In DEMOCRAZY (2007), he cast Sharon Stone and Bernard-Henri Levy as US Presidential candidates in deadpan campaign spots that spoof the form by showing just how indiscernible an absurd imitation is from the real thing. In politics and beyond, his art plays with perennial themes of appropriation, vanity, and the subjectivity of the real. And so, in an age when the star-spangled big top of pop politics has blown open to reveal a circus of venal, hubristic cowards, we’ve invited the man whose work has cast a critical eye on the past and present grotesqueries of the system to try on the candidate’s shoes and step into the ring himself for something of a one-man debate.
Please welcome to the stage Francesco Vezzoli.
Let’s jump right in. Mister Vezzoli, your critics have assailed your so-called “LA values,” claiming that your collaborations with Hollywood stars are pure egotism. What do you say to those who doubt that your work serves a greater purpose than self-promotion?
I am sincerely not hurt by the words of these critics, they are entitled to analyze and scrutinize my work—and in some ways they are right, but probably not in the sense they intended. All those videos were openly and bluntly conceived as forms of self-entertainment for the artist, i.e. myself. They were self-proclaimed acts of egotism, mises en abîme of my own vanity. I never saw anything wrong in that. Actually, some of the most memorable artworks of the past centuries were the fruits of private romantic or sexual relationships—or worse, they were just the outcome of very basic financial transactions, or merely the reflections of the overinflated ego of the artist. Who on earth can say that egotism has nothing to do with art?
So is critic Jerry Saltz wrong when he refers to your work as “stunningly shallow?”
I’m a deep expert in super cial cultures and subcultures. Sometimes the critics mix up the subject of my studies with my private persona or my very own passions. It’s a very easy and understandable mistake, it’s probably a mistake I endorse subconsciously myself. I just love creating a bit of tension, and I sincerely forgive even my harshest detractors for stumbling into my little glittering traps.
You are Italian—Italians are decadent, self-absorbed, and famously corrupt. How will you defy this stereotype to win the people’s trust, and earn the respect of the global community?
Self-absorbed decadence and corruption have certainly characterized some of the politicians of Italy’s more recent past, however dear old Berlusconi, when compared to Donald Trump, comes across as the illegitimate but well- behaved son of Abraham Lincoln and Mother Theresa.
You’ve spoken of your parents’ onetime af liation with the Partito di Unità Proletaria—will you explicitly denounce Communism, or did you inherit their Communist sympathies?
I guess I inherited a very healthy attitude toward discussion and analysis and debate. As much as my parents related to the Communist ideology in a critical way, I’m afraid I have adopted a similar approach to pop culture.
You have been described as a “market darling” and portrayed as a member of the industry establishment. Why should we believe that your work is anything more than “politics as usual?”
I sincerely wish I were a market darling. Unfortunately for me, all the critics that have accused me of such a crime can easily be proven wrong. I produce very little. I don’t have a real studio. I don’t have assistants. The output of such a scarce team is a very, very, very small number of artworks each year. A limited but loyal group of collectors around the world has, year after year, very generously acquired some of these works, and all the finances I gained were entirely and constantly reinvested in the production of all those over-the-top budgeted videos. Not a market star. Not a very rich artist. But certainly a very bemused one. My integrity is written in black and white on each one of my tax declarations.
For our next question, we turn to social media. @ asks, “Mister Vezzoli, when it comes to abortion, do you support a woman’s right to choose? If not, what the fuck is wrong with you? If so, what the fuck is wrong with you? What if your mother had terminated your birth? What if the Blessed Virgin— who has appeared in your work—had murdered dear baby Jesus in the womb?” How do you respond?
In Italy, abortion, just like divorce or same-sex marriage, has been a right achieved in slow motion, so to speak. Always with a substantial delay compared to other European countries. The first and absolutely undeniable reason for granting these rights was simply the fact that privileged people could already afford all of the above, and the unprivileged couldn’t. So, besides any religious or moral issue, if society endorses certain changes these changes should be accessible to everyone, everywhere, with the same dignity for all social classes.
In recent years, mass shootings have sadly become a regular occurrence. What is your personal view on guns, and do you believe they have any place in modern society?
I have never touched a gun in my entire life, and to be honest I already nd fairly disturbing those infomercials with former celebrities or chefs praising the sharpness of those horrifying knife sets they sell. Basically any object that can even remotely cause harm to another person scares the hell out of me.
Ken Johnson of the New York Times has called your religion-themed work “sophomoric, pseudo-blasphemy.” Seeing as much of the populace you serve are people of faith, what can you tell them about your relationship with God?
I autonomously refused Communion when I was seven. That says pretty much everything.
[mixed cheering and boos]
Your supporters rely on you to stay informed on a broad range of subjects so that you are equipped to make the wisest decisions when it comes to your work. Can you share with us what your go-to sources are for the latest in current affairs and cultural critique?
I’m afraid my answer to this question is absolutely boring—I just browse the net randomly from Grindr to the Huffington Post to Vogue.com, and mix everything in my very special blender.
As we all know, every aspect of a candidate’s private life is put under the microscope during their campaign. I’d like to give you the chance now to get ahead of any rumors or accusations that might be leveled against you by your opponents—is there anything from your past that the public should know about?
When I was around six or seven years old I applied to become a member of the Italian radical party. That was around the time they were the defenders of some of the most basic civil rights that everyone in Italy now takes for granted, but back then every other single Italian political party was simply overlooking— from abortion, to divorce, to legal rights for same-sex couples. I still believe Emma Bonino should be president of my country today. She would certainly give Donald a run for his money on any matter related to foreign politics.
Finally, in one sentence—what is your plan to stop ISIS?
To stop talking about them and just get on with my very decadent and immoral life.