Yoko Ono— blamed for the break-up of the Beatles, criticized as spotlight-grabber and a phony— is actually a true artist, and a superb one. It’s just she always been so “out there” that few people appreciate her.
1. She’s a pioneer of “destruction art.”
Born in Tokyo in 1933, and a survivor of the Allied firebombing of the city in 1944, Yoko Ono became a pioneer of “destruction art” — performances that deal with death and renewal. How could she not? Between 80,000 and 130,000 Japanese civilians were killed by the bombing. The human carnage was so great that the blood-red mists and stench of burning flesh that wafted up sickened the bomber pilots, forcing them to grab oxygen masks to keep from vomiting. As an artist in the 1960s, she found ways to turn her experience with death, violence and chaos into art.
2. She’s a self-made artist who wouldn’t be discouraged.
When she was growing up in Japan, women artists were at the bottom of the social heap. They were viewed with contempt for fooling around with a “hobby” when they should be learning to be good wives for the family and the state. Ono’s father was passionate about music and happily encouraged her with private lessons. But then, he told his daughter not to become a composer because it was “too hard for women.”
3. She was an inspiration to other artists.
In New York in the 60s, her loft was the center of the hippest stuff around. She hosted performances by young artists were edgy and totally experimental. As I say in Imagine: The Story of a Song, “Composer John Cage, a friend and teacher attended one. Cage was experimenting with recording, editing, and looping tape to capture unplanned possibilities. Yoko set fire to a painting for effect, ruining it. He gently suggested that next time she should treat the paper with flame retardant.” Events in Ono’s loft inspired a wild group of artists known as Fluxus.
4. She was early on the scene with art about feminism.
One of her best-known performances early in her career was “Cut Piece.” She sits on a stage while members of the audience take the scissors on the floor beside her, and cut away her clothing piece by piece. She remains still, not resisting, strangely peaceful, until no one dares take any more. People were shocked when she and John Lennon appeared nude on the album cover of Two Virgins. But it was her suggestion, and her way of making them equals — just a man and a woman.
5. She brings humor to art and questions what’s old and sacred.
In “Kite Piece I,” Ono asks participants to get a paper copy of the Mona Lisa and turn it into a kite. Then they should break the string and let it fly away. She asked audiences to imagine destroying a museum in their imagination, and everything in it with no fear of getting arrested. What would happen? How can you be freer? “Common sense prevents you from thinking,” she proclaims. “Have less sense and you will make more sense.”
6. She made John Lennon a better, more thoughtful artist.
John Lennon, mop-top Beatle from Liverpool — all gear, all fab — was quite a bit different in his behavior and thinking after meeting Ono. She knew she was regarded as the other woman, the adulteress who wrecked Lennon’s marriages to his wife Cynthia and to the Beatles. The media and public hated and feared her for being assertive and different.
But their relationship, John and Yoko’s, was loving and stimulating. She convinced him he was trapped by pop music’s expectations. And after he saw how she was attacked, he began to think harder about choices he’d made and the way he treated women. Could the guy who wrote the lyric, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man” have written the song “Woman” before meeting Yoko?
7. Her screaming performances are about pain.
People still mourn the terrible, calculated murder of John Lennon in 1980, but little attention is paid to fact that his wife Yoko witnessed it. What could it have been like for her? We’re taught to keep our pain inside and hidden, but as an artist Yoko refuses to. Not expressing pain is another way of erasing our identity, she says. No acknowledgement of pain, no reconciliation with the past. Want to hear how it feels to be inside a woman who saw her husband killed? Watch her one of Yoko’s screaming performances on YouTube.
8. She makes peace real.
John and Yoko used their time, money, and fame to make world peace a public issue. How could anyone ignore their televised Bed-Ins for Peace, or the giant billboards in New York City proclaiming War is Over (If you Want it)? After John’s death, she continued campaigning for peace. Every year on the anniversary of John’s murder, she participates in a peace vigil. In 2007, she unveiled her Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavík, Iceland: a wishing well from which a giant beam of light shoots toward the sky, symbolically projecting a unifying and powerful message of peace into the darkness.
9. Her greatest work of art was breaking up the Beatles.
As a someone who created “destruction art,” Yoko Ono knew that tearing things down is creative, too. It’s freeing, it opens possibilities. When Yoko met John, he was a member of rock ‘n’ roll band whose members were getting tired of each other. From Imagine: The Story of a Song: “During the recording of Abbey Road in 1969, the tension among the band members was high….’The fame thing,’ as Ringo put it, and all the pressures associated with it were getting tiresome to the ‘four boys’ who were married men now approaching 30 with children.”
Yoko drove a wedge between them and forced a move none of them wanted to make. She freed them from each other. By doing so, the band became four individual song-writers and musicians — something they all needed to be creatively.
10. She won’t be silenced.
From the beginning of life as an artist, Ono was told that women weren’t serious artists. Even when she was hosting and presenting wild performances in her loft, she was just regarded as the owner of the place, not an independent artist. “Most of my friends were all male and the tried to stop me being an artist. They tried to shut my mouth.”
Just as friends and family tried to discourage her, the press was also as unfriendly when she was with Lennon. The message in those days was rock ‘n’ roll is no place for an aggressive, outspoken woman. And perhaps there was a bit of racism, too — an outspoken Japanese woman.
But she won’t shut up and go away. She’s a survivor of war, of public criticism, and even abuse from Beatlemaniacs who won’t get over it. Unfazed, she continues to live her usual life as a work of art.