An interview with Vivienne Westwood, conducted by Ben Palmer for Vicious Magazine. In this interview Vivienne discusses her activism, art, history and her philosophy.
Do you remember finding your moral duty?
I mention this is my book but I'll explain. When I was 4 years old I saw a calendar with a picture of Jesus being crucified and I'd never heard of this before. I was just so appalled that this had happened. I was in the kitchen of my cousin and the tap was dripping. I remember I saw this thing and I didn't know what it was, I said “Who's that?' She said “Don't you know!?” It made me very suspicious of my parents because I thought 'Why have they been telling me about baby Jesus but not what happened to him?' It had a very big effect on me and I thought 'They aren't doing anything about this, how could things like this happen in the world?' I remember always wearing my little school gabardine buttoned at the top and thrown over my back like a cape, I was this little thing and I thought 'I will really do something!' It affected me my whole life. In fact I used to go to church, we lived in a small village, even at 22 when my son Ben was born. Soon after that it just went. It collapsed like a house of cards but up until then it was like you didn't dare question that this had happened because it was like crucifying Jesus all over again. The point I want to make is that people are affected differently and I was very deeply affected by that. When I was at school I was conscious that people can be so spiteful to one another. I mean I had a temper, I once bit someone and went really mad but people could be really peevish and cruel, I could never do that to someone. What I'm saying is that I kind of recognised myself through that experience, I knew that was something very important to me, it helped me to identify myself, who I am, you become conscious of yourself, you know. Most people probably wouldn't have reacted as I did but that's what happened. I do believe that your character is like a bag of tools that you're born with, you can't change it, every time you make a decision it's your character that is going to say “I'm going to do this” or “Fuck off” but then you listen to reason and the circumstances may change. You learn by it. Your character is tempered by experience, your decision making, it's true, but you will always make that same decision in the end. Whichever way you go, in the end you'll do whatever you have to do.
You gave me a reason earlier on why you would inform yourself and speak to people about it, because you think that's a valid thing to do and obviously that's exactly what I'm talking about. You're communicating with people and it leads to public debate and that does eventually effect things. I was talking to Julian Assange about the importance of communicating with people. It might take some time for circumstances to change but I can give you a very clear example of that: Witches being burned. People being hung drawn and quartered. The circumstances began to change after growing acceptance that the earth was round. Drowning, burning, different ways of 'dealing with people' were tested because there was some evil in the world. This was the popular idea and you've got to undo that magic. There was a certain formula, whoever worked it out, that they've got to be burned they can't just have their head chopped off. There were certain death penalties for different crimes, the worst being put up in a basket and left for the crows to peck, that was to do with them having to die looking at the sun. Anyway so therefore if they didn't burn the witches all the bad things would come to the community, all hell would break loose, you had to do it. They thought it was for the greater good. People have varying degrees of empathy. Many people are troubled by futility, how would you encourage them to have hope?
What we're trying to do is raise public awareness all the time and build a movement even, that is challenging the politicians. Because they're so against the people and they're wrecking our planet. They're linked to the monopolies and the banks, it's a revolving self interest club. Activists, when you talk to them, always ask “How do you speak to the man in the street, worrying about where his next meals coming from? How do we engage with them? They don't want to know about saving the planet.” I say we have to try. It doesn't mean you have to always talk about money, your ideals, the future of the human race. You can talk about this, I say it's fine if you're only appealing to the intellectuals. That's good because you're adding more to that debate, it gets through eventually. You just have to wait until people put a foot over to your side and if somebody's too worried about things you certainly don't blame them, you try to help them with those worries if you can. What else can you do you know. Every time you help anybody I think you're fighting for a better world. You might not be dealing with the most important issue, which is the environment, but it's all important and part of it.
Since the beginning of your career, has your response changed to criticism of your work?
Let me just say, I'm intellectually inclined, I always want to know about things and to dig deep. How different people live and different ways of behaving, what's the best way to live a life. I became very interested in art and I've always been a reader so whenever I did interviews I would go towards talking about intellectual things rather than fashion.
People didn't like me for it. This was before I got worried about the environment. It was the attitude 'Who does she think she is? She's a fashion designer.' They didn't like it because I knew more than they did mostly, they didn't like me treading on their toes and felt angry with me. I got bad stuff from the press. Once, Private Eye did a pastiche that was funny because I am like that. I got a lot of bitchy interviews but I gained so much credibility for my work that they weren't in a strong enough position to say things against me, it improved. What I would do was if I talked about something I would quote, say where it came from. They didn't like it and I stopped eventually but the reason why was because if it wasn't my idea I'm not taking credit for it, I think that's important. I realised they thought I was being pretentious, I was name dropping- Proust for example, and that I didn't really know what I was talking about. So I thought therefore things improved through the credibility of my work and hopefully people understood that I'm not trying to fake anything and I'm genuine.
When I started to use the fashion shows, people would say “What's the inspiration for this collection?” I would say “No I can't talk about that I have to talk about fracking” or whatever the subject was. I was just waiting for it “Oh would she stop going on” but some of the press were really kind to me. That was something I liked, it was great to be given this mouthpiece and very convenient because I don't like to talk fashion too much, the theme of this, the inspiration, all this stuff, it sounds like bullshit a lot of the time when you hear people trying to do that. So it's great to be able to talk about a wrong that we want to right, a worthy cause or the danger we're in, it's much easier for me to talk about and be passionate about it. Right from the beginning I was really glad. Some of them weren't interested but I wouldn't talk to them again. I hope they're interested but if I can see they're not then I won't do it. Sometimes journalists will do it under a guise when really they just want to ask me about Andreas or something you know.
Aside from activism you're known as an advocate for the arts, why is art important?
I mentioned engaging with the world, I've got a website called Climate Revolution, before I got so fired up about the dangers and importance of trying to do something about all that, I was thinking 'What shall I say to young people?' I had my shop World's End and it needed something, some graphics to say let's do something so that's what I did. Then I did my show Propaganda. I read something from an Aldous Huxley essay, he said “The world suffers from three evils- Nationalism (which has taken the place of religion) Organised Lying and Non-Stop Distraction.”
I did a t-shirt which said NINSDOL which is an acronym for those things. I thought the title I want to talk about is propaganda, he's got the main constituents of it summed up there. Art is not consumption, it is a way of engaging with the world. Most of the stuff they're advertising is rubbish and you don't need it but going to an art gallery is engaging. Like my manifesto it's Active Resistance to propaganda. That was my first idea but I changed it to Get A Life (Art Lovers Unite) because we've got to get a life for the future of our planet but also what about your life right now? It's about getting involved because life just runs away, there you go you've lived, you've died and didn't realise much at all really. So its like roots, an anchor, a way of grounding yourself, 'Who am I?'
Art, I think, is fundamental to getting a life, you know, to give life meaning. I haven't read a lot of Seneca but I read a bit I found on my son's shelf from On The Shortness Of Life. People are rushing off to the latest thing that runs away. But some are more contemplative and look at what others have to say, he mentions Aristotle, a knowledge of history and reading gives you a longer life, like you said before. How would you advise someone to find fulfilment? I think I've covered that but you have to get involved. My motto is 'You get out what you put in' but of course I'm not talking about a little kid or someone like Rachel Corrie, I'm talking about lucky people. When you go to art galleries and you realise how short life was in the past, some people lived to be very old but there were ladies dying in child birth, labourers having accidents and getting a septic finger and dying, it's incredible. It's amazing how lucky we are but life is still short. If I look back it's like looking at little boxes, memories of a person that grew up. At one stage that was her, then that was her. My continuity is how I think I know myself, how I link to the past.
You once ended a speech by stating that Punk was fundamentally misunderstood, it was actually about love and supporting each other. Could you elaborate on that?
I don't remember that specifically but I can see how I got to that point. I don't like talking about myself so I tend to shine the light on someone else in particular, but to thank everyone as a whole. That night it was Jerry Hall. I was in that to try to do something about people who were suffering and change the world, all this war and destruction and so it was to make things better.
Words: Ben Palmer
Photography: Ben Palmer