All She Is Say­ing: Yoko Ono’s En­dur­ing Fem­i­nist Mes­sage

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts -

Yoko Ono mat­ters as much to­day as ever. Read pas­sages from her 1971 man­i­festo “The Fem­i­niza­tion of So­ci­ety” and you could think she was talk­ing about 2007: “This so­ci­ety is driven by neu­rotic speed and force ac­cel­er­ated by greed, and frus­tra­tion of not be­ing able to live up to the im­age of men and wo­man we have cre­ated for our­selves; the im­age has noth­ing to do with the re­al­ity of peo­ple.”

Ono was in her late 30s when she wrote that es­say. By then, she’d de­voted 10 years to mak­ing con­cep­tual and per­for­mance art with the group Fluxus and on her own. She had al­ready be­gun per­form­ing “Cut Piece,” one of her most im­por­tant fem­i­nist works, in which the artist pre­sented her­self on­stage, handed au­di­ence mem­bers scis­sors and asked that they cut away at her cloth­ing. Reprised sev­eral times since 1964, the work, with its ex­plo­ration of power dy­nam­ics and gen­der is­sues, re­mains rel­e­vant now.

Be­cause many of Ono’s works are per­for­ma­tive or con­cep­tual, she presents us with al­most noth­ing to buy. To­day, as in the 1960s, that approach of­fers an an­ti­dote to the ever-ex­pand­ing art mar­ket bub­ble. In­stead of invit­ing a pur­chase, Ono asks that we par­tic­i­pate in her work. She ac­knowl­edges us as much as we must ac­knowl­edge her.

To­day, at 74, Ono ra­di­ates vi­tal­ity. Her on­go­ing work— she gave the Hir­sh­horn a “Wish Tree” ear­lier this month— asks us to help make the world a place of equal­ity and peace for all be­ings.

In an in­ter­view at the Hir­sh­horn Mu­seum on April 2 (with some fol­low-up via e-mail), Ono dis­cussed fem­i­nism, the art world, witches and wiz­ards.

— Jes­sica Daw­son You’ve said that the role of the artist is to “change the value of things.” What is the value of women in our so­ci­ety right now?

[Fem­i­nism] came in and it did its job in a way. But even women got scared of that ti­tle be­cause there was such a back­lash. This is still a back­lash time. But the nice thing about it, ev­ery­body un­der­stands about women now. Be­cause of that they’re get­ting more scared. [Laughs.] There will be a time when the op­po­site sex will un­der­stand that we care for them, too. And we un­der­stand them, too. I worry that women of my gen­er­a­tion— I’m 34— are less vig­i­lant in ad­vo­cat­ing for equal rights. In the art world, the per­cent­age of women rep­re­sented in ma­jor group shows is low to de­clin­ing. How do you feel about th­ese trends?

That’s why I say back­lash. Women are start­ing to find that they might want to go back to the tra­di­tional body of women in the sense of want­ing to cre­ate a fam­ily, want­ing to have ba­bies. And when they have chil­dren they want to spend more time car­ing for their chil­dren. And that’s okay, too. Fi­nally they all come to the same re­al­iza­tion that we are half the sky and the world. We are a very im­por­tant en­ergy that the so­ci­ety can use. To den­i­grate us or to abuse us or to sweep us un­der the rug is not ben­e­fi­cial for the so­ci­ety it­self. You’ve made fewer overtly fem­i­nist pieces in re­cent years. Was this a con­scious de­ci­sion to pro­duce fewer fem­i­nist works?

I don’t think there is any dif­fer­ence in my at­ti­tude about my work. And even “Cut Piece”— I did it in 1964 and then I did it in 2003 in France. I’m still con­tin­u­ing. . . .

I never thought that I was wav­ing flags. I al­ways felt that I was just be­ing me and by be­ing me in my work I was au­to­mat­i­cally be­ing that one who is pro­mot­ing the body of women. Just by the fact that you are a fe­male artist.

And by the fact that that par­tic­u­lar way of ex­press­ing my­self was al­ways be­ing at­tacked so much. That shows where I stood. That the so­ci­ety was not ready to take a wo­man as a real wo­man.

“Yes I’m aW­itch” is a song I wrote in 1974. Very in­ter­est­ingly, if you said, “Yes, I’m a wizard” or “You’re a wizard,” that’s a com­pli­ment.

A wizard is a male ver­sion of a witch. Why is it bad when it’s women? Be­cause then im­me­di­ately you want to burn them. [Laughs.] But wiz­ards you want to praise. We should know that we are all witches. And wiz­ards. Men and women both.

Yes. The hu­man race is a very, very mag­i­cal race. We have a magic power of witches and wiz­ards. We’re here on this earth to un­ravel the mys­tery of this planet. The planet is ask­ing for it. Much of your work is about peace. Yet you also en­cour­age ac­cep­tance of things as they are. Can vi­o­lence ever be ac­cepted as part of hu­man be­hav­ior?

It’s a de­fense mech­a­nism. Like some germs com­ing to the body and they have to maybe vi­o­lently cor­rect it, kick the germs out. For that, I think it’s very im­por­tant that we use our power of vi­o­lence (I don’t like the word vi­o­lence) . . . the power of pro­tect­ing our­selves. I re­cently reread “The Fem­i­niza­tion of So­ci­ety” and it struck me that the es­say could have been writ­ten yes­ter­day. How do you com­pare to­day’s so­ci­ety with that of the early 1970s when you wrote it?

At the time, we thought that we were ter­ri­bly lib­er­ated, the sex­ual revo­lu­tion and all that. But that was mainly for guys. Women didn’t re­ally get the ben­e­fit of it be­cause we have a very dif­fer­ent body struc­ture. We’re re­spon­si­ble for tak­ing the pill and in­gest­ing all those hor­mones.

Ex­actly. So in that sense we are an­gry— when­ever I think about it, it just makes me very an­gry— that anger is very good be­cause it leads to the next pos­i­tive sit­u­a­tion. If we’re not an­gry about it, we won’t do any­thing about it. You have to kill that con­di­tion that is not help­ing us. In that sense, vi­o­lence can be a com­po­nent of progress. In that same es­say, you wrote about a sec­ond stage of fem­i­nism where women “will re­al­ize the fu­til­ity of try­ing to be like men” and “will re­al­ize them­selves as they are” rather than in com­par­i­son to men. Have we got­ten there yet?

It is start­ing to dawn on all women that it is time to for­get about try­ing to com­pete with men who, with their blun­ders, have shown us that they have not been do­ing such a great job. Why try to equate our­selves with such flawed power?

In fact, the whole world is start­ing to re­al­ize that it was the most un­wise thing for our so­ci­ety to have ig­nored women power, to run the so­ci­ety with male pri­or­i­ties. Des­per­a­tion is fi­nally open­ing the door to wis­dom.

In 2003 Ono reprised her per­for­mance “Cut Piece,” first pre­sented in 1964.

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