Yoko Ono and the Myth That Deserves to Die

Why is it such a perennial youthful rite of passage to misunderstand, to underestimate, even to hate her?

Yoko Ono in 1974. Photo: David Bailey
Yoko Ono in 1974. Photo: David Bailey
Yoko Ono in 1974. Photo: David Bailey

In Tokyo, in 1964, the 31-year-old conceptual artist Yoko Ono organized a happening in which she screened a Hollywood film and gave the audience a simple instruction: Do not look at Rock Hudson, look only at Doris Day.

Like most of the countercultural riddles that appear in Grapefruit, Ono’s book from the same year, the instruction — titled Film Script 5 — was at once facile and mischievously impossible. (Other variations on the piece include asking the audience not to look at any round objects in a film, or to see only red.) It was also, in its way, autobiographical: As one of the few women associated with New York’s avant-garde music scene and the “neo-Dada” Fluxus movement, Ono was by then used to being overshadowed by the more powerful and self-serious men around her. (“I wonder why men can get serious at all,” she mused in Grapefruit. “They have this delicate long thing hanging outside their bodies, which goes up and down by its own will.”) The year she first staged Film Script 5, she’d already extricated herself from one failed marriage and her second was unraveling. She was still two years away from meeting the man with whom she would realize her dream of a completely egalitarian partnership — to symbolize this, they both wore white during their wedding ceremony — but the rest of the world wouldn’t see it that way. They would, of course, see only the towering, superior Him — what could he have possibly seen in Her?

It’s a question that’s somehow echoed across cultures, continents, generations. One evening about ten years ago, when I was working at a summer camp in Washington, D.C., I took some kids to the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden, where one of Yoko Ono’s Wish Trees was on view. Meant to evoke the Japanese prayer trees Ono saw in her youth, these installations instruct the viewer to anonymously write down a wish on a piece of paper and hang it on the tree. I can remember a hell-raising boy camper — earlier in the week he’d sneaked away from the group and blown almost all of his two-week allowance on cigars — reading the placard aloud in a sarcastic tone: “When the tree is full, Yoko will collect the wishes and bury them herself at the base of the Imagine Peace Tower on Videy Island in Iceland.” He cackled. I watched him pick up a pencil, scribble down his wish, and hang it on a branch of dogwood. It said: “I wish Yoko Ono hadn’t broken up the Beatles.”

Why is it such a perennial youthful rite of passage to misunderstand, to underestimate, even to hate Yoko Ono? What is this strange power she continues to wield? It’s as good a time as any to ask these questions, since this month she is the subject of her first official MoMA exhibit, “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971.” I say “official,” of course, because in 1971 Ono staged an “imaginary” MoMA exhibit, partially to protest its collection’s lack of female artists. Thanks to a slyly placed F on the cover of the accompanying catalogue, the piece is colloquially known as Museum of Modern Fart. (And Camille Paglia says Ono has no sense of humor!)

Here is the tricky and brilliantly fearless thing about Yoko Ono’s art: It inherently makes peace with that teenage boy’s irreverent response. It invites it, even. Drawn to words like “incomplete,” Ono has always trusted the viewer to finish her work. When she got together with John Lennon during the latter part of the era covered by the show — the same era when she became arguably the most hated woman in the world — her art continued to engage with whatever anybody had to say about her. Although it might strike some as more mawkish than her provocative early efforts, Wish Tree exists on the same continuum as 1964’s Cut Piece — in which she sat stone-faced (like a modern Buddha or a proto-Abramovic) in front of an audience and asked them to snip off pieces of her clothing. The possibility of mockery, dissent, and violence is all part of the point. Love it or hate it, Ono’s art is a two-way mirror, throwing your own reaction back at you. In her thoughtful book Reaching Out With No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono, Lisa Carver asks: “Should I have sympathy or admiration or worry about what she might reveal to me about me?”

Ten years ago, I wasn’t ready to answer that question. What’s most troubling about my Wish Tree memory is not what the boy wrote but that I laughed at it. Back then, I didn’t feel any need to defend Ono — if anything, I wanted to position myself apart from what I thought she represented. I bought the Yoko Myth wholesale. The only received images I could conjure of her were ones in which she was tied to John: Here she is sitting silently at the Let It Be sessions as Paul fumes; there she is entwined with her man in the famous Annie Leibovitz picture. I still considered her name an insult — the woman who won’t let the boys have their fun. In my early 20s, it felt important to let men believe that I wasn’t like that. I hated all the parts of myself that could be perceived as co-dependent or excessively feminine. I was terrified of vulnerability because I thought it could exist only at the expense of independence. I thought I knew what a feminist was. I thought I knew about Yoko Ono. I had a lot to learn.

It was only just recently that I began to love her, after devouring Carver’s book. Beginning to love Yoko Ono is a dangerous experience, because then you wonder: If Yoko Ono was something more than the woman who broke up the Beatles, then what other lies have I been told?

Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo in 1933 to a Buddhist mother and a Christian father — the first of many facts of her wildly antithetical life that sound like the set-up to a bad joke. (A Beatle and a Japanese conceptual artist walk into a bar …) Her parents were well off, but her childhood was still turbulent because she couldn’t measure up to their expectations. Her (beautiful) mother deemed her “handsome” but “not pretty.” When she was 13, her father — a failed classical pianist turned successful banker — advised her to give up playing the piano because her hands were too small. Yoko blurted out that she would rather be a composer than a pianist anyway, and he told her this was even less likely: Could she name a single female composer? She couldn’t, but even back then her idea of the profession was a tad unconventional. The homework assignment that most sparked her imagination had been one in which she was asked to translate a bird’s song into musical notation.

When she was young, her father’s job shuttled the family between the U.S. and Japan, but in the ’40s this became impossible. The war ripped apart Ono’s family — and her sense of self. After the firebombing of Toyko in 1945, Yoko, her mother, and her brother and sister fled to a bunker, where they had to barter for food. Her father was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp; he was assumed dead for almost a year. External order was eventually restored, but for Yoko the postwar years were marked by internal tumult, especially since she was becoming fascinated by Hollywood. “I remember being in film theaters where the baddies were always Asian,” she has recalled. “When the lights went up, I thought, Am I [a baddie too]?

When she was 18, Ono became the first female student to enroll in Gakushuin University’s philosophy department. She read Marx and Sartre and Dostoyevsky, then got bored by the rigidness of it all, dropping out after two semesters. In the meantime, her parents had moved to — of all places — Scarsdale, New York; in 1953, she joined them and enrolled at Sarah Lawrence. She felt, as ever, isolated and adrift, but she’d begun exorcising those feelings by writing strange short stories and Zen-like poems. She wrote one called “Secret Piece” that summer: “Decide on one note that you want to play. Play it with the following accompaniment: the woods from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. in the summer.” She showed her writings to a trusted professor and confessed her lifelong dream of translating birdsong into music. He asked if she’d heard of this guy John Cage.

And so began Ono’s involvement with the New York avant-garde. By 1956, she was married to the Juilliard student Toshi Ichiyanagi; by 1960, they were hosting a concert series in their $50-a-month Chambers Street loft attended by such luminaries and luminaries-to-be as Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Philip Glass. Occasionally, Ono performed some of her own pieces: In one, she took eggs and Jell-O out of her fridge and smeared them onto a canvas, and when she was done she lit a match and set it on fire.

Like that of her contemporaries in the conceptual-art world, Ono’s early work was all about blurring the line between art and everyday life. Every image is a painting; every sound is a song. More than the work of anybody she actually hung out with, Ono’s early art reminds me of Yves Klein, the impish French artist whose first piece was — in his imagination — to sign his name in the sky. It’s true that some of Ono’s ideas inspired George Maciunas to start Fluxus, but she never felt entirely included in this — or any — group. Accordingly, there’s a loneliness to the pieces from early in the period covered by the MoMA show: One subtitled Painting for Cowards instructs the artist performing the work to cut a hole in a canvas and shake people’s hands through it. Ono felt alienated by a certain stuffiness and elitism in the scene. “The avant-garde guys … were all just so cool, right?” she recalled years later. “There was also this very asexual kind of atmosphere in the music. And I wanted to throw blood.”

Ono sitting in her Half Bedroom, 1967. Photo: John Knoote/ANL/REX Shutterstock/1967 Rex USA.

Recently, I sent a friend a YouTube link in an email and warned her, “Only watch this if you want to be angry!” It was a video by the comedian and podcaster Bill Burr, talking over a 1972 clip of John and Yoko performing with Chuck Berry on The Mike Douglas Show. Lennon and Berry are “killing it,” Burr declares, and Ono’s just “playing some stupid fucking drum, and even though she has no fucking talent whatsoever, he’s putting her in the fucking band just so she’ll shut the fuck up and stop nagging him!” This joke was not original enough to offend me, but I felt an anger rising when Burr panned back: “Dude, did you ever have, like, a buddy of yours and he’s dating some fucking psycho but he’s in love with her so you can’t fucking say anything? And you’re just sitting there waiting for the fucking lightning bolt to hit your friend in the head where he finally realizes that he’s dating a psycho cunt?”

I have always been drawn to the women who can arouse this kind of vitriol. The kind of hate that seems too big and billowing to be directed at just one woman, the kind that seems like a person or an entire society is vomiting out all its misogyny onto one convenient scapegoat. At some point — after successive Joan of Arc and Courtney Love phases — I started to see this position of feminine abjectness as a kind of superpower. A position from which a woman could offend far more deeply than a man.

When I watch that Mike Douglas performance now, I see something different from what Burr does — or from what I might have seen a decade ago. I see in Ono a locus of possibility. A portal leading toward an alternate universe in which I can freely admit sacrilegious things: that I feel uncomfortable falling at the feet of both Lennon or Berry because one of them beat his ex-wife and the other was once arrested for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines; that these two don’t sound all that great together; that there is something laughably tame about their performance, and by extension the entire supposedly revolutionary art form of rock and roll, if it can be so profoundly threatened by a woman playing a drum and making weird noises with her voice. I see a woman throwing blood.

In 1964, Ono began staging Cut Piece, still probably her best-known work, the tone of which depends entirely on the energy in the room. When she debuted it in Tokyo that year, the audience was polite, but in Kyoto, a man “took the pair of scissors and made a motion to stab [her].” Conversely, when the artist Charlotte Moorman performed Cut Piece in a convent, Ono says, “they bypassed the sexual connotation totally and just understood the philosophical connotation and the positive side, which was to be giving.”

Ono encourages other people to stage her pieces. As the film scholar Scott MacDonald writes of her Unfinished Film scripts: “For Ono, the concept of a film is, essentially, the film; once the concept exists, anyone who wants to can produce a version of that concept.” This is one of the aspects of her ’60s work that feel strikingly contemporary — in line with how we think of crowdsourced creativity in the YouTube era. Ono eventually helped Lennon translate this kind of openness into his post-Beatles identity too. Think of that famous motto: “You are the Plastic Ono Band.”

Yoko and John met when he swung by a preview of her show at London’s Indica Gallery in November 1966. He took a bite out of the apple she’d staged like a Duchamp readymade — at last, she’d found her Eve. After connecting with Lennon, it was easy for other artists to dismiss her as a sellout or a gold digger, but really Lennon completed her vision, gave her the populist audience she’d long desired. Ono’s art came alive when it broke out beyond the avant-garde, because her mission was to awaken the artist in everybody — not just those who were cool enough to know about the latest goings-on in that Chambers Street loft. “She came to think that the loss of the 4/4 beat by the art-music composers had set them up at the top of a building,” writes her biographer Barb Jungr in Woman: The Incredible Life of Yoko Ono. “Whereas for her the beat gave back the heart to the music, brought it down into the ground of human experience.” Maybe rock and roll was the birdsong she’d been chasing all along.

To that misconception that she is humorless, I offer the following image: a grinning Yoko Ono directing hundreds of people to walk on a treadmill as she films, in close-up, their bare asses.

Such was the production of Ono’s 1966 film No. 4, more often just called Bottoms. The longer version is featured in the MoMA exhibit, but the six-minute cut is on YouTube, and it’s oddly hypnotizing: After about a minute, the four quadrants of the screen become an abstraction, a moving meditation on levity, physicality, and … well, butt cheeks. Ono dubbed the film “an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses.”

Ono’s film work is unabashedly sexual, but never in an obvious or placating way. She made a film called Erection that was a beautiful sequence of a building going up … and, around the same time, she made a 42-minute slow-motion film of John Lennon’s penis called Self-Portrait. (Always delighted by the inanity of censorship, Ono has noted that it was much more difficult to ferry the former film through Customs.) After Bottoms was a succès de scandale in London, an American producer offered her money to make a version with breasts. “I said, If we’re going to do breasts, then I will … fill the screen with a single breast over and over,” Ono said, “but I don’t think that was erotic enough for him. He was thinking eroticism; I was thinking about visual, graphic concepts.”

The most striking of Ono’s films from this time is Rape, her 1969 collaboration with Lennon. Ono’s cameraman follows a German woman (with the cooperation of her sister) through the streets of London, filming her without her consent. At first she’s giggly, and a little flattered by the attention — you have to wonder how it would have played out if the subject were a man — but by the end of the 79 minutes, we’re complicit, watching her have a full-fledged nervous breakdown. It’s an unsettling vision of our present: Viewed today, Rape scans like a pilot of a very fucked-up reality show.

The 2014 Grammys were the night I began to wonder whether millennials would be the ones to finally reject the Yoko Myth. Ono, then 81, strutted out in a jaunty top hat, presented the Album of the Year award to Daft Punk, and danced gleefully to “Get Lucky” from her seat. The internet approved, loudly. My Twitter feed was full of people freaking out about #Yoko; the Huffington Post declared, “Sorry Taylor, Yoko Ono’s the Grammys’ Real Dancing Queen.” Here, at last, she seemed liberated from the hate and punch lines that had plagued her entire public life. Look not at John Lennon; look only at Yoko Ono. It felt triumphant, but I also found myself wondering an inconvenient question: Is Ono’s art less subversive when we’re living in a world that loves her?

The MoMA show prompts that question, too: There is something a little dispiriting about an artist who once staged a protest against the museum being warmly welcomed within its ranks. (And it’s easy to be cynical about that embrace, given the institution’s celebrity-chasing — see the Björk debacle.) But whatever its reason, the show arrives at a moment that is, for once, in step with Ono’s vision. Her meditative instruction pieces feel perfectly aligned with our mania for so-called mindfulness. Her work is being lauded by people correcting a history of female erasure — looking anew at the Doris Days instead of the Rock Hudsons. Many of Grapefruit’s pieces have a sub-140-character brevity. They feel, now, like the 1960s version of a tweet.

“Last year,” Ono wrote in 1968, “I said I’d like to make a ‘smile film,’ which included a smiling face snap of every single human being in the world. But that had obvious technical difficulties and was very likely that the plan would have remained as one of my beautiful never-nevers.” Back then, the idea sounded like a whimsical lark; today, in the age of the selfie, it sounds almost banal in its achievability. Maybe she’s not a radical — or a martyr — anymore. Maybe we’re just beginning to inhabit the world that Yoko Ono always imagined.

*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Yoko Ono and the Myth That Deserves to Die