?

MILTON GLASER: Well, that for one thing. That idea that people would rather go out for a beer with the President was not a trivial idea. You would be more likely to, as it turned out, to vote for somebody that you would also go out with a beer with. So, but that-- part of that at least is a direct consequence of a population that has been brought up and trained through the media of advertising and television.

BRANCACCIO: Where does that leave the state of dissent in America? I mean, you can go see the exhibit and see some dissent, or you can pick up the book. But you know you look at an image like this. Your image, I heart New York, in this case, more than ever. That idea still lives. In other words this is a very contemporary-seeming idea. But there was another button that I don't think had anything to do with-- but people used to wear it on college campuses. Question Authority it used to say. That seems almost archaic in 2005.

MILTON GLASER: It does. I mean, that's the thing that makes you most crazy, the idea of this passive acceptance of an authority. We thought we weren't that kind of people. Something else has happened that links to that which is a transformation of a perception I think we had at the end of the war which was that ends did not justify means.

After Nuremberg, that idea became very clear philosophically, right? You cannot do anything you wish, because you have a good end in mind. The way that you accomplish that is very significant, and you can't simply do it because you want to. Well, that idea's vanished. What happened to that idea? It was a very powerful idea, if you remember the end of the war, and after the Nuremberg trials.

Now, there isn't any sense that ends don't justify means. There is-- Everything that the government does that is oppressive, the withdrawal of citizens' rights or torture or whatever is justified by the threat. And that idea that we simply you know don't do things because they're immoral has vanished. And I'm always astonished at how short a time it took to transform this country.

BRANCACCIO: In my new found search for dissent, you can find it online, can't you? I mean, whatever your political point of view or grievance, there's a web site or nine or ten that will reflect this online. Maybe that's the driving force for this.

MILTON GLASER: Well, there is that. I also think there's more dissent than is ever articulated or raised to public view, because fundamentally it is easy simply not to report manifestations of dissent. And once you have a media that is not interested in making trouble, it is also not interested in following the line of dissent. And I think that's one of the complex issues that occur in a media-dominated democracy which is that the choice of what is articulated and raised, the consciousness, finally depends on the courage of the people in charge. And I don't think they're very courageous these days.

BRANCACCIO: Now, Milton, I've got to hand it the you. At a time of bitter partisanship a d a terribly divided electorate-- you come up with an act of dissent here. A button that I think we all can agree on.

MILTON GLASER: That's right. It says "better dead than red." Which is a phrase you heard a long time ago. When it was directed at the Commies. But now-- those of us who live in blue states can wear it with a certain amount of pride as well.

BRANCACCIO: The first non-controversial button of dissent.

MILTON GLASER: You might put it that way.

BRANCACCIO: The Design of Dissent Exhibit is just wrapping up the School of Visual Arts in New York. But the book, written with-- Mirko Ilic lives on. We'd show the title but the-- censors, apparently, won't let us.

Milton, the man regarded as the embodiment of graphic design in this country. Milton Glaser thank you very much.

MILTON GLASER: It's been a pleasure being here.

BRANCACCIO: For more on Milton Glaser's work check out the links posted on our Web site at pbs.org. Now here's a look at what we're working on for next week

New developments in Medicare prescription drug benefits. The cost is skyrocketing. That price tag is why many Republicans in Congress opposed the bill.

DAN BURTON: This is one thing I hope you'll put on your interview. I am a very strong supporter of President Bush. However; I think the passage of this bill was a major mistake.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW from Norwood Ohio. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Connect to NOW, online at pbs.org

More on Milton Glaser's life and work.

View images from THE DESIGN OF DISSENT

Does art sway your politics? Take a poll.

Connect to NOW at pbs.org


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