At the center of the downtown arts scene, Ono explored the idea of “fabricated truth.”Photograph by Clay Perry / England & Co.
On March 9, 1945, an armada of more than three hundred B-29s flew fifteen hundred miles across the Pacific to attack Tokyo from the air. The planes carried incendiary bombs to be dropped at low altitudes. Beginning shortly after midnight, sixteen hundred and sixty-five tons of bombs fell on the city.
Most of the buildings in Tokyo were constructed of wood, paper, and bamboo, and parts of the city were incinerated in a matter of hours. The planes targeted workers’ homes in the downtown area, with the goal of crippling Japan’s arms industry. It is estimated that a million people were left homeless and that as many as a hundred thousand were killed—more than had died in the notorious firebombing of Dresden, a month earlier, and more than would die in Nagasaki, five months later. Crewmen in the last planes in the formation said that they could smell burning flesh as they flew over Tokyo at five thousand feet.
That night, Yoko Ono was in bed with a fever. While her mother and her little brother, Keisuke, spent the night in a bomb shelter under the garden of their house, she stayed in her room. She could see the city burning from her window. She had just turned twelve and had led a protected and privileged life. She was too innocent to be frightened.
The Ono family was wealthy. They had some thirty servants, and they lived in the Azabu district, near the Imperial Palace, away from the bombing. The fires did not reach them. But Ono’s mother, worried that there would be more attacks (there were), decided to evacuate to a farming village well outside the city.
In the countryside, the family found itself in a situation faced by many Japanese: they were desperate for food. The children traded their possessions to get something to eat, and sometimes they went hungry. Ono later said that she and Keisuke would lie on their backs looking at the sky through an opening in the roof of the house where they lived. She would ask him what kind of dinner he wanted, and then tell him to imagine it in his mind. This seemed to make him happier. She later called it “maybe my first piece of art.”
Like any artist, Ono wanted recognition, but she was never driven by a desire for wealth and fame. Whether she sought them or not, though, she has both. Her art is exhibited around the world: last year at the Serpentine, in London (“Yoko Ono: I Love You Earth”); this year at the Vancouver Art Gallery (“Growing Freedom”) and the Kunsthaus in Zurich (“Yoko Ono: This Room Moves at the Same Speed as the Clouds”). She began managing the family finances after she and her husband John Lennon moved to New York, in 1971, and she is said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today.
There is no question that museums and galleries mount these shows and people go to see them because Ono was once married to a Beatle. On a weekday not long ago, I saw the Vancouver show, which occupied the whole ground floor of the museum, and there was a steady stream of visitors. None of the artists and composers Ono was associated with in the years before she married Lennon enjoys that kind of exposure today.
Ono may have leveraged her celebrity—but so what? She never compromised her art. The public perception of her as a woman devoted to the memory of her dead husband has made her an icon among the kind of people who once regarded her as a Beatles-busting succubus. Yet the much smaller group of people who know about her as an artist, a musician, and an activist appreciate her integrity. No matter what you think of the strength of the art, you can admire the strength of the person who made it.
The most recent Ono biography is “Yoko Ono: An Artful Life,” by Donald Brackett, a Canadian art and music critic. He didn’t talk to Ono, and there’s not much in the way of new reporting in his book. The result feels somewhat under-researched. He dates the great Tokyo air raid to 1944, for example, and he gives the impression that Ono spent the night in the bunker with her family. Still, he is an enthusiastic writer, sympathetic to his subject (not so much to Lennon), and alive to the attractions of an unusual person and an unusual life.
Ono has talked about her parents as being emotionally distant. Her mother was a Yasuda, a member of the family that founded the Yasuda Bank, later Fuji Bank, and that owned one of the four largest financial conglomerates in Japan. Ono’s father worked at the Yokohama Specie Bank, which became the Bank of Tokyo after the war, and was frequently posted to foreign branches. He was in San Francisco when Yoko was born; she did not lay eyes on him until she was three. When Tokyo was firebombed in 1945, he was in Hanoi.
Ono received an exceptional education. Beginning when she was very young, she was tutored in Christianity (her father was a Christian; there were not many in Japan), Buddhism, and piano. She attended a school known for its music instruction; she was once asked to render everyday sounds and noises, such as birdsongs, in musical notation. After the war, she attended an exclusive prep school; two of the emperor’s sons were her schoolmates. And when she graduated she was admitted to Gakushuin University as its first female student in philosophy.
She left after two semesters. She said the university made her feel “like a domesticated animal being fed information.” This proved to be a lifelong allergy to anything organized or institutional. “I don’t believe in collectivism in art nor in having one direction in anything,” she later wrote. A classmate offered a different perspective: “She never felt happy unless she was treated like a queen.”
Ono may also have dropped out because her parents had moved to Scarsdale when her father’s bank posted him to the New York City branch. Ono soon joined them, and, in 1953, entered Sarah Lawrence, in Bronxville, less than half an hour away. Sarah Lawrence was an all-women’s college at that time and highly progressive, with no requirements and no grades. Ono took classes in music and the arts, but she seems not to have fitted in. A teacher remembered her as “tightly put together and intent on doing well. The other students were more relaxed. She wasn’t relaxed, ever.”
As non-prescriptive as it was, Sarah Lawrence triggered her allergy. It was “like an establishment I had to argue with and I couldn’t cope with it,” she complained. She now decided that she needed to get away from her family. “The pressure of becoming a Yasuda / Ono was so tremendous,” she said later. “Unless I rebelled against it, I wouldn’t have survived.” Somewhere (stories differ) she met Toshi Ichiyanagi, a student at Juilliard, and in 1956 she dropped out of college, got married (her parents weren’t thrilled), and moved to Manhattan. She began supporting herself with odd jobs. She lived in the city for most of the next ten years.
Not long before leaving Sarah Lawrence, Ono published in a campus newspaper a short story called “Of a Grapefruit in the World of Park.” It’s about some young people trying to decide what to do with a grapefruit left over from a picnic. The allegory is a little mysterious, but it’s clear what the grapefruit represents. The grapefruit is a hybrid, and so is Yoko Ono.
It’s easy to feel that there is an amateurish, “anyone can do this” quality to her art and her music. The critic Lester Bangs once complained that Ono “couldn’t carry a tune in a briefcase.” But the look is deliberate. It’s not that she wasn’t well trained. She learned composition and harmony when she was little, and she could write and read music, which none of the Beatles could do. At Sarah Lawrence, she spent time in the music library listening to twelve-tone composers like Arnold Schoenberg.
She grew up bilingual and was trained in two cultural traditions. She went to secondary school and college in Japan in a period of what has been called “horizontal Westernization,” when artistic and intellectual life was rapidly liberalized as the nation tried to exorcise its militarist and ultranationalist past. Ono and her friends read German, French, and Russian literature in Japanese translation, and the young philosophers they knew were obsessed with existentialism. She also knew Japanese culture. One of the ways she supported herself in New York was by teaching Japanese folk songs and calligraphy. She knew waka and Kabuki. She was therefore ideally prepared to enter the New York avant-garde of the nineteen-fifties, because that world was already hybrid. Its inspirations were a French artist, Marcel Duchamp, and an Eastern religion, Zen Buddhism.
The personification of those enthusiasms was the composer John Cage—a student of Schoenberg, a devotee of Eastern thought, and an idolater of Duchamp. Ono got to know Cage through her husband, who took an evening class that Cage taught at the New School. Although Ono didn’t take the class, artists who would be part of her circle did, the best known of whom was Allan Kaprow, the creator of the Happening.
Cage didn’t expect his students to imitate his own work. He said that one of the most important things he learned from teaching the class was something Ichiyanagi had said to him in response to a suggestion: “I am not you.” But he encouraged experimentation.
And the students duly experimented. A representative piece for the class is “Candle-Piece for Radios,” by George Brecht. Radios are placed around a room in the ratio of one and a half radios per performer. At each radio is a stack of cards with instructions printed on them, such as “volume up,” “volume down,” and “R” or “L,” denoting the direction the radio dial is to be turned. Each performer is given a lit birthday candle, and, on a signal, begins going through the decks, card by card, using any available radio. The piece ends when the last candle goes out.
This is how Happenings work. They are not “anything goes” performances; most Happenings (there are some exceptions) have a script, called an “event score.” Each participant follows specific instructions about what actions to perform and when.
In 1960, Ono found a loft at 112 Chambers Street and rented it for fifty dollars and fifty cents a month. It was a fourth-floor walkup, without heat or electricity, and the windows were so coated with grime that little light got in, though there was a skylight. The furnishings consisted mostly of orange crates and a piano. Ono turned this into a combination living and performance space. Together with La Monte Young, a composer and musician (he was a developer of the drone sound used by the Velvet Underground on some of their songs), she organized a series of concerts and performances. From December, 1960, to June, 1961, eleven artists and musicians performed in the loft, usually for two nights each. Ono said that these concerts were sometimes attended by two hundred people. Cage came, and so did Duchamp. Suddenly, she was at the center of the downtown arts scene.
At some sessions, Ono herself “performed” art works. One consisted of mounting a piece of paper on the wall, opening the refrigerator and taking out food, such as Jell-O, and throwing it against the paper. At the end, she set the paper on fire. (Cage had advised her to treat the paper with fire retardant first so that the building would not burn down.) The art work consumes itself.
The New York art world of 1960, even in its most radical downtown incarnation, was male-dominated. Of the eleven artists who headlined events in the Chambers Street series, only one was a woman. To Ono’s annoyance, Young was credited as the organizer and director of the series. She was identified as the woman whose loft it was.
She was even more annoyed when she learned that a man who had attended some of the concerts was planning to mount a copycat series in his uptown art gallery. The gallery, on Madison Avenue, was called the AG Gallery, and the man was George Maciunas.
Maciunas came to the United States from Lithuania in 1948, when he was a teen-ager, and spent eleven years studying art history. Then, around 1960, he set out to reinvent art by taking it off its pedestal. Duchamp and Cage were his great influences. (Maciunas is the subject of a compelling and entertaining documentary that resurrects the New York art underground of the nineteen-sixties, called “George: The Story of George Maciunas and Fluxus,” directed by Jeffrey Perkins.)
Ono was mollified when Maciunas offered her a show. He never had money. This did not prevent him from renting property, having a telephone, or anything else. He just didn’t pay his bills. By the time Ono’s show was mounted, in July, 1961, the gallery could be visited only in daylight hours, because the electricity had been turned off. Her show “Paintings and Drawings by Yoko Ono” was the gallery’s last.
Ono was present to guide visitors through the show, explaining how the pieces were supposed to work, because some of the art required the viewer’s participation—for example, “Painting to Be Stepped On,” a piece of canvas on the floor. That work, like a lot of Duchamp’s, might seem gimmicky. But, like Duchamp’s, there is something there to be unpacked. “Painting to Be Stepped On” resonates in two traditions. It alludes to the widely known photographs, published in the late nineteen-forties in Life and elsewhere, of Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings by moving around on a canvas spread on the floor. Those photographs, representing painting as performance, inspired artists (including Kaprow) for decades.
The second context, identified by the art historian Alexandra Munroe, is Japanese. In seventeenth-century Japan, Christians were persecuted, and one way to identify them was to ask them to step on images of Jesus and Mary. The procedure was called fumi-e—“stepping on.” People who refused could be tortured and sometimes executed. “Painting to Be Stepped On” is a grapefruit.
In the fall of 1961, Ono gave a concert in Carnegie Recital Hall, a venue that was adjacent to the main hall and that seated about three hundred. Maciunas, now a friend, helped design the show. According to the Times, the place was “packed.” But accounts are so various that it’s hard to tell, exactly, what happened.
Onstage, twenty artists and musicians performed different acts—eating, breaking dishes, throwing bits of newspaper. At designated intervals, a toilet was flushed offstage. A man was positioned at the back of the hall to give the audience a sense of foreboding. A huddle of men with tin cans tied to their legs attempted to cross the stage without making noise. The dancers Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown sat down and stood up repeatedly. According to the Village Voice, the performance finished with Ono’s amplified “sighs, breathing, gasping, retching, screaming—many tones of pain and pleasure mixed with a jibberish of foreign-sounding language that was no language at all.”
This was the kind of art that Maciunas had in mind. It used everyday materials. It had humor (the flushing toilet), meaning that it did not take itself too seriously. And it was anti-élitist. Anyone could do it. Around the time of Ono’s concert, Maciunas came up with a name for this kind of art: Fluxus. When he told Ono, she said it was a mistake to give the art a group name. That is how the Japanese art world worked; every artist was identified with a group. She didn’t want to belong to a group.
But Maciunas was an inveterate organizer—a problem, since he happened to be working with avant-garde artists, the kind of people who don’t like to be organized. For years, he tried to herd those cats. He opened FluxShop, where Fluxus art—mostly cheap plastic boxes filled with odds and ends—could be purchased. (Walk-in business was not brisk.) At one point, he made plans to buy an island and build a self-sufficient Fluxus community on it.
The island venture did not pan out, but Maciunas would finally realize his idea by buying and renovating abandoned buildings—more than twenty of them—in downtown Manhattan for artists to live and work in. The enterprise ruined him. He was sued by the tenants because the renovations were not up to code and the lofts could not pass inspection, and he was badly beaten by goons hired by one of his creditors. In the mid-seventies, he fled the city for a farm in Massachusetts, where he died, of cancer, in 1978. But he had given birth to SoHo. It would become, in the nineteen-eighties, the world capital of contemporary art.
Maciunas’s slogan for Fluxus was “Purge the world of ‘Europanism’!,” and at the Fluxus début, in West Germany in 1962, a grand piano was smashed to bits. Ono, who was invited but declined to attend, was not into breaking pianos. “I am not somebody who wants to burn ‘The Mona Lisa,’ ” she once said. “That’s the difference between some revolutionaries and me.” But she does share something with Maciunas. She is a utopian. She would be happy if the whole world could be a Fluxus island.
In 1962, Ono returned to Japan. She discovered that the Japanese avant-garde was even more radical than the New York avant-garde. There were many new schools. The most famous today is Gutai, which originated in Osaka in 1954. Like Fluxus, Gutai was a performative, low-tech, everyday-materials kind of art. One of the earliest Gutai works was “Challenging Mud,” in which the artist throws himself into an outdoor pit filled with wet clay and thrashes around for half an hour. When he emerges, the shape of the clay is presented as a work of art.
Ichiyanagi had returned earlier—the marriage was breaking up—and he arranged for Ono to present a concert at the Sogetsu Art Center, in Tokyo. Outside the hall, she mounted what she called “Instructions for Paintings,” twenty-two pieces of paper attached to the wall, each with a set of instructions in Japanese. The instructions resembled some of the art created by young artists in Cage’s circle in New York—for example, Emmett Williams’s “Voice Piece for La Monte Young” (1961), which reads, in its entirety, “Ask if La Monte Young is in the audience, then exit,” and Brecht’s “Word Event,” the complete score for which is the word “Exit.”
Inside the hall, with thirty artists, Ono performed several pieces, including some she had done at Carnegie Recital Hall. It’s unclear what the audience reaction was—Brackett says it was enthusiastic—but the show received a nasty review in a Japanese art magazine by an American expatriate, Donald Richie, who made fun of Ono for being “old-fashioned.” “All her ideas are borrowed from people in New York, particularly John Cage,” he wrote. This was not an attack from an uncomprehending traditionalist. This was an attack from the cultural left. Ono was traumatized. She checked into a sanitarium.
But when she came out, she picked up where she had left off. She got remarried, to Tony Cox, an American art promoter and countercultural type, and, in 1964, she published her first book, “Grapefruit,” a collection of event scores and instruction pieces:
Watch the sun until it becomes square.
Collecting Piece Ii
Break a contemporary museum into pieces with the means you have chosen. Collect the pieces and put them together again with glue.
These are like Brecht’s “Word Event,” but with a big difference. “Word Event” was intended to be performed, and artists found various ingenious ways to enact the instruction “Exit.” Ono’s pieces cannot be performed. They are instructions for imaginary acts.
In an essay in a Japanese art journal, she invoked the concept of “fabricated truth,” meaning that the stuff we make up in our heads (what we wish we could have for dinner) is as much our reality as the chair we are sitting in. “I think it is possible to see the chair as it is,” she explained. “But when you burn the chair, you suddenly realize that the chair in your mind did not burn or disappear.”
What Ono was doing was conceptual art. When conceptual artists hit the big time, at the end of the nineteen-sixties, her name was virtually never mentioned. She does not appear in the art critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s landmark essay, “The Dematerialization of Art,” published in 1968. But she was one of the first artists to make it.
In 1965, she came back to New York, and, in March, had another show at Carnegie Recital Hall, “New Works of Yoko Ono.” This was the New York première of her best work, a truly great work of art, “Cut Piece.”
The performer (in this case, Ono) enters fully clothed and kneels in the center of the stage. Next to her is a large pair of scissors—fabric shears. The audience is invited to come onstage one at a time and cut off a piece of the artist’s clothing, which they may keep. According to instructions Ono later wrote, “Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option.” She said she wore her best clothes when she performed the work, even when she had little money and could not afford to have them ruined.
Ono had performed “Cut Piece” in Tokyo and in Kyoto, and there are photographs of those performances. The New York performance was filmed by the documentarians David and Albert Maysles. (Brackett, strangely, says that the Maysleses’ film, rather than a live performance, is what people saw at Carnegie Recital Hall.)
In most Happenings and event art, the performers are artists, or friends of the person who wrote the score. In “Cut Piece,” the performers are unknown to the artist. They can interpret the instructions in unpredictable ways. It’s like handing out loaded guns to a roomful of strangers. Ono is small (five-two); the shears are large and sharp. When audience members start slicing away the fabric around her breasts or near her crotch, there is a real sense of danger and violation. In Japan, one of the cutters stood behind her and held the shears above her head, as though he were going to impale her.
The score required Ono to remain expressionless, but in the film you can see apprehension in her eyes as audience members keep mounting the stage and standing over her wielding the scissors, looking for another place to cut. When her bra is cut, she covers her breasts with her hands—almost her only movement in the entire piece.
Most immediately, “Cut Piece” is a concrete enactment of the striptease that men are said to perform in their heads when they see an attractive woman. It weaponizes the male gaze. Women participate in the cutting, but that’s because it’s not just men who are part of the society that objectifies women. The piece is therefore classified as a work of feminist art (created at a time when almost no one was making feminist art), and it plainly is.
But what “Cut Piece” means depends in large part on the audience it is being performed for, and Ono originally had something else in mind. When she did the piece in Japan, a Buddhist interpretation was possible. It belonged to “the Zen tradition of doing the thing which is the most embarrassing for you to do and seeing what you come up with and how you deal with it,” she said.
The piece also derived, Ono said elsewhere, from a story about the Buddha giving away everything that people ask him for until he ultimately allows himself to be eaten by a tiger. Ono was offering everything she had to strangers—that’s why she always wore her best clothes. “Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give,” as she put it, “the artist gives what the audience chooses to take.”
In 1966, Ono went to London to participate in the Destruction in Art Symposium, where she performed “Cut Piece” twice. It was not read as a Buddhist text at those events. Word of mouth after the first performance led to the second one being mobbed, with men eagerly cutting off all her clothing, even her underwear. This was Swinging London; everyone assumed that the piece was about sex. After London, Ono did not perform it again until 2003, when she did it in Paris, seated in a chair. This time, she explained that the work was about world peace, and a response to 9/11.
No matter where it is performed or what reading it suggests, the piece is an experiment in group psychology. People are being invited to do something publicly that is normally forbidden—violently remove the clothing of a woman they do not know. The ones who participate can rationalize their actions by telling themselves that stripping a passive woman is not “really” what they’re doing, because it’s a work of art. But, of course, it really is what they’re doing.
And people in the audience who don’t go onstage because they find the spectacle repellent or violative can tell themselves that at least they are not participating. In the film of the New York show, the last person recorded cutting is a young man with a bit of a swagger who lustily shears off all that was left of Ono’s top so that she has to cover her breasts. He is heckled. But no one stops him. For the hecklers are part of the show. And, of course, the more people who cut, the easier it is to become a cutter. It must be O.K. Everybody’s doing it.
The first time I saw the Maysles film was at the Vancouver show (although it is online), and that was when I understood what the New York performance was about. A beautifully dressed Japanese woman kneels, offering no resistance, while a series of armed white people methodically destroy all her possessions. What is being represented here? Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The firebombing of Tokyo.
Ono had planned to spend only a few weeks in London, but she found the city’s art world receptive to her work. Interest spilled over into the non-art world when she and Cox released a film entitled “Film No. 4,” commonly known as “Bottoms.” Which is all you see: closeups of naked people’s bottoms as they walk.
Ono and Cox had filmed a six-minute version of the movie in New York, using a high-speed camera loaned to them by Maciunas (who had it on loan from someone else). In London, many art-world celebrities eagerly agreed to perform in it, and the final cut is eighty minutes long, at approximately twenty seconds of screen time per bottom.
But no one knows you’re a celebrity from the rear. So the film is not just a joke. There’s an edge to it. It mocks self-importance. Ono described it as “like an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses.” The movie was promptly banned by the British Board of Film Censors—about the best publicity a filmmaker could hope for in sixties London. It got Ono into the tabloids. By then, though, she had met John Lennon.
Their story—and it could all be true, who knows?—is that on November 9, 1966, the day before a show of Ono’s work was scheduled to open at Indica Books and Gallery, Lennon dropped in. The Indica was a short-lived countercultural art gallery (indica is a species of cannabis) whose patrons included Paul McCartney. Ono accompanied Lennon while he browsed the art on display. (She has claimed not to have known who he was, which is not very believable. It is believable that she did not care who he was.) One work consisted of an apple on a pedestal. Lennon asked her what it cost. She said, Two hundred pounds. He picked up the apple and took a bite out of it. She thought that was gross.
Another piece was a ladder. When you climb up, there is a magnifying glass, which you use to look at a piece of paper on the ceiling, where you read a tiny word: “Yes.” This was totally up Lennon’s alley. “It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘No’ or ‘Fuck you,’ ” he explained later.
But they made their fateful connection with a piece called “Painting to Hammer a Nail In (No. 9).” Visitors are invited to hammer a nail into a board mounted on the wall. Lennon asked Ono if he could hammer a nail. Yes, she said, if he paid her five shillings. “Well, I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings,” he said, “and hammer an imaginary nail in.” “That’s when we locked eyes,” he said, “and she got it and I got it and, as they say in all the interviews we do, the rest is history.”
For a while, they were “just friends.” It helps to remember that this was still very early in the Beatles’ career, less than three years after the band played “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time. They had not yet recorded “Sgt. Pepper.” Lennon had just turned twenty-six. Ono, on the other hand, was thirty-three. Her work had fully matured. She gave Lennon a copy of “Grapefruit,” which he read with attention. The affair did not begin until May, 1968. They went public in June, and for the next twelve years, until Lennon was killed, they lived under the constant scrutiny of the world press (another context for “Cut Piece”). Brackett says that Lennon was the clingy one, not Ono. Lennon made her sit next to him when the Beatles were recording, because he was afraid that if she was out of his sight she would leave him.
The Times music critic Robert Palmer thought that “having John Lennon fall in love with her was the worst thing that could have happened to Yoko Ono’s career as an artist.” Ono herself admitted that “together we hurt each other’s career and position just by being with each other and just by being us.” How true is that?
The Vancouver show covered Ono’s career from 1954 to the present, and the visitor feels an abrupt shift after 1968. Starting with the Bed-ins for peace, where she and Lennon sat in hotel-room beds in their pajamas and discussed politics with journalists and various counterculture celebrities, such as Timothy Leary, a lot of her work has been about world peace. It has also become explicitly feminist. Maciunas had a politics, but most Fluxus art—and Cage’s and Duchamp’s art—is apolitical. It is art about art. After 1968, Ono’s art is about politics. But that is true of virtually every artist. With the war in Vietnam, art got politicized, and it remains politicized today.
Ono’s conception of the audience for her work changed, too. When Ono and Lennon married, she was a coterie artist and he was a popular entertainer—maybe the most famous in the world. She performed for hundreds; he performed for hundreds of millions. She decided that condescension to popular entertainment is a highbrow prejudice. As she put it, “I came to believe that avant-garde purity was just as stifling as just doing a rock beat over and over.” So she became a pop star. Including the records she made with Lennon, she has released twenty-two albums. She expanded her audience.
Her music hasn’t sold the way Beatles music has, of course. But she and Lennon did produce one spectacularly successful collaboration.
“Imagine” was the biggest hit of Lennon’s post-Beatles career. The song was recorded in 1971, and, over the years, it has become a kind of world anthem, covered by countless artists, and played in the opening ceremonies at the Olympics and in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Pretty much everybody can hum the tune.
It’s easy to enjoy the song and embrace the sentiments but to think of it as expressing a kind of harmless flower-power utopianism. That’s a misapprehension. “Imagine” is utopian, but it is also a work of conceptual art. It’s an instruction piece. “Imagine it in your mind,” as she told her little brother, had—improbably, but that’s the way culture works—ricocheted across time and space to end up, twenty-six years later, in the words of a song heard by millions.
When the record was released, one of Ono’s instruction pieces from “Grapefruit” was printed on the back cover: “Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” Later, Lennon said that it was sexist of him not to have listed Ono as a co-writer, given that the idea and much of the lyrics were hers. Somehow, though, he never did anything about it. But the world does go round, and in 2017 the National Music Publishers’ Association announced that, henceforth, Yoko Ono would be credited as a co-writer on “Imagine.” ♦