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

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?

I don't think there is any difference in my attitude about my work. And even "Cut Piece" -- I did it in 1964 and then I did it in 2003 in France. I'm still continuing. . . .

I never thought that I was waving flags. I always felt that I was just being me and by being me in my work I was automatically being that one who is promoting the body of women.

Just by the fact that you are a female artist.

And by the fact that that particular way of expressing myself was always being attacked so much. That shows where I stood. That the society was not ready to take a woman as a real woman.

"Yes I'm a Witch" is a song I wrote in 1974. Very interestingly, if you said, "Yes, I'm a wizard" or "You're a wizard," that's a compliment.

A wizard is a male version of a witch. Why is it bad when it's women? Because then immediately you want to burn them. [Laughs.] But wizards you want to praise. We should know that we are all witches. And wizards.

Men and women both.

Yes. The human race is a very, very magical race. We have a magic power of witches and wizards. We're here on this earth to unravel the mystery of this planet. The planet is asking for it.

Much of your work is about peace. Yet you also encourage acceptance of things as they are. Can violence ever be accepted as part of human behavior?

It's a defense mechanism. Like some germs coming to the body and they have to maybe violently correct it, kick the germs out. For that, I think it's very important that we use our power of violence (I don't like the word violence) . . . the power of protecting ourselves.

I recently reread "The Feminization of Society" and it struck me that the essay could have been written yesterday. How do you compare today's society with that of the early 1970s when you wrote it?

At the time, we thought that we were terribly liberated, the sexual revolution and all that. But that was mainly for guys. Women didn't really get the benefit of it because we have a very different body structure.

We're responsible for taking the pill and ingesting all those hormones.

Exactly. So in that sense we are angry -- whenever I think about it, it just makes me very angry -- that anger is very good because it leads to the next positive situation. If we're not angry about it, we won't do anything about it. You have to kill that condition that is not helping us. In that sense, violence can be a component of progress.

In that same essay, you wrote about a second stage of feminism where women "will realize the futility of trying to be like men" and "will realize themselves as they are" rather than in comparison to men. Have we gotten there yet?

It is starting to dawn on all women that it is time to forget about trying to compete with men who, with their blunders, have shown us that they have not been doing such a great job. Why try to equate ourselves with such flawed power?

In fact, the whole world is starting to realize that it was the most unwise thing for our society to have ignored women power, to run the society with male priorities. Desperation is finally opening the door to wisdom.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company