All She Is Saying: Yoko Ono's Enduring Feminist Message

In 2003 Ono reprised her performance
In 2003 Ono reprised her performance "Cut Piece," first presented in 1964. (By Ken Mckay -- Courtesy Yoko Ono)
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Yoko Ono matters as much today as ever. Read passages from her 1971 manifesto "The Feminization of Society" and you could think she was talking about 2007:

"This society is driven by neurotic speed and force accelerated by greed, and frustration of not being able to live up to the image of men and woman we have created for ourselves; the image has nothing to do with the reality of people."

Ono was in her late 30s when she wrote that essay. By then, she'd devoted 10 years to making conceptual and performance art with the group Fluxus and on her own. She had already begun performing "Cut Piece," one of her most important feminist works, in which the artist presented herself onstage, handed audience members scissors and asked that they cut away at her clothing. Reprised several times since 1964, the work, with its exploration of power dynamics and gender issues, remains relevant now.

Because many of Ono's works are performative or conceptual, she presents us with almost nothing to buy. Today, as in the 1960s, that approach offers an antidote to the ever-expanding art market bubble. Instead of inviting a purchase, Ono asks that we participate in her work. She acknowledges us as much as we must acknowledge her.

Today, at 74, Ono radiates vitality. Her ongoing work -- she gave the Hirshhorn a "Wish Tree" earlier this month -- asks us to help make the world a place of equality and peace for all beings.

In an interview at the Hirshhorn Museum on April 2 (with some follow-up via e-mail), Ono discussed feminism, the art world, witches and wizards.

-- Jessica Dawson

You've said that the role of the artist is to "change the value of things." What is the value of women in our society right now?

[Feminism] came in and it did its job in a way. But even women got scared of that title because there was such a backlash. This is still a backlash time. But the nice thing about it, everybody understands about women now. Because of that they're getting more scared. [Laughs.] There will be a time when the opposite sex will understand that we care for them, too. And we understand them, too.

I worry that women of my generation -- I'm 34 -- are less vigilant in advocating for equal rights. In the art world, the percentage of women represented in major group shows is low to declining. How do you feel about these trends?

That's why I say backlash. Women are starting to find that they might want to go back to the traditional body of women in the sense of wanting to create a family, wanting to have babies. And when they have children they want to spend more time caring for their children. And that's okay, too. Finally they all come to the same realization that we are half the sky and the world. We are a very important energy that the society can use. To denigrate us or to abuse us or to sweep us under the rug is not beneficial for the society itself.

You've made fewer overtly feminist pieces in recent years. Was this a conscious decision to produce fewer feminist works?

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