20 Ways of Looking at an Art-World Icon
Who is Yoko Ono? She is one of the most famous figures in the world, yet also one of the most misunderstood, enigmatic, and, at times, vilified. Quite often, what we think about Ono says more about us than about the artist herself. Do we want to know her, or are we content with myth and stereotype?
For most of her career, Ono has been carelessly marked by the culture at large–as the harpy who broke up our beloved Beatles, the shrieking voice behind those unlistenable records. But what do our images of Ono say about our understanding of otherness? What do they say about art? Or icons? Truth? Transformation?
To coincide with the September release of Ono’s new album Between My Head and the Sky, Bitch asked 20 well-known musicians, writers, visual artists, and scholars–some who have met or worked with Ono, some who know her only through their admiration or critique of her work–for their thoughts on how one woman has come to stand for so much.
Who is Yoko Ono? This is exactly who we think she is…
What happened to Yoko, the degree of hatred that was directed at her, the blame that fell on her for breaking up the Beatles—which struck me as an absurd accusation even as a very young girl—frightened me terribly. I very much felt she was hated because she was a woman artist. She had John’s ear; if anything, he wanted to earn her respect as an artist. This came through very clearly in all his statements and in their body language.
She was the type of person I most wanted to be—yet she was hated. I found this very discouraging. I too wanted to be a conceptual artist, but I didn’t want to be hated. I too wanted a partner with whom I could work, but didn’t want to be seen as the evil controlling woman, as she was (and Linda McCartney, too, for that matter). Her fate seemed intimately connected to my own, and I wanted her to be accepted.
—alice elliott dark, novelist
The most surprising thing about Yoko Ono is her courage to be positive. [She] turns negative power into positive power, and it’s very akin to martial arts…. You take the oppositional, negative death energy, and you transform that into a life force. She doesn’t attack back; she just changes the ground of the criticism.
To her, it’s simply an art of coping. She had to cope with negativity. She had to cope with the murder of her husband. She had to cope with being virtually disowned by her family. She had to cope with being considered a breaker-up of the Beatles. She had to cope with being considered an unserious artist because she was working in art forms that didn’t have any commercial value. And she coped, and [not] by retreating. She coped by persisting in creative vision.
—alexandra munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and author of Y E S Yoko Ono
I first encountered Yoko Ono when I was a teenager. I thought she looked cool. I saw pictures of her all in white with the black hair, and I thought she was really chic and intriguing.
I did a talk on Yoko in Minneapolis during her “Y E S Yoko Ono” exhibition in 2001, and I was listening to the boxed set that she put out, just going through and listening to it CD by CD. I forget what song it is, but it’s John just [playing] feedback guitar with Yoko’s voice, and it’s one of the most radical things ever. It would be amazing if people could really hear John Lennon playing this. And her lyrics were so pro-choice; they were very ahead of her time.
When I saw “Cut Piece,” she just looked so vulnerable, and it was almost like a foretelling of what would happen when she became involved with John. People obviously wanted to remove her mask.
—kim gordon, artist and musician
4. Offered Sacrifice
Back in the ’60s, I was peripherally involved in a Fluxus concert evening at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York where Yoko did several pieces, [including] “Cut Piece.” People began lining up to cut little pieces of her skirt or sleeves or strands of hair as souvenirs, or artworks, if you prefer. Everybody was very respectful, [and] Yoko remained impassive, without any change of expression.
The atmosphere changed to dark and unpleasant when several young men who were obviously not members of the art community started taking off large parts of her skirt and sweater, disclosing her bra, and getting back on line after each of their cuts. They couldn’t stop laughing. I recall Carolee Schneemann going up to one of them and slapping him in the face, which didn’t faze him one bit. He was after Yoko—the offered sacrifice.
At the point where one of the grinning guys went towards her bra strap with the scissors, Yoko made a slight gesture towards the wings, and the curtain immediately closed on her before her breast could be revealed. The piece was over. Obviously, when you let the audience into the artwork, you can’t always predict the result.
—eleanor antin, performance artist, filmmaker, and installation artist
“Cut Piece” was astonishing. It was an extremely dangerous piece, especially in the moment when it was done, because there was no sense of feminist presence or barriers. She could have been stabbed. Vile things were in the air then, so she was challenging those very dark impulses in this vulnerable position—and that was the indelible power of it.
Yoko is a determined visionary, and now she has a huge fortune to work with, and every possible international art connection would want to be associated with her. It’s a strange, anomalous personal history. She was ignored. She was marginalized. She was vilified. And she’s become golden.
—carolee schneemann, multidisciplinary artist
As a female artist who has dated guys in bands and often been accused of being “a bad influence” on them, I have clung to the knowledge that amidst the sexism and unfairness of her mainstream portrayal, Ono has still managed to radiate joy and hope.
Ono’s installation art, especially the work she’s made that deals with death and mourning, has profoundly affected me. Like many people my age, I have lost many friends, some to AIDS, some to drugs, and far too many to suicide. Having no public space to confront these losses has been a source of pain in my life, and Ono’s work gives voice to this pain by recognizing these losses in the context of communal life.
I do not know any other contemporary artist who has remained as relevant in so many different eras. She clearly doesn’t give a shit about maintaining status in the art world, receiving awards, or being recognized. She simply wants to make smart, inclusive work that makes the world a better place. Waking up in New York every morning makes me happy, knowing she is waking up here, too.
—kathleen hanna, musician
Yoko often mentioned in interviews that she felt that an Asian woman was seen as a dragon lady or an obedient slave—nothing in between the extremes. There were countless racist remarks in the press, especially after the breakup of the Beatles, but she has overcome it over many years. She has made a great contribution in changing the world’s view of Asian women in general. She has consistently projected an image of a self-aware, confident, creative, and strong-willed woman.
—midori yoshimoto, associate professor of art history, New Jersey City University, and author of Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York
I was 19 and working as an art handler at the Miami Art Museum. The first exhibition I helped install was “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s,” a survey show that included Ono’s “Cut Piece.” I was blown away by the quiet, unshakable disposition of the artist in this vulnerable situation.
Ono’s work became an emblem of everything I hoped feminism would be: unapologetic and forward thinking. Her work, along with that of theorists like Judith Butler, ignited my feminist curiosity. I began to understand the freedom that comes from the fluidity of nonidentification, and the possibility of breaking free from the societal constructs imposed on [us] from all sides.
—anat ebgi, curator and co-owner of The Company, a project space in Los Angeles’s Chinatown
I don’t think most people realize that [Ono] was an important artist from a heavy, powerful family who was making her mark long before she met John Lennon.
Over the years, people have come to realize that—ongoing Yoko jokes aside—she really can’t be held responsible for Lennon’s actions. He was obviously seeking an escape from his identity in the Beatles, and he found it in her.
—emily haines, musician
I fell in love with the Beatles when I was still a child, so I learned about Yoko before I had any conscious misogynist or feminist prejudices. I have a general visceral memory of being told that she was a strange artist who did “performance pieces” where people cut off pieces of her clothes—that this is how she and John met. I found this very sexy and exciting. Even as a preteen, I got what she meant by that piece, and it made me like John more that he loved an interesting woman. I wanted to go to parties where people did weird stuff like that. Yoko probably introduced the ideas of conceptual and performance art to small-town Midwestern girls like me.
—evelyn mcdonnell, author and editor of Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap
11. A Bridge
I first heard of Yoko when she began going out with John Lennon. That would’ve been the first time I heard her, too, as a backing vocalist on The White Album, on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” where I thought her voice sounded silly, and “Revolution No. 9,” where she was spooky. You didn’t hear Yoko’s music on the radio, and I never knew anyone who owned any of her records. In the mid-1980s, I got a copy of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, originally released in 1970. It blew my mind. Everything John Lennon had said about how innovative she was suddenly made sense. It was raw, punky stuff, with the most amazing vocals. I like to say Yoko Ono is the bridge between the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith.
—gillian g. gaar, author of She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll
Yoko was someone my parents [Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles] knew as younger artists, but she didn’t come to Fluxus events. She and John were in their own hybridized art/pop world during the late 1960s and ’70s.
There was a special sadness in the house when John died, but my sense was that [my parents] didn’t feel close to her any longer. People—maybe especially Fluxus artists, who work in a relational vein—drift apart when the creative link no longer feeds a social connection. It does not follow that there is bad feeling between Fluxus artists who have drifted away from each other.
When I say Yoko is “contested,” I mean that because I think Fluxus is perhaps best understood as a community of people with different ideas and practices whose connection to each other is real and sustained—a voluntary association—it matters that her social relationship to other Fluxus artists diminished substantially with time. That she is the most famous Fluxus artist seems to me deeply ironic given this social drifting. She seems to prefer to appear as a solo artist even when there are large Fluxus exhibitions.
—hannah b. higgins, academic, writer, and author of The Fluxus Experience
Growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, I don’t think I really thought much about Yoko Ono until 1980, when Lennon was killed. I accepted the conventional wisdom that she was sort of this avant-garde nobody, and he was one of the greatest musicians and cultural figures of all time. I had no concept of how a) misguided and b) misogynist that theory was, due to my own youth and lack of consciousness.
One piece of her work has special philosophical importance to me: the “Y E S” piece. You climb up a white full-size ladder in a gallery and written on the ceiling in tiny letters is “y e s.” You can’t see the word from the ground—you have to climb. It’s so simple and yet so powerful. As a feminist, learning to say “yes” (not just “no”) has been a huge turning point for me. It indicates to me how truly creative, wise, and tapped into life and joy Yoko was and is.
—jennifer baumgardner, writer
She’s a witch, she’s a bitch, and she’s done great work despite media demonization and unfair female and ethnic stereotyping.
—the guerrilla girls, art activists
Yoko has suffered more than most people understand. Her father was often absent; she was 12 when she fled to the mountains of Japan with part of her family, escaping the bombings in Tokyo but learning about Hiroshima and Nagasaki; she attended college in the United States in the 1950s when the Japanese were vilified; her passionate art was ridiculed as too “expressionistic”; her daughter was kidnapped by her second husband; she was ostracized by the public as the “dragon lady” for putatively breaking up the Beatles; she struggled with Lennon on drugs; she and Lennon were threatened by the CIA with his deportation; she witnessed his murder, and so on.
The result: Yoko feels alone and sometimes trusts others to “handle” her and her art for better or worse. Nonetheless, Yoko inspires me. She is a brilliant, poetic, tough role model who is forthright with herself and brings that honesty to
—kristine stiles, professor of art and art history, Duke University
In December 1968, the Rolling Stones staged a concert, “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” that was filmed for television. The Stones were the headliners, but the most famous musicians on stage performed with an impromptu supergroup called The Dirty Mac that included John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell.
Several minutes into their performance, Lennon beckons Ono onstage. She joins them, but she seems shy and apprehensive. However, when the band moves into its next number, which was later listed as “Whole Lotta Yoko,” Ono delivers banshee-like wailing that made Janis Joplin’s vocals sound like the blandest pop.
It’s fascinating to watch the reactions of the male musicians onstage with her. Lennon behaves as though her singing is no more unusual than, say, Mick Jagger’s strut, while the others try their best to maintain their composure. I don’t think one could find five more uncomfortable minutes of ’60s rock.
—alice echols, associate professor of English, gender studies, and history, University of Southern California, and author of Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975
Yoko actually had the [potential to] negate John Lennon’s talent, and the preoccupation with that is fascinating. It has a lot to do with just the fear of women, the fear of the feminine. You have a group, the Beatles, that’s coming out of a postwar experience, [after the] Second World War, and then you have the woman who’s breaking up the structure of four. Yoko, being Japanese, would be seen as the enemy. There’s a lot of anger directed to the feminine breaking up the masculine group, and that fear is not about the fear of those particular individuals…. [It] speaks to a lot of different issues, [including] wanting to have time stand still, but also the fear of being engulfed by the mother, the feminine principle.
—karen finley, performance artist
Yoko was not taken seriously before John’s death. Afterwards, she was portrayed more sympathetically. There was prejudice against her as an Asian and a foreigner and as a woman artist, especially as an avant-garde, experimental artist. Fluxus was not respected for many years, and her reputation improved when Fluxus, as a movement, was taken more seriously. Women artists who survive to an old age sometimes have a reassessment of their artwork take place, and that has happened in her case. She is taken more seriously now in the art, performance, and music context.
—susan bee, artist and editor
I saw Yoko Ono perform at the Museum of Modern Art in 2004 or 2005. This was my first direct contact with her. She gave everyone in the audience mini flashlights that said “I love you.” Standing alone onstage, she began flashing a large flashlight out into the audience, spelling with light the words “I love you.” She then instructed the audience to echo back, flashing “I love you.” Had I heard this described and not been there, I might have assumed it was an oversimplified gesture full of sentimental goodwill. However, the performance was potent, powerful in its simplicity—a unique choreographed moment that asserted ideas of social unity and love.
—jen denike, photographer and video artist
Yoko in hot pants, at antiwar rallies: classic proof of her bona fide iconoclast ways, mixing sex(iness) and politics—no hippie-feminist-activist Earth shoes, please!
Before I got her brilliance, I used to resent her, even though it wasn’t her fault that I got called “Yoko” in the late ’60s. Just when I was trying hard to pass as an all-American girl, this racial slur was outing me as an Asian before I was ready, before I became yellow and proud. It also maddened me to be mistaken for Japanese—not that racists care about these distinctions, especially when there’s historical bad blood between Koreans and Japanese.
You can call me Yoko now.
—yong soon min, artist and associate professor of studio art, University of California, Irvine
Ellen Papazian is a writer whose work has appeared in About Face: Women Write About What They See in the Mirror (Seal Press) and The Long Meanwhile: Stories of Arrival and Departure (Hourglass Books). She wrote a column on books for the Bitch blog and can be found at ellenpapazian.com. To read Ellen’s Q&A with Yoko Ono, pick up a copy of Art/See.
ISSUE 45 | WINTER 2009