Saturday, January 24, 2009

Yoko Ono's Enduring Feminist Message

[Image from this website.]
[For the web source of the article, go here and scroll down.]

All She Is Saying: Yoko Ono's Enduring Feminist Message

Sunday, April 22, 2007; N07

Yoko Ono matters as much today as ever. Read passages from her 1971 manifesto "The Feminization of Society" and you could think she was talking about 2007:

"This society is driven by neurotic speed and force accelerated by greed, and frustration of not being able to live up to the image of men and woman we have created for ourselves; the image has nothing to do with the reality of people."

Ono was in her late 30s when she wrote that essay. By then, she'd devoted 10 years to making conceptual and performance art with the group Fluxus and on her own. She had already begun performing "Cut Piece," one of her most important feminist works, in which the artist presented herself onstage, handed audience members scissors and asked that they cut away at her clothing. Reprised several times since 1964, the work, with its exploration of power dynamics and gender issues, remains relevant now.

Because many of Ono's works are performative or conceptual, she presents us with almost nothing to buy. Today, as in the 1960s, that approach offers an antidote to the ever-expanding art market bubble. Instead of inviting a purchase, Ono asks that we participate in her work. She acknowledges us as much as we must acknowledge her.

Today, at 74, Ono radiates vitality. Her ongoing work -- she gave the Hirshhorn a "Wish Tree" earlier this month -- asks us to help make the world a place of equality and peace for all beings.

In an interview at the Hirshhorn Museum on April 2 (with some follow-up via e-mail), Ono discussed feminism, the art world, witches and wizards.

-- Jessica Dawson

You've said that the role of the artist is to "change the value of things." What is the value of women in our society right now?

[Feminism] came in and it did its job in a way. But even women got scared of that title because there was such a backlash. This is still a backlash time. But the nice thing about it, everybody understands about women now. Because of that they're getting more scared. [Laughs.] There will be a time when the opposite sex will understand that we care for them, too. And we understand them, too.

I worry that women of my generation -- I'm 34 -- are less vigilant in advocating for equal rights. In the art world, the percentage of women represented in major group shows is low to declining. How do you feel about these trends?

That's why I say backlash. Women are starting to find that they might want to go back to the traditional body of women in the sense of wanting to create a family, wanting to have babies. And when they have children they want to spend more time caring for their children. And that's okay, too. Finally they all come to the same realization that we are half the sky and the world. We are a very important energy that the society can use. To denigrate us or to abuse us or to sweep us under the rug is not beneficial for the society itself.

You've made fewer overtly feminist pieces in recent years. Was this a conscious decision to produce fewer feminist works?

I don't think there is any difference in my attitude about my work. And even "Cut Piece" -- I did it in 1964 and then I did it in 2003 in France. I'm still continuing. . . .

I never thought that I was waving flags. I always felt that I was just being me and by being me in my work I was automatically being that one who is promoting the body of women.

Just by the fact that you are a female artist.

And by the fact that that particular way of expressing myself was always being attacked so much. That shows where I stood. That the society was not ready to take a woman as a real woman.

"Yes I'm a Witch" is a song I wrote in 1974. Very interestingly, if you said, "Yes, I'm a wizard" or "You're a wizard," that's a compliment.

A wizard is a male version of a witch. Why is it bad when it's women? Because then immediately you want to burn them. [Laughs.] But wizards you want to praise. We should know that we are all witches. And wizards.

Men and women both.

Yes. The human race is a very, very magical race. We have a magic power of witches and wizards. We're here on this earth to unravel the mystery of this planet. The planet is asking for it.

Much of your work is about peace. Yet you also encourage acceptance of things as they are. Can violence ever be accepted as part of human behavior?

It's a defense mechanism. Like some germs coming to the body and they have to maybe violently correct it, kick the germs out. For that, I think it's very important that we use our power of violence (I don't like the word violence) . . . the power of protecting ourselves.

I recently reread "The Feminization of Society" and it struck me that the essay could have been written yesterday. How do you compare today's society with that of the early 1970s when you wrote it?

At the time, we thought that we were terribly liberated, the sexual revolution and all that. But that was mainly for guys. Women didn't really get the benefit of it because we have a very different body structure.

We're responsible for taking the pill and ingesting all those hormones.

Exactly. So in that sense we are angry -- whenever I think about it, it just makes me very angry -- that anger is very good because it leads to the next positive situation. If we're not angry about it, we won't do anything about it. You have to kill that condition that is not helping us. In that sense, violence can be a component of progress.

In that same essay, you wrote about a second stage of feminism where women "will realize the futility of trying to be like men" and "will realize themselves as they are" rather than in comparison to men. Have we gotten there yet?

It is starting to dawn on all women that it is time to forget about trying to compete with men who, with their blunders, have shown us that they have not been doing such a great job. Why try to equate ourselves with such flawed power?

In fact, the whole world is starting to realize that it was the most unwise thing for our society to have ignored women power, to run the society with male priorities. Desperation is finally opening the door to wisdom.

A Response to Ryan Thoreson at The

What follows is a piece of commentary posted at the on Thursday, 22 January 2009, 14.30 GMT. What follows that is my reply to him.

Why ban porn at all?

China's crackdown on internet 'vulgarity' was immediately attacked, but there are draconian rules in our own universities

by Ryan Thoreson

The sex wars have begun anew – and this time, they've gone global. As if restrictions on free-flowing information weren't already unsexy enough, the Chinese government has upped the ante by cracking down on pornography and "vulgarity" across the country.

Almost instantly, the move was roundly condemned by free-speech advocates. Depending who you asked, it was a blow to free expression, a setback for grassroots media or a gross invasion of privacy. And virtually everyone agreed that the punishment seemed wildly inappropriate for the offence of poor taste and the occasional bit of self-abuse.

While plenty of people oppose pornography (most famously, savvy feminist academics like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon) very few people leap to the defence of the strict policing or draconian punishments of this particular episode. It wasn't the manufacturers of pornography who got caught in the dragnet, or the models, actors, filmmakers or photographers, or even the viewers themselves, but the search engines that knowingly or unknowingly host the offending pages. As a result, 19 companies – including major players like Baidu and Google – are subject to being raided and having their equipment seized. As of this morning, more than 1,250 websites had been shuttered, and the ministry of public security announced plans to expand the crackdown to police individuals' mobile phones.

But really, who are we to talk? While pornography isn't illegal in the UK, restrictions aren't that different at Oxford – or really, any of the UK's other bastions of learning. According to Oxford's information technology policy, like other universities on the government-funded JANET programme, "the creation, transmission, storage, downloading, or display of any offensive, obscene, indecent, or menacing images, data, or other material, or any data capable of being resolved into such images or material" is a punishable offence for users on university networks. Cambridge's policy is similar, as is Manchester's. King's College lumps porn into a range of reactionary offences; by banning content "which is sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, pornographic or similarly discriminatory or offensive" they skilfully blur the lines between self-love and hate speech. As quick as commentators have been to condemn the crackdown in China, our intelligentsia don't seem to be any less squeamish about porn themselves.

It's not just this instance, either. Just prior to China's sweeps, pundits were up in arms over Facebook's ban of breastfeeding photos. But while Oxford or Cambridge might let the photos slide, they're not necessarily permissible. As the policies stand, universities in the UK not only prohibit displaying racy photos on their networks, they often prohibit uploading and sending them privately in the sanctity of a university room.

Obviously, there's a non-trivial difference in scale between China's crackdown and a fed-up IT technician who reports a student to a university. It's said that Oxford rarely enforces its policy, and certainly, nobody has their belongings confiscated or gets detained indefinitely for breaking that particular rule. Moreover, Oxford – like many institutions – does explicitly allow students to access racy materials for "properly supervised research purposes", although the policy neglects to say what constitutes a properly supervised use of porn, or what unlucky group of bureaucrats is asked to evaluate such claims.

If it's trivial or impractical to regulate, why ban porn at all? Many universities argue that surfing for porn is banned because it's not for academic purposes. But this hardly explains why students are only lectured on porn as they are introduced to the network. Nobody worries that they'll be sent down for shopping for jeans, emailing their grandmother or checking a bus schedule. And frankly, they probably get more out of the porn. It's hard to single out pornography as uniquely anti-intellectual – and it certainly doesn't make sense to ban it at universities where students regularly skip to bops in schoolgirl miniskirts or fetish gear.

But what such vague and imprecise prohibitions do promote is a kind of self-consciousness, fearfulness, and shame about accessing content that might be damning. Worse, they allow the university to crack down on whoever it chooses, whenever it chooses, with whatever punishments it chooses. It lends itself to targeting people who watch porn often, or who are into kinky stuff that catches the university's eye. That's especially arbitrary to those of us who think porn is pretty innocuous compared to the rampant misogyny or violence that you can watch unrestricted on TV, but the sheer inconsistency of it should give even critics of pornography pause. Pornography can be sexist and it can be offensive, but it isn't inherently so – and if porn offends, so does a lot of the material on the internet. And for institutions that prize curiosity and free thought, a blanket prohibition on net-based erotica alone seems awfully difficult to justify.

The politics of pornography are complicated everywhere, in the UK just as much as in China. But a key difference between the two is that porn isn't illegal in Britain, and that's what makes this puritanical streak in academia especially incomprehensible. It's frankly bizarre for universities to distribute contraception and test for chlamydia while banning porn – to effectively tell students that they can touch, but not look. While pornography might be distasteful to some, that kind of sex schizophrenia that persists in its place is a much bigger turn-off.

Cheers Ryan.

Andrea Dworkin was not an academic, she was a writer and activist. So your theories about the Academy or the State banning pornography don't hold together if you're going to include her work as an example of such a connection. Dworkin dropped out of Bennington College and never worked as a professor. Yes, she taught a class or two at one point, but teaching a class or two, along with being a college drop-out does not an academic make.

Dworkin and MacKinnon (first name, Catharine; do you have a problem with spelling?) never promoted State censorship as a means of confronting the problem pornography poses for women and their economic, political, and social subordination to men. Regurgitating ad nauseam that such feminists were pro-censorship is a handy myth for those who are sexually or economically invested in not knowing the truth of what they worked together to do; they created a CIVIL RIGHTS law. Sorry to interrupt your argument with inconvenient truths.

If you are capable of reading and comprehending feminist writing, make a concerted effort to comprehend this speech, by Andrea Dworkin: Pornography Happens To Women. In my experience, "academically educated men" are quite stupid when it comes to interpreting the meaning of feminist theory and the function and purpose of civil rights/sex discrimination-based feminist anti-pornography activism. Visit this website, and pay close attention to "Section 5: ENFORCEMENT" and note how such a law may, and may not, be applied.

In the U.S. we have a category of speech, appropriately termed "hate speech" which is not protected by our First Amendment. Pornography, the term, literally means the graphic depiction of women as whores. It is, at least, hate speech. Women are not whores, they are human beings, despite what pimps, punters, procurers, traffickers, and political libertarians delusionally believe. Women of all ethnicities have the right to study in intellectual environments (and beyond them) where the message "you are a whore [or: slut, skank, tramp, harlot, hoe, c*nt, hoochie mama, slag, hooker, tart, etc.] is not visually displayed before them, or hurled at them in order to intimidate, harass, humiliate, silence, or threaten them.

Men do, at least on occasion, treat women as whores-by-nature, when women do not wish to be approached or contacted by men at all. Every women I know is routinely approached on the street, or called out to, by men who assume "women exist to be sexually available to me, whenever I want such access". Men, not all, treat women, not all, as if they are whores, including on university campuses, which is one dynamic in the problem of college date rape. Too many males feel entitled to get what they want from women regardless of what the woman wants. Wanking off to images of women who appear to want to be roughly f*cked 24/7 does nothing to reinforce and support the liberating idea that women are not whores-by-nature, including prostituted women. Let's hope that millionaire pimps, their bevy of very well-paid attorneys, and you, aren't the only ones who gets to define what pornography is, self-servingly decreeing its social-political effects.

That you do not see the connections between a multi-billion dollar industry producing hate speech, and the mistreatment of women inside and outside of that industry is a function of your privilege. Just because you don't understand these connections, however, doesn't mean pornography-on-campus isn't a legitimate human rights problem for many female students.

King's College recognizes pornography as race and sex discrimination. It being "offensive" is not the issue. Holding such a view doesn't make one "squeamish", Ryan; it makes one an opponent of the individual rights of the wealthy, race and sex-privileged elite, when they impede on the civil rights of the oppressed.

Ryan's and my comments may also be found here.