Thursday, April 2, 2009

John and Yoko in Montreal: 40 Years Later

Opening today at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts:

"In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous Bed-in, held in Suite 1742 of Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, made headlines around the world. Forty years later, from April 2 to June 21, 2009, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts celebrates this legendary event with Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko, organized in collaboration with Yoko Ono. Rekindling the philosophy behind John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s commitment for today’s world, this comprehensive exhibition will provide a picture of the historical and political context in 1969 that formed the backdrop to the Bed-in. To enable the widest possible audience to understand, be moved by and perpetuate this still-topical peace message, admission to the exhibition will be free at all times."

Yoko Ono is 76 years of age. She continues to be controversial and attracts scorn and admiration in equal measure. As a performing artist and musician, her practice has not always been easy to understand, and so it has been easy to mock. This continues to the present day: one of our national papers published an exceptionally mean-spirited and shallow article attacking Yoko Ono personally and attacking the original Bed-in and the Bed-in redux currently at the Beaux-Arts in Montreal. There was also a shameful mock-obituary in a N.Y. art blog on April Fool's Day. My sense of humour can be pretty dark, but the obit was not even remotely funny. I won't dignify either of these journalistic efforts by providing a link. If you are interested enough, I am sure you can do some digging and find them for yourself.

Do we judge artists by their lives as lived or by the art that they produce? When both the life lived and the art produced is hard to categorize, and defies expected norms, the artist and the art work are open for attack. The unfamiliar makes people feel uncomfortable, or worse, worried that they are being taken advantage of in some way. Nobody wants to be made to feel stupid, or to feel they are being conned, and a hostile reaction is often the result..

What it is that has made Yoko Ono such a lightning rod ? Beyond her art, and the "she-broke-up-the-Beatles" complaint, I would argue that the more hateful of the personal attacks have been energized by elements of racism and gender bias. Among other things, she was vilified as a bad mother because she "abandoned" her daughter Kyoko. The wrenchingly sad truth is that the child was abducted by ex-husband Tony Cox, who changed the child's name, and hid her away in a far-right apocalyptic Christian cult based in California known as "The Walk". When Yoko Ono's husband John Lennon chose to allow himself the pleasures of a home life and hands-on parenting, this was taken as further proof of her inadequacies as a real woman and her status as a controlling bitch. Years later, her husband was murdered before her eyes. I am sure there are those who blame her for that, too.

It is hard to imagine a life which has at once contained such privilege, and such personal tragedy. Through it all, Yoko Ono has continued make art. Whether you like it, or understand it, is not really the point. The point is that there has been a continued drive and passion to create, and to communicate. That's what makes an artist.

The original Bed-in was a piece of performance art. It was intended to be thought provoking and ambiguous. The interpretation of the piece was left to the discretion of the individual. There were no dissertations or explanatory speeches or catalogues to indoctrinate the audience. When pressed, Lennon and Ono gave statements which in isolation sounded obscure or inane. Yoko Ono in particular has never been a very gifted verbal communicator. That is not her metier, and so I do not judge her art by the words she uses. Recalling the advice of Peter Schjeldahl, let us start with the assumption that the artist is sincere, and has something interesting to say. Look, listen, and allow the experience to percolate. After that, if you feel that you are being scammed, or conned, then walk away. Maybe it is just not your cup of tea.

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