The Gallery Companion
The Gallery Companion
What Makes an Artist 'Great'?

What Makes an Artist 'Great'?

I'm wondering about Yoko Ono
A black-and-white photo shows Yoko Ono sitting on a wooden floor with a curtain behind. Her clothes have been cut away so that her arms are bare, and there are fabric scraps on the floor around her.
Yoko Ono performing Cut Piece in 1965. Photo: Minoru Niizuma

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the Yoko Ono exhibition at Tate Modern in London. I’ve been putting off writing about it because, well, I didn’t quite know what to say. It is a huge show spanning a prolific creative life over more than fifty years, and frankly any contemporary artist that has a retrospective of this size in one of London’s biggest public art galleries is surely worthy of serious consideration.

Ono is a much maligned and misunderstood figure in the popular culture of the past half century because of her marriage to the musician John Lennon. She’s the incarnation of the idea of female manipulation: a siren who lured Lennon away from the lads and broke up his band The Beatles. All nonsense of course, but because of this narrative she has been the target of possibly the worst, most vitriolic criticism that any female artist has ever received. The misogyny and racism directed at her over the years has been extreme; it’s the kind of abuse that makes me rage against our patriarchal system.

So I was already primed to embrace her career’s work and come away thinking how underrated Ono has been. And I really tried. But the speed at which I walked through the exhibition spoke volumes: I was almost as quick as my students were — and that’s saying something.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not that there was nothing interesting to see here. There were at least three works amongst the more than 200 on show that made me linger more than a minute. I’ll come back to those. But I have to admit I found most of it a bit boring and some of it cutesy and quite naff. There wasn’t much depth to a lot of it. That’s fine in itself — it’s not a requirement for art to be deep or hard to understand to be considered ‘great’. Look at the success of the Impressionists, for example.

But it did make me ask once again a question that I don’t have an easy answer to, which is what makes an artist ‘great’? As much as I want to consolidate the groundswell of critical opinion that is positively reassessing Ono’s artistic legacy, all I can say is that I can appreciate her art as a part of our cultural history but most of it I think is completely uninteresting.

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The Gallery Companion
The Gallery Companion
Shortlisted for the Independent Podcast Awards 2023, The Gallery Companion is hosted by writer and historian Dr Victoria Powell. Expect stories about all the messy, complicated stuff that artists explore and question in their work: what’s going on, how we think and behave, how the past impacts on the present, and the role of art in our world.
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Dr Victoria Powell