Jessica Helfand | Opinions

Questionable Inheritances

Seventeen years ago, I was asked by Leon Wieseltier, longtime literary editor at The New Republic, to write about Paul Rand.

“Begin at the beginning,” Leon asked me. “Begin by explaining graphic design.’’

And so, I did. It was a terrifying, if extraordinary opportunity, and an unusual one: where do you start? Back then, design was a set of disciplines loosely tethered to corporate culture (if perhaps more ideologically linked to a more artistic one) but today, design is a buzzword: a verb and a noun, a practice and a method, a slippery synonym for creativity, craft—and cunning.

Nobody understood this better than Leon, who let me let loose. That essay, published in the magazine in the fall of that year, shaped the way I would come to think about design and about writing—and about design writing—all of it framed by the trenchant belief that design can be a pluralistic lens through which we begin to understand a world beyond design. And more importantly, beyond ourselves.

Regrettably, I have no such understanding when it comes to the news, announced yesterday, that after a remarkable thirty-year tenure, Leon Wieseltier has resigned from this venerable publication following well-publicized disagreements with its current leadership. This is not about new media versus old media but about perspective; not about the future of journalism or the death of magazines but about character. And on that subject, Leon Wieseltier—with his penetrating mind and benevolent spirit—is the winner, here, even though the loss and outrage are indeed ours to bear. “Grant me thirty years of equal division of inheritances and a free press,” wrote de Toqueville, “and I will provide you with a Republic.”

Maybe. Just not, alas, a new one.

Homepage photograph © 2005 Jill Krementz

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