link to a feminist defense of Yoko Ono

January 21st, 2009 · No Comments · By

 The other day I stumbled across this five-part blog post, which is an in-depth examination of the popular vilification of Yoko Ono, and which is well worth your time.

I grew up a huge Beatles fan — it’s pretty much all I listened to until age 13 — and for a period of time, I subscribed to the popular interpretation that Yoko “broke up the Beatles.”  Of course, that was before I knew better, and in adulthood I’ve been able to evaluate Ms. Ono on her own terms: as an artist who is fascinating, problematic, and often brilliant.

{For those who are familiar with Yoko Ono only as “John Lennon’s Widow,” you should know that she was a huge and highly influential figure in the international art world since the early 60’s; she was around for the founding of the Fluxus movement, she hung out with John Cage, she was married to Toshi Ichiyangi, and she was doing brilliant conceptual and performance art that was way ahead of it’s time.  Plus, she recorded a lot of albums — check out 1971’s “Fly” (and the song “Mindtrain” in particular) for a freaky far-out krautrock-style excursion, it’s pretty fucking awesome.}

Anyhow, I agree wholeheartedly with the article above: the vilification of Yoko Ono has little basis in historical truth, and is a particularly persistent example of the ways in which disgusting sexual and racial stereotypes can often rear their ugly heads under a thin and unconvincing disguise. As this article goes to great lengths to demonstrate, Yoko Ono has been used as a scapegoat for the breakup of a band that was largely made up of ill-behaved egotists who hated each other, and whom each had their own reasons for putting a spin on the popular historical interpretation of their own legacy.

(Ordinarily I’d feel it pretty crass and tactless to write or read an article that goes into such depth about anyone’s personal life, but hey — it’s The Fucking Beatles, at this point all this stuff is not only public record, but selected parts of it have even reached the level of trivia that schoolchildren can recite decades later. And thus the myth of “Yoko broke up the band” is so pervasive and popular that I really do think it’s kind of neccessary to go to such lengths to deflate it.)

With that in mind, here’s a proposition = can we agree to stop saying childish, sexist, ignorant stuff like “Yoko broke up the Beatles” and instead value her on her own terms as an artist? Can we call her “Yoko Ono the artist” and not “John Lennon’s ex-wife”? It’s perhaps a difficult thing to do (in part because of Yoko herself– see below), but I think it’s worth the effort.

Anyhow, here seems as good a place as any to unpack some thoughts I’ve had about Yoko Ono and her work. I’ve always felt conflicted about a lot of her art,  for a lot of the same reasons that I feel conflicted about the Fluxus movement — on the one hand, so much of it is about questioning the nature of “art” as a highly-priced commodity, evualuating simple everyday tasks as artistic statements, inviting the audience to participate and think of themselves as artists instead of consumers, breaking down the walls of privelage between artists and theirs audiences, etc. Her 1964 book “Grapefruit” is nothing short of brilliant, in this regard. This stuff is awesome.

But then on the other hand — and this is the part I have a problem with — why is so much of the rest of her art about her own fame, and about the fame of John Lennon?  If your whole mantra is “anyone can be an artist, art shouldn’t be private and exclusive” — then isn’t it massively hypocritical to spend all your time explicitly celebrating yourself as a famous person? And even stranger for an outspoken feminist to simplify her entire public identity to that of a widow?

I mean, I’m not telling her how she should feel about her husband’s death — she has every right to be upset — but to make art about very little else for the next 25 years… in her case it’s resulted in a lot of shitty, disingenuous art: art that is explicitly about placing the artist on a pedestal above her audience, whose function is to build a wall between Yoko and the rest of the world; and to the degree that it does allow us to sympathize with her, it only demeans her own importance — it reduces her to a reporter who can tell us “what was it like to be married to a Beatle? how did you feel when John got shot?” (see: her 2003 book “Spare Rooms” for the most egregious example that I’m familiar with). It’s particularly sad to see this coming from a woman who’s been such an outspoken feminist in the elsewhere in her career, that she now defines herself publicly and frequently as the widow of a pop musician. Again, she can feel however she likes — but the art she’s making about it is not only Bad Art, it’s politically regressive and disappointingly hypocritical.

As part of a summer internship I once had in college, I spent the better part of a month unpacking and framing and hanging a collection of archival Ono-related materials; limited editions of her visual works, first editions of her books, posters advertising her film screenings, photos, vintage album covers, etc. It was pretty neat getting to spend time with the parts of her career I was less familiar with, and while I already knew that her art was good, this was the point at which I actually started to like a lot of it.

There was never any sign of Yoko herself whenever we went to her office and storage space to pick things up; as the art opening drew nearer, there was a lot of deliberation and evasion as to whether she would actually be attending (despite the fact that her nominal base of operations was only one block away.) She did indeed come to the opening, and the resulting scenario was one of the strangest social situations I’ve ever been in. Not only was she was intimidatingly meek and silent, she also seemed to have little idea of where she was, or why. The entire restrospective showing had been organized with little-to-no involvement from the artist herself, and she seemed sort of befuddled and lost for the short time she was there. Furthermore, the attendees were all sycophantically fascinated by her presence, although they didn’t seem to actually know or care much about her work itself; to them she was “Yoko Ono, Famous Person, Widow of a Beatle.”  It was pretty grossly uncomfortable.

I came away from the experience thinking how sad and strange it was that she had built such a thick social wall between herself and the rest of the world.  Now, having read the article linked at the top of this post, I can’t help but thinking that we the public are responsible for at least half of that wall; if good fences make good neighbors, then it also takes the consent of two states to establish a border — Yoko Ono may be content to spend the remainder of her career in a fortress of inaccessable fame, but we’re the ones who helped put her here, and I can’t help but hold a lot of sympathy for the position that she’s placed in as an artist by the cultural identity we’ve granted her — even if it has made her art really bad.

“Grapefruit” and “Fly” are still totally awesome, though. Enough of my bad metaphors. Do yrself a favor and check out “Mindtrain,” it’s 17-minutes of compellingly damaged groovyness. (for contemporary reference, think the first side of “God’s Money” by Gang Gang Dance, 33 years too early). I’m so seriously playing it on my radio show next week.

Tags: feature