HAPPY BIRTHDAY, YOKO ONO
Here’s to A Million Years of Fifty Trickster Women.
“You don’t need talent to be an artist. ‘Artist’ is just a frame of mind. Anybody can be an artist; anybody can communicate if they are desperate enough. There is no such thing as imagination of artist. Imagination, if you are desperate enough, will come out of necessity. Out of necessity, you will start to get all kind of imagination.”— Yoko Ono
Among the handful of revelations in the Peter Jackson Beatle’s documentary, Get Back! (you can read my review of the film here), was that the shameful denunciations of Yoko Ono—that she broke up everybody’s favorite band—were utterly false. In fact, Paul McCartney’s sincere wisdom and understanding of the John and Yoko love affair should put all that balderdash to rest.
Setting aside that noisy distraction, take a fresh look at Yoko Ono. She and her husband John Lennon took their stand against war to the world, and from their honeymoon bed. She helped originate the Fluxus art movement, which connected dada, one of the original arts of the absurd—to sixties avant garde, and has been a vital performance and concept artist long before and long after her residency with the Beatles.
She never stops advocating for peace and liberation. And to my sensibilities, the Trickster force is strong with her. On February 18th of this year Yoko turns 89 years old, and to celebrate I share a short excerpt from the chapter I devote to her in my new book, Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love. Yoko’s chapter capstones the section of the book which explores female personae in historic tricksterism:
Her perspective is Y E S. She tries stuff out that often doesn’t work but sometimes does. Avant-garde artist, activist, and dada perpetuator Yoko Ono shared antics, riddles, pranks, and instructions that led folks in the direction of beauty and love, communion and peace. Never one to shy away from existential pain or hard emotions, her utopian visions are strengthened by a clear-eyed idealism that includes suffering. Looking back, we appreciate her Trickster spirit despite vacillating popularity with critics and the public. She’s inspired by artists of the past who might otherwise have been neglected. She shares inspirations with contemporaries who helped her along when she was beat and whom she helped out when she was Beatled. Her art lights the future. With every reevaluation she inspires more and inspires those many generations her junior. Yoko Ono prolonged the life of dada and ensured that artists would continue to imagine, with and without mischief, the playfulness of the child, the art of the absurd, and hopes for a world at peace….
Assessing Yoko Ono demands some considerations. She challenges norms, not only as a woman in the male-dominated music and avant-garde art scenes of the sixties, where her kind of assertiveness was unwelcomed, but as a Japanese woman in a white man’s world.
Yoko Ono rebelled against a privileged, wealthy, judgmental, and disapproving traditional family. Leaving that more secure environment, she jumped into the rapids, a lived a life buffeted about by criticism, risk, and misfortune: she lost a custody battle for her daughter, lost her husband to assassination, endured constant criticism of her radical but uneven career in art,…became emotionally invested in how her art was reviewed and recognized, and faced many other trials. How to dig trickster out of this chaos? While chaos is the trickster’s playground, succumbing to lurid and manufactured sensationalism leads us astray. Instead, distill and focus on Ono’s life lived as art.
John Cale, John Cage, Nam June Paik, and George Maciunas were notable members. But none became more famous than Ono, [i] who deserves credit for bringing Fluxus and dada consciousness to larger audiences.
One of Ono’s major influences was composer John Cage, credited with originating Fluxus concepts through his music compositions. His performances were trickster-like in their indeterminacy—by design there was no design. Fluxus declared unlimited freedom for the artist on the premise that definitions of art were arbitrary and dispensable. One could not predict where a particular composition would go. Marcel Duchamp, the original dada who entered a urinal into a 1917 exhibition, was still on the scene, and he also heavily influenced Fluxus. Fluxus gave birth to new art forms such as intermedia,[ii] conceptual art, and video art. In a nutshell, Fluxus broadened the definition of art, and Yoko Ono grew and developed in its midst. Making your life your art is the maxim of dada, of Fluxus, of Ono.
Jerry Hopkins’ biography Yoko Ono ably summarizes much of Ono’s music and her activist, minimalist, Fluxus art. But he also relies heavily on what the critics thought, often rock critics with no expertise or appreciation for the avant-garde. Further, she was subjected to the sexist realities of the time. The gossipy trash obscured Ono’s intentional statements. The flak she attracted is regrettable but instructive. To understand avant-garde art, let alone tricksterism, is beyond the reach of many pop culture reporters. The groomed and siloed media machine was more about making money, scratching surfaces, and reporting trash and scandal.”
Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love will also take you on the relatively untread journey of the female trickster, and you’ll meet up with the Greek goddess Baubo; Yayoi Kusama, Michaela Coel, The Pirate Princess of Yemen, Mae West, the Sumerian goddess Inanna, Bea Lillie, the Huli jing, the Cunning Dhansiri, and many others.
[i] Here is a list of the most notable Fluxus artists. See how many you recognize: Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, John Cale, Robert Filliou, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Bengt af Klintberg, Alison Knowles, Addi Køpcke, Nam June Paik, Ben Patterson, Daniel Spoerri, and Wolf Vostell.
[ii] Intermedia is 1960s art that mixed genres, like drawing and poetry, painting and theater, collage and photography.