19 July 2015

CapX Reviews: Yoko Ono at the Museum of Modern Art, New York


In November 1966 the chief Beatle went to an exhibition at the avant-garde Indica gallery in London and met the Japanese artist Yoko Ono for the first time. Clambering up a set of step ladders, John Lennon used the magnifying glass provided by Ono and read the single word she had fixed to the ceiling. It was “yes.”

Lennon was enchanted by the “positive vibes” emanating from Ono’s work and from there his fascination grew until the pair eventually embarked on a relationship that ended Lennon’s first marriage in 1968.

Lennon’s fellow Beatles were appalled, not by his adultery and the public betrayal of his first wife Cynthia, who had been part of the Beatles story from the early days and Lennon’s spell at art school. All of the Beatles took a selfish one-sided approach to these matters, with groupies commandeered by the bus load from Hamburg onwards. Once the band started conquering the world, the role of a Beatle wife was to be at home, waiting dutifully for the return from tour of their pampered prince.

Lennon’s lyrics in particular before Ono appeared were peppered with misogyny. Listen to the sub-standard Run for Your Life on Rubber Soul and the sneering couplets if you don’t believe it.

Ono, in refusing to play along by Beatle rules, was intruding on a tightly closed world, a boys’ gang that had produced some earth-shattering music and was on the verge of revolutionising popular culture again. In November 1966, the Beatles were about to record the first version of Strawberry Fields Forever, which mutated into the Sergeant Pepper project. The old Beatles were gone. The drugs had changed. The clothes changed. Sick of all the screaming, they would no longer tour. And Lennon, always restless, half-educated, vulnerable to faddism, would be changed most of all in the process, falling by the end of the decade for the hubristic idea that he was in some way a “spokesman for a generation.”

The astonishment and hurt of the other Beatles as this unfolded in 1968 and Ono and Lennon became inseparable artistically was masked by bluff working class incredulity and snide jokes. Ono trespassed in the sacred studio and sat at Lennon’s side as the Beatles recorded. Worse, she and Lennon, believing in the avant-garde notion that art is whatever the artist produces or declares to be art, decided that she should start singing in public. The resulting racket was extraordinary, and not in a good way.

In the recent memoir by Glyn Johns, one of the greatest engineers and producers of the period, he recounts his experience manning the tape deck during the recording in 1968 of the Rolling Stones ill-fated Rock and Roll Circus. John Lennon, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Mitch Mitchell were on stage playing.

“I was in my booth, way up in the gods, recording the sound for the show, and the area on the set where they were playing was obscured from my view,” writes Johns.

“All was going well until I heard this extraordinary noise that sounded like someone stepping on a cat. I panicked, thinking that a piece of equipment might be malfunctioning, while peering at the screen trying to see if it was adversely affecting the guys on stage. All of a sudden a picture appeared of a small figure with a black bag over its head with a microphone cable disappearing into it. It turned out to be Yoko, who had decided to contribute to the proceedings. How anyone could have considered her intrusion to be in any way musical is a complete mystery to me.”

For Ono, this stuff must be frustrating. All anyone still wants to talk about is the Beatles and she is treated as a comic figure or threatening presence who broke up the band, when mercifully she did everyone a favour by bringing the Beatles to an end. Thank goodness their magical story – the greatest romance of the 20th century, as their friend and aide Derek Taylor used to say – has a beginning, a middle and an end. They finished with an important album and we were all spared the Beatles as a group trying to navigate the 1970s and arena tours or worse. Still, one can understand Ono’s frustration. Here I am reviewing her one woman retrospective at MoMA in New York and all I have done so far is to burble on about the boys club that is the Beatles.

Ono was a successful artist in her own right (how good? we’ll get to that) long before she met Lennon, and since his death she has carved out an enduring niche in New York, where she is a popular figure in the artistic community and is even loved as an innovator and feminist trailblazer. The gentleman who reviewed this latest retrospective for the Guardian was almost as enchanted with Ono as Lennon was in November 1966.

I wish I could say similar, having spent an hour or so recently wandering around her exhibition, on the top floor of MoMA, trying to take the exhibits seriously.

Of course it is easy to mock Yoko Ono and her hippy-dippy incantations about peace and love, hello trees, hello sky. It is often overlooked that Ono was a member of the fluxus anti-art movement, a community of artists founded in the 1960s dedicated to challenging the then art establishment and its pomposity. Humour was an important strand of their work, and it is sometimes difficult to tell when Ono is joking and when she is not.

This ambiguity does offer artists a rather convenient get out, however. If the artist produces a bad piece of work and everyone dismisses it they can claim the joke is on the viewer for taking the work literally. Critic: “That painting/installation is terrible.” Artist: “I was only joking. You don’t get it.”

What does work is Ono’s minimalist approach, and in design terms she is surely an enormously influential – if largely unsung – figure. The Ono aesthetic was endless white, with crisp typography and hectoring slogans (War isOver!) that prefigure in tone and style the globalised corporate marketing campaigns run today by sports wear companies and Apple, the tech giant. In 1966 she was even ahead of Apple with the apple. The first exhibit in this exhibition is a green apple displayed on a perspex plinth. Anyone can put an apple on a plinth, of course, but it takes considerable chutzpah to put it on sale for £200 in 1966, and to subsequently turn it into a defining symbol of the late-period Beatles. Ono’s green apple is the logo of the Beatles own company established in 1968.

The curators were also bold enough to play the video in which the conservative cartoonist Al Capp takes Lennon and Ono apart during one of their so-called “bed-ins”, which were designed to publicise their campaigning for peace. A bed-in involved sycophants and assorted chancers turning up to pay homage to Lennon and Ono, although in Montreal Lennon also decided to invite a critic who set about sticking it to his hosts over their naive proclamations and claims to speak for the whole of humanity. You don’t speak for me, the Beatle is told, who has not been spoken to this robustly in many years. Lennon looks at various points as though he is going to hit his tormentor, which he knows he cannot because he, Lennon, is on camera supposedly promoting peace.

We are all hypocrites to a greater or lesser extent. Lennon, however, was the gold standard hypocrite on peace, love and politics. While he immersed himself in his love affair with Ono, he neglected his son Julian from his first marriage. He was for peace, yet he eventually ended up marching for Chairman Mao alongside revolutionary socialist thugs while coining it in from the Beatle back catalogue. The Lennon-Ono manifesto may sound silly, although it was anything but.

They advocated smashing convention and demolishing established structures. There are no rules, about anything, they said. Be what you want to be. Do what you want to do. There are no standards. There is no canon. It is all ok. It is all art. Art is politics.

In the late 1960s and 1970s that radical chic mindset spread well beyond pop music and installation art. The idea of consistent standards, of a canon, or even of imparting basic skills, was under attack by the radical left in universities who wanted to destroy hierarchy and blow up the institutions on the way to a revolution in consciousness. This thinking in a more polite form would eventually spread into mainstream schooling in the UK with horrific consequences for the poor, when radicals pushed the idea that learning basic skills, drawing on the well of knowledge and behaving in class, and testing and measurement, were all bourgeois outdated notions. It turned out that this is fine – there are no standards, judge no-one, go ahead freak out, stick it to the man, these drugs are great – if you are multi-millionaire Beatle living in the Dakota building in New York’s Upper West Side. Sadly, it is not much practical use for most people of more modest means who need to get a job after school to raise a family.

In this way, the publicity hungry Lennon and Ono were leading useful idiots in the West’s own post-1960s cultural revolution, an upheaval that undermined educational standards and is taking decades to reverse.

Yet the biggest problem with this Yoko Ono exhibition, which runs until early September, is artistic. One Woman Show is not flattered by its context. Once you have finished perusing Ono’s bags and conceptual pieces, wander down to the painting and sculpture rooms on the fifth floor. There the visitor finds a dazzling collection of some of the finest works of art produced in the period between 1880 and the 1940s. There are Picassos aplenty, alongside works by Cezanne, Monet, Kahlo and Van Gogh. These are the Revolvers and Sergeant Peppers of their period. It is high art that is popular because it is extremely good.

The fluxus movement, of which Ono was a member, though dead art was a dead end. Audience participation would eliminate the space between audience and artist. The hushed audience, admiring what critics approve of and stamp as “great art”, was the victim of a fraud.

But standing in front of these paintings – particularly those by the Italian futurists, such as Umberto Boccioni – there is no sense that the crowds are cowed or force-fed. The paintings are devoured and discussed, and pointed at, and snapped with camera phones, in the American way in great galleries that is frowned upon in prissy Europe.

What is being admired on the walls, I suspect, is raw talent and ability that has been honed successfully by artists who learnt to draw and paint, who studied (informally if not formally) and learnt technique before they attempted to apply it to make fresh, transcendent work.

That, of course, is exactly how the Beatles did it musically. There was raw talent and a serendipitous collision between Lennon and McCartney at a Liverpool church fete. They worked at it obsessively, honing their craft in Hamburg on the covers circuit, becoming songwriters, taking good advice, exhibiting mostly impeccable taste and extremely high standards, ending up as superstars whose work will still have something powerful to say to future generations.

That is how the Beatles did it, before John, urged on by Yoko, decided that this stuffy old nonsense no longer applied.

Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 is at the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Gallery, sixth floor, until September the 7th 2015.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX