Yoko Ono turns 81 today! Below is a New York Times magazine article celebrating the enigmatic life and art of the avant-garde activist, excerpted from Lisa Carver’s book, Reaching Out with No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono.
Yoko Ono is not pretty, she is not easy, her paintings aren’t recognizable, her voice is not melodious, her films are without plot and her Happenings make no sense. One of her paintings you are told to sleep on. One of her paintings you are told to burn. One of her paintings isn’t a painting at all — it’s you going outside and looking at the sky. Most of her stuff is not even there. This is why I love her. This is why we need her. We have too much stuff already. It clutters our view, inward and outward.
We need more impossible in our culture. Go out and capture moonlight on water in a bucket, she commands. Her art is instructions for tasks impossible to complete. We already have a billion lovely things and a million amazing artists who have honed their talent and have lorded it above us. People who have achieved the highest of the possible. People wearing their roles as artist or writer or filmmaker or spokesman as a suit of armor or as an invisibility cloak or as an intimidatingly, unacquirably tasteful outfit.
Even other artists can’t figure out Ono or accept her as legit, nor can she obey the club rules. Her stuff is all wrong. She tells you to spend a whole year coughing. Listen to a two-minute song of recorded silence, music lovers. As for you, the most imperialist and arms-profiteering superpower in the history of the world, give peace a chance.
There are two schools of art. One is what is made beautiful by the artist; the other is to make way for the viewer to see or feel what is already beautiful.
The first is to make something ornate and unreachably special with skills. The viewer or listener is awed, their belief regarding the order of things is confirmed and they are reminded by this unachievable beauty of their own powerlessness. And I do love that kind of art, the beautiful kind.
The other way to make art is to tear down what’s between us and nature, us and eternity, us and the realization that everything is already perfect. In this experience of art, the viewer or listener loses respect for the current order or arrangement of civilization and thus becomes powerful, like King Kong, and outside civilization, like God — or simply like the shuffling janitor who is pleased with his own work and sleeps well.
I always admired the Japanese use of negative space in decorating and the unspoken in conversations (or so I gather from old films). Ono uses the negative positively. She is a classically trained operatic student who uses silence or screeches in her singing; a recipient of coveted gallery showings who hangs unpainted canvases with requests for you to pound holes in them or to walk on them. She was the first woman admitted to the philosophy program at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, and could travel the world discoursing multisyllabically, yet instead she tries lying in bed and not lifting a finger to cure a war.
It takes an enormous lack of ego to not put your imprint on everything you do, to notemploy your learning and position. To stand back, to hold back, to keep your mouth shut. To yell with your silence, when you know you very well could make soothing and welcomed sounds at the drop of a hat. She could sing; she knows how. And being a Beatles wife could have been a magic charm — but she wasn’t interested. It takes willpower to overpower the will to power. To be accepted, to be thought nice, is traditionally woman’s power. That is something Ono doesn’t need.
To continue reading, go to NYTimes.com!
John Lennon once described her as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” Many people are aware of her art, and her music has always split crowds, from her caterwauling earliest work to her later dance numbers, but how many people have looked at Yoko Ono’s decades-spanning career and varied work in total and asked the simple question, “Is it any good?”
From her earliest work with the Fluxus group and especially her relationship with John Cage, through her enigmatic pop happenings (where she met John Lennon), her experimental films, cryptic books, conceptual art, and her long recording career that has vacillated between avant-garde noise and proto-new wave, earning the admiration of other artists while generally confusing the public at large who often sees her only in the role of the widow Lennon,Reaching Out with No Hands is the first serious, critical, wide-ranging look at Yoko Ono the artist and musician.
A must-read for art and music fans interested in going beyond the stereotyped observations of Yoko as a Lennon hanger-on or inconsequential avant noisemaker.