Yoko Ono ventured into the art world in the late 1950s when artists were still expected to produce aesthetically enticing and commercially valuable objects. There was little understanding, at the time, for the offbeat art that looked at being intellectually intriguing and politically provocative rather than visually palatable. Ono was amongst the forerunners of the buoyant movement that shook the establishment, revolutionised conventional conceptions of art, and “established a radically different sensibility — one whose style and notoriety were to have a lasting impact on the philosophy of artmaking and on the relationship between art and society.“[i]
In her early career Ono mingled with John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, soaking in their radical approach and nourishing her own interest in eccentric, idiosyncratic, and discharged forms of expression. Drawing on the legacy of anarchic Dada and chuffed by Marcel Duchamp’s controversial gallery intrusions, Ono and other conceptual artists came together in their response to the image-driven values of the society and thoroughly redefined the way in which art was to be perceived. Philosophically complex yet visually plain, Ono’s art was fun and accessible to the common individual, filling up the conventional void between the viewer and the artwork that existed thus far.
Just like many other artists of her time, Ono shifted freely between variety of styles and genres, disregarding the pre-existing rigid boundaries. In 1958 performance artist Allan Kaprow wrote, “the young artist of today need no longer say ‘I am a painter’ or ‘a poet’ or ‘a dancer’. He is simply an ‘artist’,”[ii] while dancer Yvonne Rainer described the spirit of those times as “a dare-devil willingness to try anything.”[iii] With this enthusiasm, Ono produced work in diverse media including electronic music, video art, installations, fluxus performances, paintings, etc. She also opened the doors of her own house to art gatherings, performances, and exhibitions circumventing elitist galleries whose palace gates were tightly closed for the new vanguard. In Ono’s home art vagabonds mingled, interacted, shared ideas, and engaged in “an inter-disciplinary exchange that exerted a critical impact on the evolution of the new aesthetic.”[iv]
This new aesthetic was not only approachable but allowed the audience to immerse in the artworks completely – to touch and manipulate them, participating in their creation. By letting the audience co-produce their work, artists showed unprecedented trust towards the public, embodied Joseph Beuys statement that “everyone is an artist,” and rejected “the vision of the artists as a privileged maker of hallowed objects.”[v] Instead of sedating the public, and making it ripe for political manipulation, the new participatory art was, as expressed by musician Edgard Varese, “…dangerous to inertia and destructive to habit,” and was there to shake and stimulate.
Repulsed by the Vietnam War and incited by Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements, Yoko Ono and other artists demonstrated their “position on political, social and ethical problems,”[vi] and embodied the Brechtian approach “[a]rt is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” In order to express urgent ideas with utmost clarity, Ono and fellow artists stripped their artworks down to the bear bones, taking away the material properties of sedating expressionism (beauty, visual intoxication), and creating art that used very simplistic and direct means. They sought to produce work that would not result in “aesthetic admiration, but incite the viewer to question the social and political landscape”[vii] – the intention was to instigate, rather then distract.
Politically charged art interventions took on a variety of presentational forms, from On Kawara’s text-based pieces to numerous performances in which artists often confronted viewers with brutality (i.e. Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’ where she imposed herself to potential assault) in order to draw attention to current social and political issues and “alter [viewer’s] perception of violence.”[viii] Ono was also renowned for her numerous pacifistic works (i.e. ‘Play it by Trust’, ‘Pieces of Sky’, ‘We’re all water’, and instruction based ‘Mend Piece’), where she allowed the audience to ‘become virtuous by practicing virtue.’[ix] By letting visitors experience the beauty of “attaining peace on a small scale,”[x] Ono hoped they would leave elevated and translate this renewed eagerness for peace into the outside world.
[i] Haskell, Barbara, BLAM, p12
[ii] Kaprow, Allan, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” Art News, October 1958
[iii] Haskell, Barbara, BLAM, p13
[iv] ibid, p12
[v] Gelenson, David W., Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, p53
[vi] Bird, Jon and Newman Michael, Rewriting Conceptual Art, Location 2667-2673
[viii] RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art, p159
[x] War is Over (if you want it); exhibition catalogue p5
[TEXT BY: IRA FERRIS]