Get Back, Yoko Ono, and the Art of Performance

In 1964, two years before she met John Lennon, Yoko Ono exhibited Cut Piece, one of the earliest works of feminist performance art. For Cut Piece, Ono wore a suit and knelt onstage with only a pair of scissors accompanying her. During the performance, Ono remained still as audience members approached and cut pieces of her suit until she was stripped bare. Audience members were told they could keep the piece of fabric they had severed from her garment. This performance was a re-enactment of the multiple forms of stripping and fetishizing to which women’s (and particularly Asian women’s) bodies were subjected. It also hearkened to images of garments torn asunder after the atomic bombs were dropped on Ono’s native Japan. As Julia Bryan-Wilson put it: “the clothing destroyed by the atom bomb and the repeated accounts of children wandering the streets with school uniforms hanging off them burned and torn, submit themselves as visual precedents for the tatters of Cut Piece” (Bryan-Wilson 2003).  

Yoko Ono. Cut Piece (1964) performed
by Yoko Ono in New Works of Yoko Ono,
Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March
21, 1965. Photo: Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy
of Yoko Ono. © Minoru Niizuma 2015

Throughout the performance, Ono’s equanimity spoke to another form of being stripped bare, to a form of surrender that is not merely passive and empty but represents an artistic vision and a woman’s integrity that exceed the cutters’ shears. In the 1966 artist’s statement on the piece, Ono wrote:

 People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.

Ono, 1966

Watching Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary, Get Back, was a little like seeking to know what it’s like inside the stone after the cutters left. For over fifty years, the public has attempted to sever Ono with the sharp instruments of racism and misogyny. Get Back has done much to correct this and to expose the pernicious mythologies upon which the general animus against Ono was built. We now know, to quote Paul McCartney, “the Beatles did not break up because Yoko sat on an amp.”  But do we know her any better? According to many commentators, we do. Since the release of Get Back, Ono’s true nature, and her chief virtue apparently, have now been revealed. According to Dani Di Placido of Forbes Magazine:

[V]iewers were surprised to see how unintrusive Ono’s presence is during the recording sessions seen on Get Back; while the boys were jamming, she can be seen reading the newspaper, knitting, or helpfully rolling joints.

Peter Jackson himself offers these remarks in a recent Sixty Minutes interview:

She never has opinions about the stuff they’re doing. She never says, ‘Oh, I think the previous take was better than that one.’ She’s a very benign presence and she doesn’t interfere in the slightest.

It takes a singular (and decidedly masculine) lack of imagination to view Yoko Ono in 1969 as merely unintrusive or benign or without opinion. At this time, Ono was at the height of her career, exhibiting internationally, and widely recognized as one of the great visionaries of performance art. To regard her as the sideshow to the jamming boys, the girlfriend sitting on the amp, is to cut once again at a figure. Although she is omnipresent throughout the eight-hour documentary, she evidently remains as concealed today as she was during those first impressions when she was introduced to popular culture. 

Ono remarked that, throughout her art, she was “searching for an emptiness that is not empty” (Brackett, 2017), a vision that is thoroughly influenced by her Zen Buddhist background. Her performance on Get Back is often inscrutable, and yet in its inscrutability it interrupts the comfortable narrative of the boys jamming while the “girlfriends” look passively on. Throughout her career, Ono blurred the boundaries between art and life, and we should view her performance on Get Back (which, for all its seeming immediacy, was a thoroughly mediated production, “a documentary about a documentary,” as Jackson calls it) as consistent with her overarching aesthetic vision. Her emptiness is never empty. As Amanda Hess wrote in a brilliant article for the New York Times:

Ono simply never leaves. She refuses to decamp to the sidelines, but she also resists acting out stereotypes; she appears as neither a doting naïf nor a needling busybody. Instead she seems engaged in a kind of passive resistance, defying all expectations of women who enter the realm of rock genius.

Amanda Hess, 2021

A few short months after the recording of the Let it Be album, Ono and Lennon would display the power of passive resistance through their Bed-Ins in Amsterdam and Montreal. This time her performance art would protest another war that was mutilating Asian bodies: the war in Vietnam. The Bed-In was contingent upon the transformative exchange between artist/performers and audience/participant. If you can think peace together, it can be. One did not need a strategy to create the conditions of peace. The conditions for peace, as the conditions of violence, are available already within the flesh, within the self, and particularly in the encounter between enfleshed selves. Much of this message was lost in the controversy that the Bed-Ins engendered, but that, too, was part of Ono’s vision. To display the quotidian act of lying around in bed, reading the newspaper, sipping coffee, was a disarming and entirely unexpected way to speak of peace during a senseless war which had become an endless spectacle of violence. As Ono stated:

Artists themselves are beginning to lose their confidence. I have wondered myself about this. Why am I still an artist? Why am I not joining the violent revolutionaries? Then I realized that destruction is not my game. I like to fight the establishment by using methods that are so removed from establishment-type thinking that the establishment doesn’t know how to fight back. 

 Ono, cited in Bryan-Wilson, 2003

Both Cut Piece and Bed-In sought to break down the boundaries between art and life, and between performers/artists and audience/viewers. They also sought to invite the audience to engage in an imaginative exercise. In the former, to experience the violence of war, racism, and sexism; in the latter, to participate in the quotidian experience of peaceful exchange. 

Read thus, the Bed-Ins are the performative antitheses to Cut Piece. They were an enactment of rendering whole, of healing, and of restoration. If this is so, then the old and tired story of the Beatles’ breakup is at long last turned on its head, but in a far more profound way than Peter Jackson’s renarration in Get Back. For the larger and more interesting story than that of a great rock band breaking up is that of bodies, once torn apart, becoming whole.  Over fifty years ago, a great artist named Yoko Ono dared to imagine this. We are still longing for its performance. 

War is over (if we want it). 

Works cited 

Brackett, Donald. “No East or West in Dreams: Yoko Ono, Buddhism and the Avant Garde.” Critics at Large (2017). https://www.criticsatlarge.ca/2017/07/yoko-ono-buddhism-and-avant-grade.html.

Bryan-Wilson, Julia. “Remembering Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece.’” Oxford Art Journal 26, no. 1 (2003): 99–123. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600448.

Hess, Amanda. “The Sublime Spectacle Of Yoko Ono Disrupting The Beatles”. 2021. New York Times.Com. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/08/arts/music/yoko-ono-beatles-get-back.html.

Ono, Yoko. “Biography/Statement.” The Stone. New York: Judson Galler,1966.

4 thoughts

  1. Glad to see Yoko Ono being talked about now. In the seventies, it was as if no one had the language to talk about her. With respect to her relationship to the Beatles, I think a modern-day comparison might be Asia Argento, and her rumored “responsibility” for Anthony Bordain’s suicide. Yin and yang–Yoko Ono having assumed the posture of passive resistance, while Argento is blamed for active meddling and other unnamed offences. Women associated with powerful men always have a time of it. Unless you’re Nancy Reagan, and can give off the “My Hero” vibe while secretly engineering stuff in the background, you will always be suspect.

    I wanted to comment on the following: “As Julia Bryan-Wilson put it: “the clothing destroyed by the atom bomb and the repeated accounts of children wandering the streets with school uniforms hanging off them burned and torn, submit themselves as visual precedents for the tatters of Cut Piece” (Bryan-Wilson 2003).”

    In Japanese anime, it is interesting to see how the collective memory of Hiroshima and the horror of instant annihilation is constantly expressed in all kinds of story lines. It is the very fabric of story-telling. Not only that, but there exists a nuanced appreciation of both the light and the dark, including a recognition that one does not exist without the other. The result is a sophisticated approach to forgiveness and reconciliation the West could learn from. Thank you for this great piece!

    1. Wow! Thank you, Jessica, for this wonderful and thorough response. It is hard to imagine how much the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must have shaped her young artistic imagination. I am sure that it works in many ways throughout her oeuvre. I am deeply grateful to you and Julia Bryan-Wilson for reminding me of this.

      1. I think probably a really good biography is due for Yoko Ono, Most of what we’ve seen treats her as an appendage to the Beatles. In all honesty, my view of her has evolved over the years. Any biography of Yoko would have to explore why she was treated as an evil distraction.

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