The brilliant performance artist who captivated the imagination of John Lennon at the height of his Beatles fame has been mocked and misunderstood by dull minds for decades. If she hadn't married John Lennon and helped him discover his own potential as a deeply devoted pacifist and activist, she probably would have continued on a dynamic path to success as an experimental artist in the Andy Warhol/Fluxus vein. There would probably be major Yoko Ono retrospectives at the Guggenheim or Whitney museums today.
Instead, she married John Lennon and collaborated with him on some of the most creative, funny and provocative public protests of the Vietnam War era: a bed-in for peace, fifty acorns tied in a sack, "War Is Over If You Want It". His most famous song "Imagine" is based on a Yoko Ono trope. The lurid, confused headlines John and Yoko generated with their often inexplicable works of public theater helped inspire many people to think deeply about the ruinous war in Vietnam. It appears that they actually helped to turn the tide of public opinion in the United States against the war, proving how much impact an inspired couple of artists and musicians really can have upon world events. John and Yoko actually helped to end a war ... by giving voice to a profound source of protest that engaged a wide audience and reached a breakthrough level of media attention.
Yoko Ono's brand of pacifism is personal, humorous, artistic and psychological. She has suggested that a greater appreciation for the feminine spirit can be a key to a peaceful future, and once declared that she would have cured Adolf Hitler of his hatred by making love with him. She avoids debates and doctrines, but has been tireless in her constant work for peaceful causes. She remains active today, and has more than 4.76 million followers on Twitter.
Before she and John worked together, her most famous work was her 1964 performance "Cut Piece" (see accompanying photo, from a later performance in 1966) in which she sat on a stage and asked observers to take turns cutting off pieces of her clothing with a scissors as she stared impassively ahead. A performance artist's impulse to confront her audience members directly and individually would later surface in the work of Marina Abramovic (who, interestingly, is also from a war-torn region of the world).
Yoko was born in 1933 in Japan. She was 8 years old when her country went to war with the United States, a country she was familiar with because her banker father had temporarily taken the family to live in San Francisco. She lived through World War Two in Tokyo, witnessing horrifying air attacks for years. She was 12 years old when atomic bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's hard not to imagine that her arrival as a brash performance artist in the United States and England was a symbolic gesture of healing. Her courage even to participate in the art scenes of New York City and London was a gesture of peace, and she would work in the medium of "gestures for peace" for the rest of her life.
Yoko Ono remains a brilliant performance artist today. My own favorite Yoko Ono work is the 1972 double album Approximately Infinite Universe, her most powerful and accessible rock album, which should be much more well known than it is. Songs like "I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window" and "Winter Song" and "Move On Fast" may strikes some listeners as bizarre, but they have undeniable musical power (the album was a collaboration with John Lennon, after all, and he knew a little bit about how to make great rock albums).
From pre-war Tokyo to New York City today, Yoko Ono has been a breath of fresh air for peace activism. John Lennon was lucky to have her around, and we are too.
KEY QUOTE: "There may not be much difference between Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon, if we strip them naked."