Race, Gender, Art, and Yoko Ono

by Latoya Peterson

Bitch Magazine published an interesting piece called “Oh Yoko!: 20 Ways of Looking at an Art-World Icon.” There are 20 different takes on Yoko Ono’s body of work and perception in the media, many of which revolve around art and gender. Others dealt with race, self-perception, and darkness. Here are my favorites:

4. Offered Sacrifice
Back in the ’60s, I was peripherally involved in a Fluxus concert evening at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York where Yoko did several pieces, [including] “Cut Piece.” People began lining up to cut little pieces of her skirt or sleeves or strands of hair as souvenirs, or artworks, if you prefer. Everybody was very respectful, [and] Yoko remained impassive, without any change of expression.

The atmosphere changed to dark and unpleasant when several young men who were obviously not members of the art community started taking off large parts of her skirt and sweater, disclosing her bra, and getting back on line after each of their cuts. They couldn’t stop laughing. I recall Carolee Schneemann going up to one of them and slapping him in the face, which didn’t faze him one bit. He was after Yoko—the offered sacrifice.

At the point where one of the grinning guys went towards her bra strap with the scissors, Yoko made a slight gesture towards the wings, and the curtain immediately closed on her before her breast could be revealed. The piece was over. Obviously, when you let the audience into the artwork, you can’t always predict the result.
—eleanor antin, performance artist, filmmaker, and installation artist

7. Self-Aware
Yoko often mentioned in interviews that she felt that an Asian woman was seen as a dragon lady or an obedient slave—nothing in between the extremes. There were countless racist remarks in the press, especially after the breakup of the Beatles, but she has overcome it over many years. She has made a great contribution in changing the world’s view of Asian women in general. She has consistently projected an image of a self-aware, confident, creative, and strong-willed woman.
—midori yoshimoto, associate professor of art history, New Jersey City University, and author of Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York

15. Brilliant/Alone
Yoko has suffered more than most people understand. Her father was often absent; she was 12 when she fled to the mountains of Japan with part of her family, escaping the bombings in Tokyo but learning about Hiroshima and Nagasaki; she attended college in the United States in the 1950s when the Japanese were vilified; her passionate art was ridiculed as too “expressionistic”; her daughter was kidnapped by her second husband; she was ostracized by the public as the “dragon lady” for putatively breaking up the Beatles; she struggled with Lennon on drugs; she and Lennon were threatened by the CIA with his deportation; she witnessed his murder, and so on.

The result: Yoko feels alone and sometimes trusts others to “handle” her and her art for better or worse. Nonetheless, Yoko inspires me. She is a brilliant, poetic, tough role model who is forthright with herself and brings that honesty to
her art.
—kristine stiles, professor of art and art history, Duke University

20. Me
Yoko in hot pants, at antiwar rallies: classic proof of her bona fide iconoclast ways, mixing sex(iness) and politics—no hippie-feminist-activist Earth shoes, please!

Before I got her brilliance, I used to resent her, even though it wasn’t her fault that I got called “Yoko” in the late ’60s. Just when I was trying hard to pass as an all-American girl, this racial slur was outing me as an Asian before I was ready, before I became yellow and proud. It also maddened me to be mistaken for Japanese—not that racists care about these distinctions, especially when there’s historical bad blood between Koreans and Japanese.

You can call me Yoko now.
—yong soon min, artist and associate professor of studio art, University of California, Irvine