This essay appears in Boshemia Magazine: Technology & the Sublime. Above portrait of Yoko Ono by Pirelli/Annie Leibovitz.
If you were to ask your average person to tell you one thing they know about Yoko Ono, they would probably reply that she’s the woman who broke up The Beatles. Maybe they would call her a homewrecker. For decades, this narrow portrayal of Ono has been spat out in the tabloid press, which categorizes women according to three classic stereotypes: the virtuous, virginal woman, the seductress, and the hag. Very seldom are women allowed to blur these lines and occupy real lives full of conflict and character. But a closer study of Ono’s life reveals a thunderous force in an art movement that continues to echo through the 21st century.
Before John Lennon came into her life, before the cancerous news coverage of their love affair eclipsed her career, Ono had already established herself as a revolutionary artist and performer. She was an influential member of the Fluxus movement in the 1950’s and 60’s that drew inspiration from its predecessor, the Dadaist movement. Fluxus artists melded philosophy, performance art and human experience, and denied the infallibility of art museums in curating fine art. They challenged the bourgeois concept of retinal, aesthetic art in favor of more cerebral meditations on the art of the unspoken in everyday life.
Through her avant-garde expressionism, Ono explored the sublime nature of the mundane, contended that the process of creation is art itself, and proved that anyone can express themselves creatively. By involving her audience in the experience of creating the exhibition, Ono explores the inextricable nature of the relationship between art and viewer, and ensures that each piece will be unique from the next. By provoking the audience to acknowledge their role in shaping their perception of the experience, and blends comedic elements with the sanctity of creation.
Yoko Ono performed one of her most famous pieces, “Cut Piece” several times in front of large audiences. In 1964, two years before she had even met John Lennon, Ono sat onstage at Carnegie Hall, wearing a simple, but elegant black suit and waited for the audience to tear her apart. The hall full of well-to-do participants was instructed simply to cut a piece of her garment to take with them, and were provided with a large pair of metal scissors.
One by one, each person approached Ono silently, and hacked away a piece of her clothing. Some participants took small pieces, some sawed away large swaths. All the while, their subject/object remained silent and motionless. After several audience members had respectfully and solemnly taken their piece, there was still a significant amount of black garment remaining. And then, of course, one young man hopped up the stage and looked at the audience, as if beseeching them to condone his subsequent behavior. He used the scissors to slice the collar of Ono’s dress, one shoulder at a time. Then, he sliced both of her bra straps, and they fell away with a snap. Then, he cut out a large swath of her white undergarment, held it up to the audience in triumph, and hopped offstage.
Up until that point, Ono had remained relatively still, but as this man loomed over her, exercising his power over her, and taking from her what she had not offered, she winced. When I watched this encounter on film, I saw myself in that moment. I knew that man, and I recognized the feeling of offering up vulnerability to the world and being sucked dry and robbed of your dignity.
Viewing this piece, you can learn so much about Yoko Ono, and your interpretation of her experience and the experience of the audience can tell you so much about yourself. Throughout her life, Ono has experienced sexism, racism, and hatred. Yet, she continues to believe in a world where peace and kindness are a priority. She’s dedicated her life to it. She’s got more awards for humanitarian efforts than I have unfinished projects in my basement. And in every one of her pieces of participatory artwork, she proves that every single person has the ability to create something beautiful, just as easily as they can destroy it.