Yoko Ono’s Art of Challenge
But Maciunas was an inveterate organizer – a problem, since he happened to work with avant-garde artists, the kind of people who didn’t like to be organized. For years he tried to collect these cats. He opened FluxShop, where Fluxus art – mostly cheap plastic boxes filled with odds and ends – could be purchased. (The walk-in business was not buoyant.) At one point, he planned to buy an island and build a self-sufficient Fluxus community there.
The island adventure didn’t pan out, but Maciunas eventually realized his idea by buying and renovating derelict buildings – more than 20 of them – in midtown Manhattan for artists to live in. and work there. The company ruined it. He was sued by tenants because the renovations weren’t up to code and the lofts couldn’t pass inspection, and he was badly beaten by goons hired by one of his creditors. In the mid-1970s, he fled the city for a farm in Massachusetts, where he died of cancer in 1978. But he had given birth in SoHo. It will become, in the 1980s, the world capital of contemporary art.
Maciunas’ slogan for Fluxus was “Purge the world of ‘Europeanism’!” and when Fluxus debuted in West Germany in 1962, a grand piano was shattered. Ono, who was invited but refused to attend, did not like breaking pianos. “I’m not someone who wants to burn ‘La Mona Lisa’,” she once said. “That’s the difference between some revolutionaries and me.” But she shares something with Maciunas. She is a utopian. She would be happy if the whole world could be a Fluxus island.
In 1962, Ono returned to Japan. She discovers that the Japanese avant-garde is even more radical than the New York avant-garde. There were many new schools. The most famous today is Gutai, who was born in Osaka in 1954. Like Fluxus, Gutai was performance art, low-tech, using everyday materials. One of Gutai’s earliest works was “Challenging Mud”, in which the artist throws himself into an outdoor pit filled with wet clay and struggles for half an hour. When it emerges, the shape of the clay is presented as a work of art.
Ichiyanagi had returned earlier – the marriage was breaking up – and he arranged for Ono to perform a concert at the Sogetsu Art Center, Tokyo. Outside the room, she mounted what she called “Painting Instructions”, twenty-two sheets of paper attached to the wall, each with a set of instructions in Japanese. The instructions resembled certain works of art created by young artists in Cage’s New York circle – for example, Emmett Williams’ “Voice Piece for La Monte Young” (1961), which reads, in full, ” Ask if La Monte Young is in the audience, then get out,” and Brecht’s “Word Event,” whose full score is the word “Exit.”
Inside the hall, with thirty artists, Ono performed several pieces, some of which she had done at Carnegie Recital Hall. It’s unclear what the audience’s reaction was -Brackett says he was enthusiastic- but the show received a poor review in a Japanese art magazine by an American expat, Donald Richie, who mocked Ono for being “old fashioned”. “All his ideas are borrowed from New York people, especially John Cage,” he wrote. This was not an attack from an incomprehensible traditionalist. It was an attack from the cultural left. Ono was traumatized. She entered a sanatorium.
But when she left, she picked up where she left off. She remarried Tony Cox, an American art promoter and countercultural type, and in 1964 she published her first book, “Grapefruit», a collection of event scores and instructional pieces:
They are like Brecht’s “Word Event”, but with a big difference. “Word Event” was meant to be played, and artists came up with various ingenious ways to execute the “Exit” statement. Ono’s pieces cannot be played. They are instructions for imaginary acts.
In an essay for a Japanese art journal, she invoked the concept of “fabricated truth,” meaning that the things we make up in our heads (what we wish we could eat for dinner) are as much our reality than the chair on which we sit. “I think it’s possible to see the chair as it is,” she explained. “But when you burn the chair, you suddenly realize that the chair in your mind hasn’t burned or disappeared.”
What Ono was doing was concept art. When concept artists hit the big time in the late 1960s, his name was hardly ever mentioned. She does not appear in art critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s landmark essay, “The Dematerialization of Art,” published in 1968. But she was one of the first artists to do so.
In 1965, she returned to New York and in March presented another show at Carnegie Recital Hall, “New Works of Yoko Ono”. It was the New York premiere of his best work, a truly awesome piece of art, “Cut Piece.”
The performer (in this case, Ono) enters fully dressed and kneels in the center of the stage. Next to her is a large pair of scissors – fabric shears. Spectators are invited to come on stage one by one and cut out a piece of the artist’s clothing, which they can keep. According to the instructions Ono later wrote, “The performer remains motionless throughout the piece. The piece ends at the choice of the performer. She said she wore her best clothes when doing the job, even when she had little money and couldn’t afford to ruin it.
Ono had performed “Cut Piece” in Tokyo and Kyoto, and there are photographs of those performances. The New York performance was filmed by documentarians David and Albert Maysles. (Brackett, oddly, says the Maysles’ film, rather than a live performance, is what people saw at Carnegie Recital Hall.)
In most Happenings and event art, the performers are artists or friends of the person who wrote the score. In “Cut Piece”, the performers are unknown to the artist. They can interpret instructions in unpredictable ways. It’s like handing out loaded guns to a room full of strangers. Ono is small (five-two); the shears are large and sharp. When members of the public begin to cut the fabric around her breasts or near her crotch, there is a real sense of danger and violation. In Japan, one of the cutters stood behind her and held the shears above her head, as if to impale her.
The score required Ono to remain expressionless, but in the film you can see apprehension in her eyes as audience members continue to take the stage and stand above her brandishing the scissors. , looking for another place to cut. When her bra is cut, she covers her breasts with her hands – almost her only movement in the whole room.
More immediately, “Cut Piece” is a concrete enactment of the striptease that men are supposed to perform in their heads when they see an attractive woman. It militarizes the male gaze. Women participate in excision, but it is because it is not only men who are part of the society that objectifies women. The piece is therefore classified as a work of feminist art (created at a time when almost no one was doing feminist art), and it clearly is.
But what “Cut Piece” means largely depends on the audience it’s being played for, and Ono originally had something else in mind. When she made the piece in Japan, a Buddhist interpretation was possible. It was “the Zen tradition of doing the most embarrassing thing for yourself and seeing what you come up with and how you handle it,” she said.
The piece also stems, Ono said elsewhere, from a story about the Buddha giving everything people ask of him until he finally lets himself be eaten by a tiger. Ono offered everything she had to strangers, which is why she always wore her best clothes. “Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give”, as she puts it, “the artist gives what the audience chooses to take”.
In 1966, Ono traveled to London to participate in the Destruction in Art Symposium, where she performed “Cut Piece” twice. It was not read as a Buddhist text during these events. Word of mouth after the first performance led to the second being mobbed, with the men eagerly cutting off all of her clothes, even her underwear. It was Swinging London; everyone assumed the play was about sex. After London, Ono didn’t play it again until 2003, when she did it in Paris, sitting on a chair. This time, she explained that the work is about world peace and a response to 9/11.