Artist Attack! Yoko Ono is My Hero and I’m Not Sorry

Art Attack Month:

0. 1/28/2012 – Art Attack Call for Submissions, by Riese
1. 2/1/2012 – Art Attack Gallery: 100 Queer Woman Artists In Your Face, by The Team
2. 2/3/2012 – Judy Chicago, by Lindsay
3. 2/7/2012 – Gran Fury, by Rachel
4. 2/7/2012 – Diane Arbus, by MJ
5. 2/8/2012 – Laurel Nakadate, by Lemon
6. 2/9/2012 – 10 Websites For Looking At Pictures All Dayby Riese
7. 2/10/2012 – LTTRby Jessica G.
8. 2/13/2012 – Hide/Seek, by Danielle
9. 2/15/2012 – Spotlight: Simone Meltesen, by Laneia
10. 2/15/2012 – Ivana, by Crystal
11. 2/15/2012 – Gluck, by Jennifer Thompson
12. 2/16/2012 – Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Gabrielle
13. 2/20/2012 – Yoko Ono, by Carmen

I love Yoko Ono (and I don’t think she broke up the Beatles).

“True artists are prophets. I don’t want to be that prophetic in that sense because it’s so lonely.”

It is hard to write about Yoko Ono as an artist for a few reasons, including but not limited to my inability to separate Yoko Ono’s tweets from spoken word poetry. It is also hard because of the sheer length and depth of her artistic career: Yoko was creating art – and feminist art at that – before she even met that dude John Lennon. Afterward the work she had been doing, and continued to do, kind of got eclipsed by his. And it’s a shame, because her work was and remains prophetic, profound, and honest. John Lennon once said everyone knew who Yoko Ono was but nobody knew what she did. But what she does is create art – performance art, conceptual art, fine art, visual art, the written word, music – that moves people deeply and talks about what’s going on on the inside. Yoko Ono’s art is about communicating the inward outward, challenging people to think about the world around them, and, of course, peace. I tend to see her pieces as being about peace — world peace, inner peace, peace and quiet.

Plus, she’s completely and totally provocative. What’s not to love?

“Everybody’s an artist. Everybody’s God. It’s just that they’re inhibited.”

Yoko Ono has produced far too many works of art for me to choose a “favorite.” She’s also done far too much for me to provide you with a truly rich history of it all that doesn’t come bound in hardcover. So I’m just gonna pick a handful of the things I’ve loved when I’ve looked into Yoko Ono’s work, and the stuff I’ve appreciated.

In 1964, Yoko performed a happening called “Cut Piece,” in which she wore a draped shirt, knelt down, and instructed people to cut. Just “cut.” She wanted her shirt to be cut until she was naked. It was about suffering, about the pain inside, about loneliness and nakedness and how other people take things away from you and put you back together, and about getting rid of all of it from the outside.


Yoko also released a film piece in 1965 called simply “Fly.” I have a lot of feelings about this, mostly because she identified strongly, at the time, with the fly as an alter ego:

In the ’60s Ono took the common housefly as an alter ego. Clearly, the artist, mocked and maligned long before she began attracting the misguided ire of rock fans, regards the fly as an embodiment of her public persona–its apparent insignificance counterbalanced by its outsize ability to annoy. But even more important to Ono’s associative thinking is the fly’s constant, nervous “performing” and its elusively melodious buzz.

This kind of makes me think maybe we all have something in common with the fly. It’s how it keeps flying around looking for something and making this noise. “I am here. I am here.” And even if you don’t want it there, it keeps buzzing. You can’t turn off a fly. You can rarely even get rid of one. So maybe Yoko Ono has even more in common with the housefly than she originally thought. She just keeps keeping on. It’s really inspirational.

The movie follows a fly as it moves up a woman’s body. The noise is weird and, in the case of this specific video, the film quality is a little low. But you can get the drift.

I want to close, though, with the 1961 “Painting to Hammer a Nail.” This is not to be confused with “Painting to Sleep On.”

“Painting to Hammer a Nail” was pure in purpose: a white painted panel of wood had a hammer attached to it by a chain, and a box of nails sat next to it. Everything was there for the purpose of suggesting to viewers and passerbys that they should hammer a nail in themselves.

The piece, however, hasn’t stopped since 1961. Yoko Ono met John Lennon when she was showcasing this piece in 1966. True story. And in 2009, it was displayed at the Seattle Art Museum, and participants had a variety of approaches. Here’s one:

Clean and simple. Nails. Wood. Pure in purpose.

But then there is this one:

And her reaction to that? “I had a great laugh with my friends.” She isn’t even batting an eyelash. It’s like she kind of predicted this would happen, or maybe had no predictions for the piece. It’s like maybe Yoko Ono doesn’t think the same piece of art should ever have to look the same from day to day to be just as complete.

And it’s in this moment where one has to look around and think, “Yoko Ono has given everyone this huge gift.” And the gift is not “Painting to Hammer a Nail,” or any other specific piece. The gift is about being able to express something else. Yoko Ono communicated to us her pain, her suffering, her happiness, and her life. She shared a lot with us, and she still does. She stood up for us. She stood up for others. And in the end, she made us all a little bit more free. And maybe a little more peaceful.

pins from YES YOKO ONO, a retrospective gallery

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. I am so glad you covered Yoko Ono, her work is amazing! I had thought about submitting something about her (and Rebecka Horn), but knew I wouldn’t make it in time.

    My favourite works are probably Smoke Painting and Grapefruit. I love how conceptual the Smoke Painting is and how paradoxical it gets: it only truly exists after one made it disappear.

  2. you just summed up all my feelings for yoko ono, and you’re right, she didn’t break up the beatles
    my favorite display was telephone piece . if you’re lucky enough to be there when it rings you get to have a convo with yoko

    “Everybody’s an artist. Everybody’s God. It’s just that they’re inhibited.”
    favorite quote ever

  3. Carmen,

    thanks for this piece. I didn’t know much about Yoko Ono’s art and am glad to have a reason to enjoy her. I grew up in this house of Beatles lovers who have consistently talked shit about Yoko, like she was Eve and the Beatles were Adam.
    Anyway, thanks for writing so honestly and sharing your favorites works.

  4. I’m really glad you talked about Yoko. I have such boundless love for her. Everything about her is so soul stirring – I just listen and stare unapologetically whenever surrounded by her. That’s how it felt standing in front of the box of wishes from her 2010 WISH TREE for MoMA. Surrounded and boundless and like being shook in a bottle.

    I wrote a few paragraphs about Hammer a Nail last year when Technostraddle was going to roundtable Roger Ebert saying video games aren’t art; I wish they weren’t lost forever now because nobody else I know would’ve appreciated them the way you probably would.

    Anyhow, this is a really beautiful post.

  5. I’ve read eight books on the Beatles (and by books, I mean 600+ page biographies), and I can happily report that Yoko definitely did not break up the Beatles. People just don’t want to admit that the band grew apart. Yoko was good for John, he needed somebody that was as gifted as he was.

    • See, this sort of comment is as myopic as the “Yoko broke up the Beatles” comment. John ALREADY had a partner who was as talented as he was: Paul McCartney. Together they wrote music that — 50 years later — still stands the test of time.

      By contrast, with the exception of Lennon’s Imagine song and his Plastic Ono Band record, nothing Lennon did as a solo artist has been anywhere near as influential or high quality as the music he created with McCartney. However personally happy he was with Yoko, she did not inspire him to greatness as a musician.

      So, yes, celebrate Yoko’s art. But there’s no need to rewrite history and pretend Lennon’s solo work was hugely influential when it was not. There’s a reason Pitchfork in 2009 gave Lennon’s solo work a measley 6.2 rating: It was a disappointment. So it turns out that, musically, Yoko was a dead end for Lennon creatively.

      • I completely disagree; I find the majority of what he wrote post-Beatles to be equally as compelling, though certainly in a very different direction. It may not have been mainstream or catchy, but it was honest. He was finally dealing with so many of the emotional issues he had kept hidden in most of his writing with the Beatles. Just because it wasn’t played on the radio doesn’t mean that he wasn’t much happier and satisfied with his new music. And personally, he did need Yoko- Paul had Linda and Cynthia certainly wasn’t an adequate partner. I think the Allen Klein issue was a much larger factor in the breakup of the band, money always gets everyone down. John, I’ll admit, was an idiot for wanting him and not heeding Mick Jagger’s advice.

  6. I’m so glad that you posted about Yoko! Before this post, all I was really familiar with her was that episode of Mad About You, where she guest-stars as herself and wants Paul to film the wind for her. Yeah.

  7. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve never known a lot about Yoko, but my parents are huge Beatles fans, so she’s always been in my life in a way. She seems like a fascinating person. I’m falling in love with her tweets.

  8. Once I lived across from a sculpture park that sat beside a river. During the winter I would often find myself on my rooftop singing into the blustery wind.

    The park had a small stage made of grey bricks, parallel to the water. In the spring(ish) Yoko Ono was invited by the park’s foundation to have a piece displayed. On the morning of the park’s new opening I was on my roof smoking and people watching when I heard amplified screeching. As I made my way (excitedly filled with anticipation) across the street into the park I discovered that, as her piece, Yoko Ono had placed two large speakers on either side of a microphone. The microphone stood front and center of of the stage, facing the river. With it came an invitation for anyone to come up and scream, talk, whisper, cry, laugh, or (quietly?) sing to the wind.

    Perhaps she was there, perhaps she was not, but from then on I’ve felt a special (though most likely imagined) bond Ms. Ono (Yoko)

    • i have a lot of feelings about what you’ve said because john lennon’s solo work is legit some of my favorite music of all time.

  9. Lennon’s name and fame gave Yoko’s work a notoriety and exposure it would not otherwise have had. There are many, many other artists of that period whose work is more important and/or just as interesting and they still didn’t get the attention they deserve.

    She did because she’s had Lennon’s fame and money to promote her own career. Which is great, because it’s exposed audiences to avant garde work they might not otherwise have heard of. But articles like this, in their hero worship, tend to blow Yoko’s actual importance in the art field way out of proportion.

    And it’s funny that she, as a mega multi-millionaire, still has so many of her groupies convinced that she’s an outsider. My hat is off to her: She has made her life performance art and she excels at that — at bringing attention to herself — as she always has. Good for her.

    • “There are many, many other artists of that period whose work is more important and/or just as interesting and they still didn’t get the attention they deserve.”

      but…exactly this could be said about almost every artist and artistic periods!

      and I have to disagree with you. Yoko Ono, as a person, is well known because of John Lennon. Her work and her involvement with Fluxus on the other hand are not as well known in my opinion. I had to write an article about her once and there were seriously like two books about Ono’s work and the same paragraph over and over again in a couple of books about Fluxus.

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