On Vivienne Westwood’s Manifesto of Active Resistance

Vivienne Westwood's Manifesto on Active Resistance

Vivienne Westwood contained multitudes. She was a pioneer of punk, a star of haute couture, and a crusading global activist. And, less often recognized, a philosopher to boot. Underneath her work in all realms lay a consistent commitment to truth, captured well in her 2007 manifesto Active Resistance to Propaganda.

Vivienne Westwood’s manifesto is written as an absurdist play, a series of disjointed conversations about art and life between everyone from Aristotle and Alice in Wonderland to Pinocchio and Leonard Peltier. It’s clever and thoughtful and funny and sad together, and carries a clear central message: there are universal, eternal truths and realities that exist independently of humans, and art is how we can access them–if we can manage to wade through the endless muck of lying and bullshit in the way. Art creates culture, it says, and “culture is the antidote to propaganda.”

Vivienne Westwood's wisdom from i-D magazine 8 Life Lessons with Vivienne Westwood
Excerpts from i-D magazine’s 8 Life Lessons with Vivienne Westwood

Art is Beauty, Beauty is Truth

Aristotle explains to Alice that there is a world of objective truth beyond our subjective perceptions and worldly affairs, one that artists can help us reach through their creations. Art takes you out of the world of mere conventions and exposes you to the truth. Artists have the ability to tap into this realm of truth, to “see things as they really are”–and then create objects and experiences that help the rest of us do the same. They blaze a path we can follow, all arriving at the same place of sublime transcendence, a connection between us and the infinite universal.

Engaging with art connects you to truth and reality, enables you to actively resist the propaganda of the ordinary world around us. Lying and bullshit manifest themselves in many forms, from bad fashion to bad politics to bad economics. And so being an artist has to manifest itself in just as many ways–from good fashion to good business practices to good activism. Punk fought bullshit of all kinds, promoting truth by overturning conventionality across the board. It wasn’t pretty. It was beautiful, because as Keats said, beauty is truth.

Vivienne Westwood's runway looks
Westwood’s runway looks over the decades

A legacy of no bullshit

Westwood’s quest for truth spanned many fields and decades, carrying over from fashion into social and environmental activism. The manifesto ends with a mashup of Native American religion and Buddhism featuring Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement activist still imprisoned four decades after a controversial 1975 shootout with the FBI. Saving the planet and its people is art too, she says, because it involves seeing the truth, and acknowledging it, and acting on its behalf.

Westwood spent her life calling out the bullshit. She knew how she thought the world ought to be, and did what she could to make it that way. She leaves behind a powerful legacy, as not just a cultural phenomenon and a style icon but a visionary rebel. And with her passing, it is all the more incumbent on the rest of us to pick up her banner. 

Today’s bottomless vortex of bullshit comes at us through our eyes, our ears, our screens, our wallets, our bodies. New technologies create new opportunities for old propaganda. Green washing and deception are so rampant, even the most seasoned experts have a hard time figuring out the truth. It’s up to each of us to move past the bullshit, to search out and live by reality. To envision what we want for this world, and do what we can to make it so.

-steph lawson


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