Yoko Ono and the modern art audience
Today contemporary art is common fare for everybody from hipsters to grandparents looking for a place for a “nice cup of coffee”. It is so far into the mainstream that whilst it will on occasion stir up controversy, it is generally greeted with applause or at worst a shoulder shrug. It is part of the furniture, but it wasn’t always the case. Indeed up until the 1990’s contemporary art was still seen by many as the prerequisite for pitchforks and burning pyres.
It’s 1969 Television, the audience in the David Frost show has just had an exclusive preview of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s new record Two Virgins (1969). You can hear the blue rinse drying in the studio. Yoko then hands Frost a gift, Box of smiles (1967). Frost tentatively opens the box, only to see his face reflected in a mirror. Frost laughs and so do some of the audience. A little victory.
It’s way back in 2013 and the Yoko Ono retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney collects dozens of such victories for Ono. This is an Australian psyche changed in part by both Yoko and that other guy John Lennon. Their notion of democratising the arts may have seemed quaint to both 1960’s art literati and tv hosts but it was a movement that actually worked. I’m here at the MCA, recovering from a broken heart and an attempt to get a free catalogue. It’s an essay of 40 years in a changing art world, its title War is over (if you want it) (1969) is an apt centrepiece. The most familiar of Yoko’s collaborations with her husband John Lennon, “War is Over” is seen in a variety of permutations. On the exhibition catalogue the text is placed against the back drop of clouds and sky. Crimson toned bill posters illustrate the phrase on some Sydney streets. These new representations amplify the double entendre of the original’s black text on a white back ground. Cast against the motifs of heaven and faded blood, there is a sense of ambiguity. They reflect both death and peace. Or is it just me emboldened to look a little deeper? “It didn’t stop the war”, I can hear my old art lecturer sneer. He typified a segment of the arts establishment, who (to paraphrase John Lennon), prefer the intellectual manifestos that nobody actually reads. If Ono and Lennon did not achieve peace in their time, they arguably changed the way contemporary art is approached by audiences in mine.
Art and thinking is a great idea, but with not everyone coming from the same back ground in philosophy, history or metaphysics it can often be to a limited audience. Yoko and Lennon may very well have invented contemporary art education on the David Frost show, empowering people holistically not just to be morally aware, but culturally familiar. Today contemporary art is part of the everyday milieu. Ono’s role in this change has gone largely unrecognised. For despite the lampooning of her work over the years, Ono’s persistence has seen the public develop a way of reading her works that other artists would be envious of. You don’t need to be Lennon to see the link between Spike Milligan’s conceptual comedy of a brick wall driven at speed and Yoko’s Balance piece (1998), a large electromagnet pulling your world to the left. Both show an optimism in the face of adversity often lacking in establishment approved artists. This is not an isolated case. Both Ono and Lennon’s personal lives are better analysed than the history of Australia, yet the piece My mummy is beautiful (2004) is an interactive work that positively reinforces the role of the mother in society for everyone.
Whilst the value of Yoko’s early work fits neatly into the Robert Hughes category of “The Shock of the new”, their true value now rests in their familiarity. Apple (1966)Painting to hammer a nail (1961/1966),the Flux films Fly (1970) and Bottoms (1966-67) have been seen in hundreds of Beatles books and films in vignette form. But here witnessed in full, our knowledge acts as an icebreaker in a larger conversation. With Cut piece(1964) The original notion of who is being unveiled through the cut of scissors still exists, but like War is over (if you want it)(1969) the passage of time feeds the message back on itself. This is heightened with two filmed performances, one of the original in 1964 and a repeat in 2003. It is a dialogue between artist and public. Ono is watching us, watching her, watching us, watching her way back when. Something unimaginable 40 years ago. In 1993 when the Simpsons paid tribute with an Onoesque character ordering the beverage of a “plumb dipped in perfume served in a man’s hat”, Moe the bartender accepted the request as de rigueur.
Flash forward not from the 60’s or 90’s, but 2013 into 2017.From then to now I had to buy the catalogue from the MCA, I still have it.As for my heart other things have filled the void. As for Ono she is ironically decried today for not being “cutting edge enough”. Perhaps, but there’s a lot of miserable people in the arts.The contemporary art world owes her a debt for piquing public curiosity. Contemporary art is cool, Ono was one of the figures that made it that way. Get over it art purists. Today a lot more of us will unknowingly be tempted into the mystique, raising visitation figures and filthy lucre at the door. P.S Don’t forget your box of smiles.
Elements of this article were printed in Artlink magazine in 2014