Rube Ascending a Staircase

“She’s a genius!” proclaimed Brian with equal parts amusement and resignation. I smiled at my brother, well aware of his traditional disdain for the artist in question. He hadn’t exactly changed his aesthetic opinion, I knew, but now it was augmented by a measure of respect for savvy business acumen. “Come on,” he urged with a wry grin, “you gotta see this.”

We wound through the white-walled gallery until we encountered a low platform in a corner surrounded by a dozen onlookers. A strange mass of black fabric rested atop the performance space, its audience transfixed. There seemed to be very little to observe. Then, slowly, the amorphous object elongated and assumed vaguely humanoid dimensions. There was someone inside it. “Oh, yeah,” I tossed off casually, “bagism!”

The black bag was writhing on the top floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the esteemed institution that once ignored a certain Japanese, avant-garde artist when she commandeered its prestige in 1971 to stage a guerrilla exhibition entitled Museum of Modern (F)art. The extent of that piece was a sign with instructions to search the city for flies that had been released around the museum. Now, over forty years later, Yoko Ono was being recognized with a solo retrospective show at MOMA. Brian was having none of it, apart from praising her pragmatic brilliance.

“I mean, if she can make a living doing this, more power to her.” Nearby a projection of ambulating, naked posteriors dominated the wall. Around the corner, further film footage showed close-ups of flies landing on bare nipples.

“Well, it’s a statement, isn’t it?” I goaded him. Of course, I knew that the buttocks in motion film was a protest against inequality, the very gender ambiguity of isolated cheeks reminding us that, at least in that square foot of corporal real estate, we are all the same. This I had gleaned from the accompanying explanatory text on the wall. Otherwise, I must admit, the deeper meaning of the piece may well have eluded me. I’m still not sure what I was supposed to make of flies landing on nipples.

But whereas Brian was politely unimpressed by the conceptual art that surrounded us (and downright hostile in the enclosed listening room featuring Yoko’s musical efforts, declaring after thirty seconds, “I have to get out of here.”), I was positively energized by it. It was not that I thought the tangible objects were of any remarkable value, as is the case with the Picassos and Dalis exhibited on the floors below. Rather, it was the ideas behind the work that appealed to me, most of which I found clever and amusing. So I smiled broadly as I toured the space, acknowledging the once-fresh green apple that would be permitted to rot over the course of the exhibition, and delighted by the sight of the ladder that John Lennon once climbed to inspect, with magnifying glass, the tiny word printed on the ceiling: yes.

Certainly the exhibition invited visitors to question the very definition of art, and in that sense it was not unlike the provocation aroused by many other works at MOMA. If you regard fine art as that which you could not produce yourself, then you probably have no interest in someone’s exploration of white upon white or any sculpture that appears to be an assemblage of spare auto parts. This is the smell test by which Yoko Ono fails, for most of the items on display could have been dashed off by middle schoolers on a Sunday night for presentation on Monday morning.

No, the artistic genius of Yoko is twofold: realizing quirky ideas and getting the establishment to take it seriously. Yes, it might have occurred to you to install a playable chess set with all white squares and two sets of white pieces, and sure, you could have whipped that up inside an hour, but you didn’t have the chutzpah to do it with a straight face, did you? Yoko often has a whimsical smile playing at the corners of her mouth when posing with her work, and perhaps it represents the ultimate triumph for any artist: this is art because I say that it is art. After her furtive dispersal of flies on the steps of MOMA so many years ago, it must be a supreme pleasure to have the esteemed institution kowtowing to her.

So it was with great pleasure of my own that I discovered the central installation, the only new piece in the retrospective: a spiral staircase that does not lead to another floor but instead stops below atrium windows. Visitors are encouraged to ascend one at a time, experience a moment at the top, and then descend so that the next person may give it a go. The absurdist in me loved the sheer pointlessness of it, and I was further delighted to wait in a snaking line for the privilege of participating. Whereas Brian was not about to waste his time queuing up, my wife was game. Julie even had her cell phone ready to capture my ascent, despite the widely-ignored museum policy prohibiting photography.

After about ten minutes, I was next in line, patiently waiting for the aesthete at the top of the staircase to achieve fulfillment, when I turned to my left and was truly and absolutely flabbergasted. It was one of those moments when you actually doubt the information relayed to you by your own eyes. A rush of alternative theories whirled about my brain before I concluded what was obviously true: in the doorway just a couple yards away, leaning casually against the wall, stood Yoko Ono.

“Oh my God!” I whispered to Julie. “It’s her!”


“It’s her! Over there,” I rolled my eyes, “is Yoko Ono!”

And so it was. Now, I’ve had the pleasure to meet a few celebrities, and I’ll confess to occasional moments of being starstruck, but I’ve generally matured into someone capable of regarding famous people as human beings with whom I may converse rather than grovel. But Yoko, despite any questions of artistic legitimacy, is an international icon. In that moment, I stood before someone who witnessed and participated in legendary moments in our cultural history, who performed on The White Album, who gave peace a chance, who screamed outside the Dakota on the darkest December night in 1980. Arguably the most famous conceptual artist ever. So yes, I was taken aback, to say the least.

And then it was my turn. I walked up the staircase with a broad grin, fully conscious of the fact that I was interacting with a Yoko Ono installation as the artist herself observed me. What, I wondered, did she make of this Midwestern rube as he paused at the top and gazed out the window? Upon descending, I saw that she had left, and it was clear that Julie and I were not the only ones who had registered Yoko’s arrival. In fact, we became part of a small mass that followed her about the gallery from a respectful distance, a group that eventually included Brian as well. Yoko’s art did not impress him, but her presence certainly did.

The scene was surreal. A large man in a suit stayed within a few feet of Yoko, but his security work was not at all intrusive. A tacit respect developed between the artist and her audience. We respected her space, and she was unperturbed by our stares and inevitable cell phone photos. When one bold soul courageously asked her to pose for a picture with him, she politely declined with an almost apologetic air. A few minutes later, having savored her retrospective, Yoko left the gallery.

And there, amidst the rotting apple on its plinth and the undulating buttocks projected on the wall, we pondered our good fortune and experienced gratitude for a far greater gift: for a few mesmerizing moments, an exquisite civility reigned in the heart of Manhattan.