In Defense of Yoko Ono

“Yoko is as important to me as Paul and Dylan rolled into one. I don’t think she will get recognition until she’s dead. There’s me, and maybe I could count the people on one hand that have any conception of what she is or what her mind is like, or what her work means.”

John Lennon

In the middle of rolling my wheelchair from one room to another, Yoko Ono suddenly entered my brain. Immediately i began to wonder when i first became familiar with her.

Similar to Winnie Mandela, Amy Jacques Garvey, Shirley Graham DuBois or Mama Zondeni Sobukwe, people continue to view Yoko Ono as an extension of her husband. Even though i’ve heard her name ever since i was a child (as anything associated with The Beatles was fairly ubiquitous in popular culture), when i came to know who she was, i was always fascinated with her.

For as long as i can remember i have been into what is considered the avant garde of music, art, poetry and film; i saw it as an extension of the punk ethos- a rejection of the status quo. When i first saw Yoko Ono’s primal screams on the Rock And Roll Circus, i saw her as the predecessor of bands such as Free Kitten and The Boredoms. ‘Give Me Something’ was the one song i had on repeat from Double Fantasy, her collaborative (final) album with John Lennon. i heard it, and it reminded me of Siouxsie & The Banshees. Approximately Infinite Universe (Ono’s third solo album) has become one of my top 50 favorite albums of all time, and with the risk of being ridiculed, will argue that i prefer Lennon’s work with Ono to any Beatles album (then again, i am a person who openly considers St. Anger to be one of the top 10 greatest of all time, so my musical preferences should be of little to no surprise).

Make no mistake- Ono has her share of contradictions. This is not the primary aim of the discussion. Among other things, even with the heavily problematic utilization of a racial epithet as an analogous address toward the damaging effects of patriarchy (from the album Sometime In New York City), her grievances are not incorrect.

i saw Ono in the late 1990s at an early film retrospective she hosted at the Whitney Museum. During the question and answer period, you could see her increasing frustration with the questions and comments which downplayed her artistic integrity. The moment that will forever be sealed in my brain was when a man stood up and began to name drop a series of (male) musicians who could have worked with her on the soundtrack to one of her films. Steely eyed, she responded, “That was all me.” Embarrassed, the man slowly sat back in the chair.

i walked out of the museum with a greater respect for Yoko Ono, as a woman working outside the parameters of gendered and artistic expectation.

“In Fluxus there has never been any attempt to agree on aims or methods; individuals with something unnameable in common have simply coalesced to publish and perform their work. Perhaps this common thing is a feeling that the bounds of art are much wider than they have conventionally seemed, or that art and certain long established bounds are no longer very useful.”

George Brecht

“Force and intimidation were in the air. People were silenced. Cut Piece is my hope for world peace. When I first performed this work, in 1964, I did it with some anger and turbulence in my heart. This time I do it with love for you, for me, and for the world.”

Yoko Ono, 2003

The message lined within the gatefold of 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe makes a pertinent defense against ‘Girlboss’ feminism, ultimately rooted in patriarchy and capitalism: “The aim of the feminist movement should not just end with getting more jobs in the existing society, though we should definitely work on that as well. We have to keep on going until the whole of the female race is freed.

How are we going to go about this? This society is the very society which killed female freedom: the society which was built on female slavery. If we try to achieve our freedom within the framework of the existing social set-up, men, who run the society, will continue to make a token gesture of giving us a place in their world. Some of us will succeed in moving into elitist jobs kicking our sisters on the way up. Others will resort to producing babies, or be conned into thinking that joining male perversions and madness is what equality is about: “join the army” “join the sexist trip,” etc.”

Messages that address intersections of oppression in some fashion are always going be timeless, similar to art that challenges the notion of what the capitalist class considers ‘decent’ or ‘presentable’.

Within the the Fluxus movement (of which Ono was a part of) was a manifesto in which the objective was the direct opposition to the domination of commercial/bourgeois and Eurocentric notions of art. Of course, thinking about Fluxus led me to further think about Adam Neely’s commentary regarding how Western/European imperialism has shaped how many come to critique and interpret music; though Neely was critical of the systems that dictate these vehicles of education and criticism (and not necessarily the music itself), Neely’s examination in many cases was reduced to ‘wokeness’, with a focus merely on the baseline and not necessarily the content within it. Many arguments against Neely seemed to actually prove his point.

The result of the commercialization of art and music is the reduction of access to the masses. When we think of Classical/Baroque music, it’s equated to something that is ‘high class,’ when in some cases it was anything but. Several currently revered musicians left this earth in poverty, and were debated over during their time on earth. One of the greatest examples of this is Antonio Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (translated into The Four Seasons). Composed during his time as a teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà (simultaneously encouraging girls to play music), the concerto of 12 movements was deemed ‘radical’ at the time, as this format was not common.

It would not be surprising that someone in this day and age would regard Fluxus as being synonymous as ‘high art’ or ‘high class’, since it may not currently be thought of as confrontational as was originally intended. What does remain confrontational is the existence of Yoko Ono.

Even with her contradictions as an individual, her existence in this world as an Assertive Asian Woman Artist automatically politicizes her, despite the constant lament that ‘politics should stay out of art and music.’ The greatest art is going to lead us to question our place in society, and acknowledge the intersections within it. Both Ono and fellow Fluxus artist Shigeko Kubota actively struggled against patriarchal mores (in both Japan and the U.S.) through active works such as Cut Piece and Vagina Painting.

Despite Ono being a successful artist in her own right, her legacy will forever be tied to John Lennon, who initially met her at one of her performances. Even worse, despite being countered by members of the Beatles themselves, she continues to be vilified for being the person who single-handedly ‘broke up the Beatles.’

Similar to my feelings on Metallica’s St. Anger and Lulu, or Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica; while i have no problem with Ono’s output, i do understand why both former and latter works are polarizing. i will not argue about this. That said, when i see comments calling her everything from a “Manly looking beast… who has the face that would make a freight train take a dirt road,” to a “pesticide,” to “a verified witch,” as well as, “I’m just here wondering how fucking high Lennon was that he saw any beauty in that faulty alarm siren of a human”… right on down to “Chapman shot the wrong person,” it’s easy to see that it becomes less about art and more about racism and patriarchy.

As John Lennon openly struggled with his own experiences as one who committed violence upon women and children (the man also mocked disabled folks on camera); he continues to be lionized as his history of abuse is seemingly expunged from the vocabulary of admirers, and the same violence upon which Lennon wished to atone for is enacted upon his wife.

We live in a society starved of maturity, where we are conditioned to see everything as binary, as a dichotomy. It should be clear that accountability and addressing one’s contradictions are not synonymous with ‘cancellation,’ and yet many take offense at just that, dishing out death threats and doxxing to those who dare challenge the idealized images of a celebrity.

While it was ultimately idealistic; i do not have the definitive answer on what (or who) led John Lennon to a more philosophical trajectory, mixed with a socialist-leaning political analysis. What we do know (whether it was with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or Yoko Ono) is that a spectrum of the cultural and spiritual Asian landscape had a hand in the latter chapter of his life’s journey. It could be possible that Lennon held a warped fetishishization of all that is ‘Asia’. Again, i do not know.

(Also) Again, what we know is that in a society based on hierarchies and imbalance; there was a resistance to the introduction of an increased feminine element in Lennon’s life journey. The more time he spent with Yoko, the more she became an ‘equal partner’ as opposed to simply, ‘a wife’. The more she developed into an ‘equal partner’, the more he was forced to question the intersections of oppression, both in society and within himself. The argued root of the opposition was not only in Yoko Ono ‘killing the Beatles’; she also emasculated John Lennon.

This may seem a strange or inappropriate comparison to some- while Yoko Ono’s actions as a whole have not resulted in materially dangerous consequences; my defense of her is not unlike those who supported an OJ Simpson acquittal in 1994. The support is not of the individual, but what they represent in a hierarchical social structure. Aside from the most dedicated of the ‘Free OJ’ contingent; the cries of joy upon news of this acquittal (particularly after the acquittal of the LAPD officers that beat Rodney King on camera in 1991) did not necessarily represent support for OJ himself. Simpson was a symbolic victory. It can be debated all day whether or not this was an apt response; but if we are quick to judge or dictate how the recipients of structural and systemic violence have responded to such an event, and if we are quick to see all responses to this acquittal as monolithic; we must question the root of our own reaction.

Among mainstream conversation was the focus on the acquittal itself. The view was pretty cut and dry: OJ was ‘one of the good ones,’ until he wasn’t. Despite his long history of abuse towards women, he was now seen as a brute; he became racialized in a society he assimilated in, because he murdered (or had a hand in murdering) a blonde, white woman- the pinnacle of femininity in a white supremacist system. Among African communities in particular, there was a more nuanced understanding that despite Simpson rejecting all connections to ‘the culture’ until it was convenient, and despite him being a traitor to the people’s class; the circus of the trial led the world to witness even further the racist tactics of the Los Angeles Police department (LAPD), and attorney Johnnie Cochran was able to exploit this. He emphasized to the jury: “If you don’t speak out, if you don’t stand up, if you don’t do what’s right, this kind of conduct will continue on forever.”

Cochran had his share of contradictions in whom he represented as a defense attorney; that said, even if those he defended have been incredibly problematic; Cochran most likely looked at his role as serving a larger purpose, particularly in light of his work defending comrades such as Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt.

My defense of Yoko Ono is not about Yoko Ono herself. i do not personally know her enough to defend her character as an individual. Ono (and others like her) participated in paving the way for confrontational art that holds a mirror up to society. The legacy of Ono (and her comrades in Fluxus) gave way to the marriage of art and unconventional voice, with artists such as Kate Bush, Lene Lovich, Diamanda Galás, Mike Patton (and his many projects) and Klaus Nomi. Her body of work is just as important as Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, The Residents, John Coltrane, Keiji Haino, Sonic Youth or John Zorn. To some degree i’m sure she has even had some subconscious influence in my own experience as a person who has participated in art/writers’ collectives, as well as the curator of house shows and makeshift ‘galleries’.

After a number of years from a break, within the past month or so i began painting again. It’s something i missed greatly, and perhaps this written piece is the universe contributing to making a connection to what i’ve already renewed in myself.

In a culture where so much is devoid of context and reduced to a meme, we must appreciate Yoko Ono beyond the perception that she is some ‘unhinged wild woman’ who wails in the middle of a museum.

This piece is ultimately not about Yoko Ono as a person, but the voice that is within each of us, constrained by the cloak of society’s limitations or hierarchical structures. Each cut we make of the cloak that covers the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, will eventually reveal the beauty that lie underneath.