Episode 28: Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1964)
VOICE 1: Okay. Hitting play.
VOICE 2: So. The video opens. Black and white. A person seems to be preparing Yoko Ono, who’s sitting with her legs folded under her. Oh, interesting, a person comes up with a pair of scissors and starts slicing slowly up the left sleeve…
VOICE 3: Some people come up, take a little. Some…take more. It’s interesting to see where people choose to cut. Some are at the bottom hem of the dress, some are going across the back, which reveals more of her body.
VOICE 2: Yoko herself seems a bit detached, I think? Um… [laughs] she’s so young.
VOICE 1: She looks…scared. She’s not moving at all throughout it. It’s pretty powerful.
VOICE 2: Some look like they’re tending to her. Some look like they are acting on her. Assaulted is probably too strong a word, uh, given that it’s an art piece. It seems to be consensual by implication.
VOICE 4: I wonder if she’s putting herself in a humiliating situation, or whether she feels like she’s in control.
VOICE 1: The sounds of the audience are so incongruent with what’s going on onstage. With people clapping.
VOICE 4: Some people are laughing. I don’t think if I was in the audience I’d be laughing. I think people are laughing because they’re uncomfortable. I think probably everyone is wondering how far is she gonna go with this?
VOICE 4: I’m waiting for someone to get really gutsy. I think I would have. I would have cut down the back… and pulled off the whole top.
VOICE 2: Yeah. It’s strange when an artist… you know, engages the audience in a way that, I dunno, leaves them so open… you know, what’s it like to be onstage at the mercy of strangers with scissors, right?
VOICE 1: Growing more and more exposed, more vulnerable.
VOICE 3: It’s interesting to see how the… the tension, that people need to pull on it, changes, and how people seem to be getting a little rougher as the garment gets more ragged.
VOICE 2: It feels different when I’m watching a man perform the cutting, it just seems more uncomfortable.
VOICE 5: Um, that felt very predatory to me, to see the men circling her.
VOICE 4: It’s interesting to see how the guys think that they’re the ones doing something, and the women are respecting her art, her conception of this piece.
VOICE 6: So everybody’s just really self-conscious, it seems, male and female…
VOICE 2: There are all kinds of things that could be projected on this just because it seems like it’s a strange public violation that…everyone’s cool with.
VOICE 6: …Like, they’re pretending that this is just about cutting fabric in an artful way, but they know… that they’re stripping her.
So I have a theory. And I’ll say at the outset that it’s a theory that might get me in trouble, because it’s about the Beatles. Specifically, one particular Beatle, already the one with the most checkered past, and the fact that in 1966, at the height of his fame, he met a Japanese artist at her own show, and, though he was married, was so compelled by her art that he decided to pursue her. She, meanwhile, maintained that she’d never heard of him. He kept it up, got divorced, and they got together officially in 1968. They were married in 1969. The Beatles broke up, miserable with one another, in 1970, with John being the first to call it. And my theory is this: if you truly believe that there’s a direct correlation between the arrival of Yoko on the scene and the Beatles breaking up, then you’re going to use this bogus, sexist, unfounded generalization to dismiss her art. And if this theory applies to you, then take a seat in the audience, my friend. Because you’re exactly who Cut Piece was intended for.
Of course Yoko Ono’s reputation is inextricably tied to the Beatles. That’s obvious, and it’s inescapable. With John Lennon’s beautifully egalitarian love came John Lennon’s completely lopsided fame, and with that fame came the Beatles-sized fallout that Ono has been working against ever since. She was already well-known in her own scene when she met John, but it was a scene that couldn’t begin to hold its own next to the most famous band in the world. Ono’s scene, Fluxus performance art, occupied a small niche even of the art world, which itself occupied a small niche of pop culture. I mean, there was no contest. When Cynthia, John’s first wife, asked why Yoko had been calling their house, John dismissed her with a wave of his hand – she was calling for some “avant garde bullshit,” an answer that seemed to satisfy suspicions. Because people still think performance art is bullshit. And this is where we tap into the irony of Yoko Ono’s art as it intersected with her life. Because the performance art that she had become famous for in the years before she met John Lennon and subsequently lost control of her reputation, tackled exactly what happens when you surrender control. Cut Piece is entirely about the dueling forces of control and submission, presented together, side-by-side, taut and tense with energy. It’s about what can and cannot be controlled when you make the decision to give up your power.
But getting to this deeper place of artistic understanding takes some persistence. Whenever I describe Cut Piece to people, their first reaction is to roll their eyes. What conceptual art bullshit. A woman artist asking people to strip her bare, taking her sexual vulnerability to its most rudimentary extreme. How performative. How obvious. But we need to understand that the thing about performance art is that describing the performance after the fact does it a tremendous disservice. The art exists purely in the moment of experience, not after, and only for the people who were there to experience it. A description, a photograph, even a video is never going to be as powerful as sitting through it in person.
So if you had been there, first in Kyoto in 1964, and then again at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1965, this is what you would have seen: Ono, thirty-two years old, dressed in a black suit, sits down in the center of an otherwise empty stage, signifying the beginning of the performance. She’s kneeling, sitting back on her heels, expressionless as a stone Buddha. A pair of scissors is placed in front of her. Then people are invited on stage, one at a time. And they’re instructed to cut away pieces of her clothing. They’re allowed to keep the pieces of cloth. And she just sits there, silently. Taking it. Welcoming it. And the performance goes until she decides that it’s over.
And for however it sounds in its description, I can’t imagine how powerful it would have been to see this in person, never mind to have participated. How palpable the nervous, twitchy energy in the room must have been. Who is actually going to take her up on this, this kooky avant garde request to cut raggedly away at someone piece by piece…oh wait, that person just did. It was a man. Well, of course. Just like a man. But then that woman did it too, so maybe this is empowering? Audience members queue by the side of the stage; you hear the creaking wood as they walk up to her. Some are woman in blocky 1960s heels, knees held modestly together as they kneel down in their skirts, apologetically cutting away a small piece of her sleeve, the smallest piece they can. One woman uses the opportunity to cut Ono’s collar fashionably off-the-shoulder. Some men are courteous, almost fearful at this opportunity that came too easily and needs to be respected. Then a younger man swaggers up, laughing, enamored with his own bravado, announcing his intentions. He meticulously cuts away the entire chest portion of her slip, exposing her bra. It’s almost the only time Ono’s expression changes from passive to engaged, barely containing her own disgust, her own eyeroll. But otherwise, she says nothing, and does nothing. “When I do the Cut Piece,” Ono said, “I get into a trance, and so I don’t feel too frightened.…We usually give something with a purpose…but I wanted to see what they would take.”
And if you’re doing the cutting, you’re right there next to her, witnessing her mute response. You’re listening to her breathe, attempting to keep calm. You’re seeing the tears welling up in her eyes, which you can see in the film, the way they catch the light with a little too much luster. If you’re sitting in the audience, you’re probably just waiting for it to end, and maybe a little ashamed at your curiosity at how it will end, how far she’ll actually let this go. Nakedness be damned; there’s nothing more arousing than watching someone in the act of undressing, and, inversely, nothing more disturbing than watching someone stripped down. You can rationalize that you were invited to this, that this was all her idea, and you’re not actually doing the cutting. And then you realize that you’re not stopping this, that you are aroused by this – and you realize that you’re complicit, a participant all the same. Ono’s artwork is just as much about revealing something in her viewer as it is, on the surface, about revealing herself.
Which might, then, tinge this feeling of shame with some feelings of resentment, when you realize that this uncomfortable is the result of a controlled situation that she invited you into in the first place. And therein lies the central conflict of Cut Piece. Ono is asking people to do this to her, which gives her power. But then people are actually doing it, which renders her powerless. But she decides when it’s over, which is once again empowering. She’s tantalizing the audience with the promise of her nakedness, simultaneously the dom and the sub. She’s using nakedness as both the most thrilling and disturbing outcome of this performance. And yet, even as we know she’s ultimately in control, watching her sit there, passively accepting this, staring up at the ceiling, is so, so painful.
And the first question you want to ask, both as an audience member and here, now, is why is she putting herself through this? It feels beyond the pale to say that it’s just for art. And it’s hard to just sympathize too, because she isn’t just an unwitting victim of patriarchal objectification – she’s courting it too. Those are her scissors. She’s making a statement about what it means to be a woman, and an artist, and the art itself, the object of your gaze. And it begs another question: when does the fact that she made the decision to submit become about her own empowerment? Which becomes another question: when does the fact that she invited this take away even more of her power? Is this an act of feminism or its destruction? Is she a lesser woman, but a better artist, because she allowed this pain to continue for the sake of her viewing public? And who is really in control here? Who is this performance really for? Why did she just sit there? Why didn’t she stop it sooner? This is a spiraling series of impossible questions. And I don’t know a woman alive who at one point or another hasn’t asked them.
But let’s pull back at little bit and talk about the art itself. We can’t examine Cut Piece, and performance art in general, without contextualizing it in the early 1960s, during a time when this kind of performance art was brand new, before it was derided as bullshit, before it even had its name. Yoko Ono was a fearless part of a movement called Fluxus, the predecessor to the capital-C Conceptual Art that took hold in the late 60s and early 70s. George Maciunas, a Lithuanian-born American artist and primary founder of the Fluxus movement, described it, haphazardly, as “a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, Vaudeville, Cage, and Duchamp,” and named it with this interdisciplinary free-association in mind – the word fluxus, meaning to be in flux, to flow. It’s one of those democratic, nebulous, and unfortunate art movements that believed that to define an ethos went against its ethos, and consequently, because it was so indefinable, it never really got a foothold in art history. They defined themselves, instead, by what they weren’t: not chained to traditional painting and sculpture, not confined within the prison of the museum, or to the idea that the art market had the authority to determine the value of an art object. Most importantly, they didn’t believe that a viewer should need a degree in art history to understand what he or she was looking at. Art was everywhere. In Fluxus, every image can be art. Every sound can be music.
While Fluxus itself was a loosely-defined, loosely-organized movement, it did, as I said, pave the way for the conceptual art that would define postmodernism – which we’ll tackle another time – in the form of their experimental “happenings.” A happening was basically the performance art performance: an interdisciplinary art performance that took place in complex sensory environments, mimicking theater in its use of narrative and props, but actively soliciting audience participation – Fluxus was committed to interactions between artists and audiences, to breaking down barriers between the two, and to categorically transgressing the boundaries of the frame. Happenings meant to challenge an audience’s preconceived notions or behavior, and as such, were the definitive “you had to be there.” The entirety of the art existed in the experience of being present at one of these happenings, and never intended to last beyond the fleeting moment of performance. And this is Conceptual Art in a nutshell: the way something affects you in the moment of experience is the entirety of the art. The emphasis is on experience, on idea, not end product. The photographs of the event are documentation of the art, not the actual art. The art itself has come and gone.
This privileging of idea over object of course brings to mind our old buddy Marcel Duchamp. Fluxus artists were indebted to Dada, to Duchamp’s Fountain, to the idea of the idea, and to the rejection of art created to be worshiped at the altar of the museum space. It’s hard to imagine that Yoko Ono wasn’t channeling, at least to a small degree, Duchamp’s Dada masterwork from 1915-1923, “The Large Glass,” subtitled “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even”, a complex, nearly inscrutable object about erotic tension and perpetual desire, simultaneously meant to be looked at and through. Duchamp was their hero: the American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth identified Duchamp as the historical pivot point not just for their movement, but for art history itself. Before him, Kosuth said, art had been “hampered by its physical embodiment.” You know, being an actual thing. Kosuth addresses this tension between idea and object in his most famous work, “One and Three Chairs” from 1965, which is comprised of a chair, a photograph of a chair, and the dictionary definition of a chair. The viewer is invited to determine which chair is the most “real”. It reminds us of Magritte’s impish painting of a pipe: Kosuth is giving us a clear opportunity to recognize that what we consider to be object and what we consider to be idea are separate things that we conflate.
But though Fluxus artist were indebted to Dada, and were clearly as anti-art as Dada, they just couldn’t get behind the readymade. And that’s largely due to their chronological place in art history, following quick on the heels of Minimalism. We haven’t talked yet about Minimalism, but suffice to say, it was a group of artists who were themselves responding to the emotional muddle of Abstract Expressionism with an almost compulsive need to clean up Abstract Expressionism’s mess and focus on a single, clean, objective object. Minimalism loved their single brick, their wooden box, their tidy floor tiles. But we’ll come back to the Minimalists another time. My point is that this veneration of the object itself that raised the ire of Conceptual Artists, who felt like the object was stealing all the attention away from the idea. So they became all idea, no object. And so instead of the readymade as the physical representation of idea, they used the happening. They believed in “dematerializing” the art object. They didn’t want to participate in an art market where anything tangible could be bought or sold. And with this final assault on convention, art freed itself from being, you know, an actual thing.
Which is why, as you can imagine, if you haven’t followed the sequence of this trajectory from the beginning, it’s easy to dismiss a piece of performance art as pretentious, as esoteric. As bullshit. But it never intended to be. Fluxus artists just wanted to take art out of the museum and into our frame, to bridge the gap between artist and audience through a shared experience, without even an object separating them. And when it comes to Yoko Ono in particular, it’s ironic that it was the mass popularity of Beatles that stole away her reputation, when so much of her message was about democratizing the artistic experience, about awakening the artist in everyone. Any image can be an artwork. Any sound can be music.
And sitting on that stage, even as she kneeled there, silently asking the same questions that we, too, are asking today, about what it means to be a woman, an artist, a woman artist, the object of the gaze, how much you are expected to give, how much others will take, she describes the sound: “There was a long silence between one person coming up and the next person coming up. And it’s fantastic, beautiful music, you know? Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut! Ba-ba-ba-ba, cut!” Regardless of how you feel about Yoko Ono in theory, you can’t dismiss the sound that she, by herself, transformed into music.
You can actually go on YouTube now and watch a clip from Cut Piece, and special thanks to the friends and family I asked to do just that: Mom, Bob, Evan, Maura, Ben, Adam, and Dar. For more information, go to thelonelypalette.com, or follow us on Twitter: @lonelypalette, or on Instagram: @thelonelypalette, or like us on Facebook, and please, if you are a fan of the show - please - leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, and consider supporting us on Patreon, in exchange for some sweet swag, at www.patreon.com/lonelypalette.
And speaking of which, today’s Patron of the Day is the personification of a stranger just being a friend you haven’t met yet: Brad Jackson, who found the podcast and engaged with me about all sorts of art issues over the course of several emails back and forth, and a great trip to an unnamed contemporary art museum in the Hudson Valley, where we secretly recorded our conversation, to be shared in a later episode. Brad, thank you so much.
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The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a new collective of idea-driven podcasts. And I’m excited to announce that Ministry of Ideas is coming back! It’s starting its new season on April 10th, with an episode on contemporary diet culture, and how it’s really just the latest manifestation of our own religion fervor around food, so… forbidden fruit, indeed. Check them out at ministryofideas.org, and have your podcast app ready to catch them on April 10th.