- Ono in Opera:A Politics of Art and Action, 1960-1962
In her 1962 manifesto "The Word of a Fabricator," yoko ono put herself on the side of fiction, drama, and intentionality in the politicization of her practice.1 Without naming him directly, she took her friend and mentor john cage to task for his Zen-inspired poetics of indeterminacy, which sought to liberate music of human intention and expressivity through the use of chance operations like coin tosses to inform musical scores.2 Famously drawing from the I Ching, Cage claimed that such chance operations mimicked the non-intentional processes of nature. As benjamin piekut has written, nature (figured as chance) thus became the authority that grounded Cage's aesthetic practice, which in the composer's words responded to "Oriental philosophies in accord with the acceptance of nature."3
In Ono's judgment, however, a political naiveté and philosophical presumptuousness lay at the heart of Cage's project:
This is an attempt to raise man's stature to that of nature … by succumbing to and adopting random operations as men's own. It is the state of mind of wanting to become a weed and join the heartbeat of the Universe by entering the world of nothingness and blowing in a gentle wind.4
The dream to become egoless and "plant-like," she argued, is illusory and politically [End Page 41] debilitating because "contemporary men … are soaked to the bones with a fabricator called consciousness."5 Drawing on Marxist and existentialist vocabularies, she explained that
We are talking about a body of a betrayer/l'étranger to the natural world. … We, "the betrayer," are so invaded by the falsehood of consciousness we cannot even become operational by using such a loose method as random operation.6
"Operational" appears in this passage as a surprising term that plays on Cage's "chance operations" to suggest something she found these techniques lacked. "Operational" means "working": it suggests a politics defined as the common interest that binds individuals in efficacious action (rather than "blowing in a gentle breeze"). Ono's use of the term "operational" resonates with her designation of AOS - to David Tudor (1961), arguably her most ambitious work of the period, as an "opera" about the "blue chaos of war" informed by her own history as an internal refugee following the Tokyo firebombings.7 For Ono, we will see, there could be no celebration of cultural exchange between "West" and "East" without a politics of practice responsive to mutually entangled histories of violence. In keeping with such goals, "The Word of a Fabricator" reads as a manifesto in the fullest sense of the term, a clarifying text that aims not only to interpret the world but also to change it.8 As such it foreshadows Ono's increasingly public artistic involvement in peace and liberation movements over the course of the decade.
In the spirit of "The Word of a Fabricator," this article interprets Ono's early work as the crucible for a politics of art and action that responded to New York's status as a capital of empire in the early 1960s, heralding the increasingly explicit politicization of downtown avant-gardes over that decade. The timing of Ono's manifesto is significant, coming near the end of the so-called "consensus period" of the Cold War in the U.S., when a hegemonic block supported U.S. expansionist policies abroad before fracturing with the escalation of the [End Page 42] war in Vietnam. Unlike Cage, Ono could not find a home for her thought and work in Cold War consensus discourses or, more specifically, the "Cold War Orientalism" Christina Klein has identified as characteristic of the period—a midcentury U.S. fascination with Pacific Rim cultures attending expanded U.S. geopolitical power abroad, which demands more discussion with attention to Cage beyond the scope of this article. In Klein's terms, Cold War Orientalism produced "narratives of anti-conquest" (not unlike Cage's turn away from ego) in a manner that risked legitimating "U.S. expansion while denying its coercive or imperial nature."9 To locate Cage in this discursive formation is not crudely to...