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Yoko Ono’s Art of Defiance – The New Yorker

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Yoko Ono’s Art of Defiance

Before she met John Lennon, she was a significant figure in avant-garde circles and had created a masterpiece of conceptual art. Did celebrity deprive her of her due as an artist?

June 13, 2022

Yoko Ono holds up a clear orb in both hands.
At the center of the downtown arts scene, Ono explored the idea of “fabricated truth.”Photograph by Clay Perry / England & Co.

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On March 9, 1945, an armada of more than three hundred B-29s flew fifteen hundred miles across the Pacific to attack Tokyo from the air. The planes carried incendiary bombs to be dropped at low altitudes. Beginning shortly after midnight, sixteen hundred and sixty-five tons of bombs fell on the city.

Most of the buildings in Tokyo were constructed of wood, paper, and bamboo, and parts of the city were incinerated in a matter of hours. The planes targeted workers’ homes in the downtown area, with the goal of crippling Japan’s arms industry. It is estimated that a million people were left homeless and that as many as a hundred thousand were killed—more than had died in the notorious firebombing of Dresden, a month earlier, and more than would die in Nagasaki, five months later. Crewmen in the last planes in the formation said that they could smell burning flesh as they flew over Tokyo at five thousand feet.

That night, Yoko Ono was in bed with a fever. While her mother and her little brother, Keisuke, spent the night in a bomb shelter under the garden of their house, she stayed in her room. She could see the city burning from her window. She had just turned twelve and had led a protected and privileged life. She was too innocent to be frightened.

The Ono family was wealthy. They had some thirty servants, and they lived in the Azabu district, near the Imperial Palace, away from the bombing. The fires did not reach them. But Ono’s mother, worried that there would be more attacks (there were), decided to evacuate to a farming village well outside the city.

In the countryside, the family found itself in a situation faced by many Japanese: they were desperate for food. The children traded their possessions to get something to eat, and sometimes they went hungry. Ono later said that she and Keisuke would lie on their backs looking at the sky through an opening in the roof of the house where they lived. She would ask him what kind of dinner he wanted, and then tell him to imagine it in his mind. This seemed to make him happier. She later called it “maybe my first piece of art.”

Like any artist, Ono wanted recognition, but she was never driven by a desire for wealth and fame. Whether she sought them or not, though, she has both. Her art is exhibited around the world: last year at the Serpentine, in London (“Yoko Ono: I Love You Earth”); this year at the Vancouver Art Gallery (“Growing Freedom”) and the Kunsthaus in Zurich (“Yoko Ono: This Room Moves at the Same Speed as the Clouds”). She began managing the family finances after she and her husband John Lennon moved to New York, in 1971, and she is said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today.

There is no question that museums and galleries mount these shows and people go to see them because Ono was once married to a Beatle. On a weekday not long ago, I saw the Vancouver show, which occupied the whole ground floor of the museum, and there was a steady stream of visitors. None of the artists and composers Ono was associated with in the years before she married Lennon enjoys that kind of exposure today.

Ono may have leveraged her celebrity—but so what? She never compromised her art. The public perception of her as a woman devoted to the memory of her dead husband has made her an icon among the kind of people who once regarded her as a Beatles-busting succubus. Yet the much smaller group of people who know about her as an artist, a musician, and an activist appreciate her integrity. No matter what you think of the strength of the art, you can admire the strength of the person who made it.

The most recent Ono biography is “Yoko Ono: An Artful Life,” by Donald Brackett, a Canadian art and music critic. He didn’t talk to Ono, and there’s not much in the way of new reporting in his book. The result feels somewhat under-researched. He dates the great Tokyo air raid to 1944, for example, and he gives the impression that Ono spent the night in the bunker with her family. Still, he is an enthusiastic writer, sympathetic to his subject (not so much to Lennon), and alive to the attractions of an unusual person and an unusual life.

Ono has talked about her parents as being emotionally distant. Her mother was a Yasuda, a member of the family that founded the Yasuda Bank, later Fuji Bank, and that owned one of the four largest financial conglomerates in Japan. Ono’s father worked at the Yokohama Specie Bank, which became the Bank of Tokyo after the war, and was frequently posted to foreign branches. He was in San Francisco when Yoko was born; she did not lay eyes on him until she was three. When Tokyo was firebombed in 1945, he was in Hanoi.

Ono received an exceptional education. Beginning when she was very young, she was tutored in Christianity (her father was a Christian; there were not many in Japan), Buddhism, and piano. She attended a school known for its music instruction; she was once asked to render everyday sounds and noises, such as birdsongs, in musical notation. After the war, she attended an exclusive prep school; two of the emperor’s sons were her schoolmates. And when she graduated she was admitted to Gakushuin University as its first female student in philosophy.

She left after two semesters. She said the university made her feel “like a domesticated animal being fed information.” This proved to be a lifelong allergy to anything organized or institutional. “I don’t believe in collectivism in art nor in having one direction in anything,” she later wrote. A classmate offered a different perspective: “She never felt happy unless she was treated like a queen.”

“Everything tastes better when its cooked on the grill.”

Everything tastes better when it’s cooked on the grill.”
Cartoon by David Sipress

Ono may also have dropped out because her parents had moved to Scarsdale when her father’s bank posted him to the New York City branch. Ono soon joined them, and, in 1953, entered Sarah Lawrence, in Bronxville, less than half an hour away. Sarah Lawrence was an all-women’s college at that time and highly progressive, with no requirements and no grades. Ono took classes in music and the arts, but she seems not to have fitted in. A teacher remembered her as “tightly put together and intent on doing well. The other students were more relaxed. She wasn’t relaxed, ever.”

As non-prescriptive as it was, Sarah Lawrence triggered her allergy. It was “like an establishment I had to argue with and I couldn’t cope with it,” she complained. She now decided that she needed to get away from her family. “The pressure of becoming a Yasuda / Ono was so tremendous,” she said later. “Unless I rebelled against it, I wouldn’t have survived.” Somewhere (stories differ) she met Toshi Ichiyanagi, a student at Juilliard, and in 1956 she dropped out of college, got married (her parents weren’t thrilled), and moved to Manhattan. She began supporting herself with odd jobs. She lived in the city for most of the next ten years.

Not long before leaving Sarah Lawrence, Ono published in a campus newspaper a short story called “Of a Grapefruit in the World of Park.” It’s about some young people trying to decide what to do with a grapefruit left over from a picnic. The allegory is a little mysterious, but it’s clear what the grapefruit represents. The grapefruit is a hybrid, and so is Yoko Ono.

It’s easy to feel that there is an amateurish, “anyone can do this” quality to her art and her music. The critic Lester Bangs once complained that Ono “couldn’t carry a tune in a briefcase.” But the look is deliberate. It’s not that she wasn’t well trained. She learned composition and harmony when she was little, and she could write and read music, which none of the Beatles could do. At Sarah Lawrence, she spent time in the music library listening to twelve-tone composers like Arnold Schoenberg.

She grew up bilingual and was trained in two cultural traditions. She went to secondary school and college in Japan in a period of what has been called “horizontal Westernization,” when artistic and intellectual life was rapidly liberalized as the nation tried to exorcise its militarist and ultranationalist past. Ono and her friends read German, French, and Russian literature in Japanese translation, and the young philosophers they knew were obsessed with existentialism. She also knew Japanese culture. One of the ways she supported herself in New York was by teaching Japanese folk songs and calligraphy. She knew waka and Kabuki. She was therefore ideally prepared to enter the New York avant-garde of the nineteen-fifties, because that world was already hybrid. Its inspirations were a French artist, Marcel Duchamp, and an Eastern religion, Zen Buddhism.

The personification of those enthusiasms was the composer John Cage—a student of Schoenberg, a devotee of Eastern thought, and an idolater of Duchamp. Ono got to know Cage through her husband, who took an evening class that Cage taught at the New School. Although Ono didn’t take the class, artists who would be part of her circle did, the best known of whom was Allan Kaprow, the creator of the Happening.

Cage didn’t expect his students to imitate his own work. He said that one of the most important things he learned from teaching the class was something Ichiyanagi had said to him in response to a suggestion: “I am not you.” But he encouraged experimentation.

And the students duly experimented. A representative piece for the class is “Candle-Piece for Radios,” by George Brecht. Radios are placed around a room in the ratio of one and a half radios per performer. At each radio is a stack of cards with instructions printed on them, such as “volume up,” “volume down,” and “R” or “L,” denoting the direction the radio dial is to be turned. Each performer is given a lit birthday candle, and, on a signal, begins going through the decks, card by card, using any available radio. The piece ends when the last candle goes out.

This is how Happenings work. They are not “anything goes” performances; most Happenings (there are some exceptions) have a script, called an “event score.” Each participant follows specific instructions about what actions to perform and when.

In 1960, Ono found a loft at 112 Chambers Street and rented it for fifty dollars and fifty cents a month. It was a fourth-floor walkup, without heat or electricity, and the windows were so coated with grime that little light got in, though there was a skylight. The furnishings consisted mostly of orange crates and a piano. Ono turned this into a combination living and performance space. Together with La Monte Young, a composer and musician (he was a developer of the drone sound used by the Velvet Underground on some of their songs), she organized a series of concerts and performances. From December, 1960, to June, 1961, eleven artists and musicians performed in the loft, usually for two nights each. Ono said that these concerts were sometimes attended by two hundred people. Cage came, and so did Duchamp. Suddenly, she was at the center of the downtown arts scene.

At some sessions, Ono herself “performed” art works. One consisted of mounting a piece of paper on the wall, opening the refrigerator and taking out food, such as Jell-O, and throwing it against the paper. At the end, she set the paper on fire. (Cage had advised her to treat the paper with fire retardant first so that the building would not burn down.) The art work consumes itself.

The New York art world of 1960, even in its most radical downtown incarnation, was male-dominated. Of the eleven artists who headlined events in the Chambers Street series, only one was a woman. To Ono’s annoyance, Young was credited as the organizer and director of the series. She was identified as the woman whose loft it was.

She was even more annoyed when she learned that a man who had attended some of the concerts was planning to mount a copycat series in his uptown art gallery. The gallery, on Madison Avenue, was called the AG Gallery, and the man was George Maciunas.

Maciunas came to the United States from Lithuania in 1948, when he was a teen-ager, and spent eleven years studying art history. Then, around 1960, he set out to reinvent art by taking it off its pedestal. Duchamp and Cage were his great influences. (Maciunas is the subject of a compelling and entertaining documentary that resurrects the New York art underground of the nineteen-sixties, called “George: The Story of George Maciunas and Fluxus,” directed by Jeffrey Perkins.)

Ono was mollified when Maciunas offered her a show. He never had money. This did not prevent him from renting property, having a telephone, or anything else. He just didn’t pay his bills. By the time Ono’s show was mounted, in July, 1961, the gallery could be visited only in daylight hours, because the electricity had been turned off. Her show “Paintings and Drawings by Yoko Ono” was the gallery’s last.

Ono was present to guide visitors through the show, explaining how the pieces were supposed to work, because some of the art required the viewer’s participation—for example, “Painting to Be Stepped On,” a piece of canvas on the floor. That work, like a lot of Duchamp’s, might seem gimmicky. But, like Duchamp’s, there is something there to be unpacked. “Painting to Be Stepped On” resonates in two traditions. It alludes to the widely known photographs, published in the late nineteen-forties in Life and elsewhere, of Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings by moving around on a canvas spread on the floor. Those photographs, representing painting as performance, inspired artists (including Kaprow) for decades.

The second context, identified by the art historian Alexandra Munroe, is Japanese. In seventeenth-century Japan, Christians were persecuted, and one way to identify them was to ask them to step on images of Jesus and Mary. The procedure was called fumi-e—“stepping on.” People who refused could be tortured and sometimes executed. “Painting to Be Stepped On” is a grapefruit.

In the fall of 1961, Ono gave a concert in Carnegie Recital Hall, a venue that was adjacent to the main hall and that seated about three hundred. Maciunas, now a friend, helped design the show. According to the Times, the place was “packed.” But accounts are so various that it’s hard to tell, exactly, what happened.

Onstage, twenty artists and musicians performed different acts—eating, breaking dishes, throwing bits of newspaper. At designated intervals, a toilet was flushed offstage. A man was positioned at the back of the hall to give the audience a sense of foreboding. A huddle of men with tin cans tied to their legs attempted to cross the stage without making noise. The dancers Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown sat down and stood up repeatedly. According to the Village Voice, the performance finished with Ono’s amplified “sighs, breathing, gasping, retching, screaming—many tones of pain and pleasure mixed with a jibberish of foreign-sounding language that was no language at all.”

This was the kind of art that Maciunas had in mind. It used everyday materials. It had humor (the flushing toilet), meaning that it did not take itself too seriously. And it was anti-élitist. Anyone could do it. Around the time of Ono’s concert, Maciunas came up with a name for this kind of art: Fluxus. When he told Ono, she said it was a mistake to give the art a group name. That is how the Japanese art world worked; every artist was identified with a group. She didn’t want to belong to a group.

But Maciunas was an inveterate organizer—a problem, since he happened to be working with avant-garde artists, the kind of people who don’t like to be organized. For years, he tried to herd those cats. He opened FluxShop, where Fluxus art—mostly cheap plastic boxes filled with odds and ends—could be purchased. (Walk-in business was not brisk.) At one point, he made plans to buy an island and build a self-sufficient Fluxus community on it.

“Were out of ‘I Voted stickers. There are some ‘I Gave Blood ones but Id have to cut you.”

“We’re out of ‘I Voted’ stickers. There are some ‘I Gave Blood’ ones, but I’d have to cut you.”
Cartoon by Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby

The island venture did not pan out, but Maciunas would finally realize his idea by buying and renovating abandoned buildings—more than twenty of them—in downtown Manhattan for artists to live and work in. The enterprise ruined him. He was sued by the tenants because the renovations were not up to code and the lofts could not pass inspection, and he was badly beaten by goons hired by one of his creditors. In the mid-seventies, he fled the city for a farm in Massachusetts, where he died, of cancer, in 1978. But he had given birth to SoHo. It would become, in the nineteen-eighties, the world capital of contemporary art.

Maciunas’s slogan for Fluxus was “Purge the world of ‘Europanism’!,” and at the Fluxus début, in West Germany in 1962, a grand piano was smashed to bits. Ono, who was invited but declined to attend, was not into breaking pianos. “I am not somebody who wants to burn ‘The Mona Lisa,’ ” she once said. “That’s the difference between some revolutionaries and me.” But she does share something with Maciunas. She is a utopian. She would be happy if the whole world could be a Fluxus island.

In 1962, Ono returned to Japan. She discovered that the Japanese avant-garde was even more radical than the New York avant-garde. There were many new schools. The most famous today is Gutai, which originated in Osaka in 1954. Like Fluxus, Gutai was a performative, low-tech, everyday-materials kind of art. One of the earliest Gutai works was “Challenging Mud,” in which the artist throws himself into an outdoor pit filled with wet clay and thrashes around for half an hour. When he emerges, the shape of the clay is presented as a work of art.

Ichiyanagi had returned earlier—the marriage was breaking up—and he arranged for Ono to present a concert at the Sogetsu Art Center, in Tokyo. Outside the hall, she mounted what she called “Instructions for Paintings,” twenty-two pieces of paper attached to the wall, each with a set of instructions in Japanese. The instructions resembled some of the art created by young artists in Cage’s circle in New York—for example, Emmett Williams’s “Voice Piece for La Monte Young” (1961), which reads, in its entirety, “Ask if La Monte Young is in the audience, then exit,” and Brecht’s “Word Event,” the complete score for which is the word “Exit.”

Inside the hall, with thirty artists, Ono performed several pieces, including some she had done at Carnegie Recital Hall. It’s unclear what the audience reaction was—Brackett says it was enthusiastic—but the show received a nasty review in a Japanese art magazine by an American expatriate, Donald Richie, who made fun of Ono for being “old-fashioned.” “All her ideas are borrowed from people in New York, particularly John Cage,” he wrote. This was not an attack from an uncomprehending traditionalist. This was an attack from the cultural left. Ono was traumatized. She checked into a sanitarium.

But when she came out, she picked up where she had left off. She got remarried, to Tony Cox, an American art promoter and countercultural type, and, in 1964, she published her first book, “Grapefruit,” a collection of event scores and instruction pieces:

Sun Piece

Watch the sun until it becomes square.

Fly Piece

Fly.

Collecting Piece Ii

Break a contemporary museum into pieces with the means you have chosen. Collect the pieces and put them together again with glue.

These are like Brecht’s “Word Event,” but with a big difference. “Word Event” was intended to be performed, and artists found various ingenious ways to enact the instruction “Exit.” Ono’s pieces cannot be performed. They are instructions for imaginary acts.

In an essay in a Japanese art journal, she invoked the concept of “fabricated truth,” meaning that the stuff we make up in our heads (what we wish we could have for dinner) is as much our reality as the chair we are sitting in. “I think it is possible to see the chair as it is,” she explained. “But when you burn the chair, you suddenly realize that the chair in your mind did not burn or disappear.”

What Ono was doing was conceptual art. When conceptual artists hit the big time, at the end of the nineteen-sixties, her name was virtually never mentioned. She does not appear in the art critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s landmark essay, “The Dematerialization of Art,” published in 1968. But she was one of the first artists to make it.

In 1965, she came back to New York, and, in March, had another show at Carnegie Recital Hall, “New Works of Yoko Ono.” This was the New York première of her best work, a truly great work of art, “Cut Piece.”

The performer (in this case, Ono) enters fully clothed and kneels in the center of the stage. Next to her is a large pair of scissors—fabric shears. The audience is invited to come onstage one at a time and cut off a piece of the artist’s clothing, which they may keep. According to instructions Ono later wrote, “Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option.” She said she wore her best clothes when she performed the work, even when she had little money and could not afford to have them ruined.

Ono had performed “Cut Piece” in Tokyo and in Kyoto, and there are photographs of those performances. The New York performance was filmed by the documentarians David and Albert Maysles. (Brackett, strangely, says that the Maysleses’ film, rather than a live performance, is what people saw at Carnegie Recital Hall.)

In most Happenings and event art, the performers are artists, or friends of the person who wrote the score. In “Cut Piece,” the performers are unknown to the artist. They can interpret the instructions in unpredictable ways. It’s like handing out loaded guns to a roomful of strangers. Ono is small (five-two); the shears are large and sharp. When audience members start slicing away the fabric around her breasts or near her crotch, there is a real sense of danger and violation. In Japan, one of the cutters stood behind her and held the shears above her head, as though he were going to impale her.

The score required Ono to remain expressionless, but in the film you can see apprehension in her eyes as audience members keep mounting the stage and standing over her wielding the scissors, looking for another place to cut. When her bra is cut, she covers her breasts with her hands—almost her only movement in the entire piece.

Most immediately, “Cut Piece” is a concrete enactment of the striptease that men are said to perform in their heads when they see an attractive woman. It weaponizes the male gaze. Women participate in the cutting, but that’s because it’s not just men who are part of the society that objectifies women. The piece is therefore classified as a work of feminist art (created at a time when almost no one was making feminist art), and it plainly is.

But what “Cut Piece” means depends in large part on the audience it is being performed for, and Ono originally had something else in mind. When she did the piece in Japan, a Buddhist interpretation was possible. It belonged to “the Zen tradition of doing the thing which is the most embarrassing for you to do and seeing what you come up with and how you deal with it,” she said.

The piece also derived, Ono said elsewhere, from a story about the Buddha giving away everything that people ask him for until he ultimately allows himself to be eaten by a tiger. Ono was offering everything she had to strangers—that’s why she always wore her best clothes. “Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give,” as she put it, “the artist gives what the audience chooses to take.”

In 1966, Ono went to London to participate in the Destruction in Art Symposium, where she performed “Cut Piece” twice. It was not read as a Buddhist text at those events. Word of mouth after the first performance led to the second one being mobbed, with men eagerly cutting off all her clothing, even her underwear. This was Swinging London; everyone assumed that the piece was about sex. After London, Ono did not perform it again until 2003, when she did it in Paris, seated in a chair. This time, she explained that the work was about world peace, and a response to 9/11.

No matter where it is performed or what reading it suggests, the piece is an experiment in group psychology. People are being invited to do something publicly that is normally forbidden—violently remove the clothing of a woman they do not know. The ones who participate can rationalize their actions by telling themselves that stripping a passive woman is not “really” what they’re doing, because it’s a work of art. But, of course, it really is what they’re doing.

And people in the audience who don’t go onstage because they find the spectacle repellent or violative can tell themselves that at least they are not participating. In the film of the New York show, the last person recorded cutting is a young man with a bit of a swagger who lustily shears off all that was left of Ono’s top so that she has to cover her breasts. He is heckled. But no one stops him. For the hecklers are part of the show. And, of course, the more people who cut, the easier it is to become a cutter. It must be O.K. Everybody’s doing it.

The first time I saw the Maysles film was at the Vancouver show (although it is online), and that was when I understood what the New York performance was about. A beautifully dressed Japanese woman kneels, offering no resistance, while a series of armed white people methodically destroy all her possessions. What is being represented here? Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The firebombing of Tokyo.

Ono had planned to spend only a few weeks in London, but she found the city’s art world receptive to her work. Interest spilled over into the non-art world when she and Cox released a film entitled “Film No. 4,” commonly known as “Bottoms.” Which is all you see: closeups of naked people’s bottoms as they walk.

Yoko Ono kneels on stage holding shreds of clothing against her body.
In the performance work “Cut Piece”—which Albert and David Maysles filmed in 1965—Ono invited audience members to shear off pieces of her clothing with a pair of scissors.Photograph © Yoko Ono

Ono and Cox had filmed a six-minute version of the movie in New York, using a high-speed camera loaned to them by Maciunas (who had it on loan from someone else). In London, many art-world celebrities eagerly agreed to perform in it, and the final cut is eighty minutes long, at approximately twenty seconds of screen time per bottom.

But no one knows you’re a celebrity from the rear. So the film is not just a joke. There’s an edge to it. It mocks self-importance. Ono described it as “like an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses.” The movie was promptly banned by the British Board of Film Censors—about the best publicity a filmmaker could hope for in sixties London. It got Ono into the tabloids. By then, though, she had met John Lennon.

Their story—and it could all be true, who knows?—is that on November 9, 1966, the day before a show of Ono’s work was scheduled to open at Indica Books and Gallery, Lennon dropped in. The Indica was a short-lived countercultural art gallery (indica is a species of cannabis) whose patrons included Paul McCartney. Ono accompanied Lennon while he browsed the art on display. (She has claimed not to have known who he was, which is not very believable. It is believable that she did not care who he was.) One work consisted of an apple on a pedestal. Lennon asked her what it cost. She said, Two hundred pounds. He picked up the apple and took a bite out of it. She thought that was gross.

Another piece was a ladder. When you climb up, there is a magnifying glass, which you use to look at a piece of paper on the ceiling, where you read a tiny word: “Yes.” This was totally up Lennon’s alley. “It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘No’ or ‘Fuck you,’ ” he explained later.

But they made their fateful connection with a piece called “Painting to Hammer a Nail In (No. 9).” Visitors are invited to hammer a nail into a board mounted on the wall. Lennon asked Ono if he could hammer a nail. Yes, she said, if he paid her five shillings. “Well, I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings,” he said, “and hammer an imaginary nail in.” “That’s when we locked eyes,” he said, “and she got it and I got it and, as they say in all the interviews we do, the rest is history.”

For a while, they were “just friends.” It helps to remember that this was still very early in the Beatles’ career, less than three years after the band played “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time. They had not yet recorded “Sgt. Pepper.” Lennon had just turned twenty-six. Ono, on the other hand, was thirty-three. Her work had fully matured. She gave Lennon a copy of “Grapefruit,” which he read with attention. The affair did not begin until May, 1968. They went public in June, and for the next twelve years, until Lennon was killed, they lived under the constant scrutiny of the world press (another context for “Cut Piece”). Brackett says that Lennon was the clingy one, not Ono. Lennon made her sit next to him when the Beatles were recording, because he was afraid that if she was out of his sight she would leave him.

The Times music critic Robert Palmer thought that “having John Lennon fall in love with her was the worst thing that could have happened to Yoko Ono’s career as an artist.” Ono herself admitted that “together we hurt each other’s career and position just by being with each other and just by being us.” How true is that?

The Vancouver show covered Ono’s career from 1954 to the present, and the visitor feels an abrupt shift after 1968. Starting with the Bed-ins for peace, where she and Lennon sat in hotel-room beds in their pajamas and discussed politics with journalists and various counterculture celebrities, such as Timothy Leary, a lot of her work has been about world peace. It has also become explicitly feminist. Maciunas had a politics, but most Fluxus art—and Cage’s and Duchamp’s art—is apolitical. It is art about art. After 1968, Ono’s art is about politics. But that is true of virtually every artist. With the war in Vietnam, art got politicized, and it remains politicized today.

Ono’s conception of the audience for her work changed, too. When Ono and Lennon married, she was a coterie artist and he was a popular entertainer—maybe the most famous in the world. She performed for hundreds; he performed for hundreds of millions. She decided that condescension to popular entertainment is a highbrow prejudice. As she put it, “I came to believe that avant-garde purity was just as stifling as just doing a rock beat over and over.” So she became a pop star. Including the records she made with Lennon, she has released twenty-two albums. She expanded her audience.

Her music hasn’t sold the way Beatles music has, of course. But she and Lennon did produce one spectacularly successful collaboration.

“Imagine” was the biggest hit of Lennon’s post-Beatles career. The song was recorded in 1971, and, over the years, it has become a kind of world anthem, covered by countless artists, and played in the opening ceremonies at the Olympics and in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Pretty much everybody can hum the tune.

It’s easy to enjoy the song and embrace the sentiments but to think of it as expressing a kind of harmless flower-power utopianism. That’s a misapprehension. “Imagine” is utopian, but it is also a work of conceptual art. It’s an instruction piece. “Imagine it in your mind,” as she told her little brother, had—improbably, but that’s the way culture works—ricocheted across time and space to end up, twenty-six years later, in the words of a song heard by millions.

When the record was released, one of Ono’s instruction pieces from “Grapefruit” was printed on the back cover: “Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” Later, Lennon said that it was sexist of him not to have listed Ono as a co-writer, given that the idea and much of the lyrics were hers. Somehow, though, he never did anything about it. But the world does go round, and in 2017 the National Music Publishers’ Association announced that, henceforth, Yoko Ono would be credited as a co-writer on “Imagine.” ♦

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Sustainability, green energy, and world class visual art all meet in new art gallery building – Nelson Star

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A new building that will connect sustainable energy and world class visual art has just been announced and is set to open in 2027.

Made public by minister of Canadian heritage Pablo Rodriguez and long-standing MP Hedy Fry, the centre will receive $29 million in funding through the federal government and Infrastructure Canada.

As well as being apart of the Vancouver art gallery, the building will also be the first passive house art gallery in North America.

Passive house is an ultra-low energy performance standard within buildings and will further the gallery’s vision of creating safe and inclusive spaces, while meeting Canada’s efficiency standards in the goal of net-zero.

The building itself will showcase a variety of artists local to Canada and from around the world. It will also have a multi-purpose Indigenous community house, public art spaces, a theatre, and initiatives for marginalized groups.

For Fry, this new building will play an important role in supporting the groups that need it most.

“Cultural spaces and institutions like the Vancouver Art Gallery play an important role in supporting vibrant and inclusive communities. They connect the past with the present through exhibits that inform and inspire, they safeguard priceless artefacts and works of art, and they promote the talent of our Canadian artists and creators.”

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Modern Art and the Esteem Machine – The New Yorker

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Modern Art and the Esteem Machine

Picasso was a joke. Then he was a god. How did his art finally take off in America?

June 27, 2022

Picasso's guitar collage placed in a shopping cart.
Making a market for Picasso and Matisse took decades—and many mediators.Illustration by Matt Chase

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Hugh Eakin’s new book, “Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America” (Crown), isn’t really about Picasso, or about war, or about art. Its subject is the creation of a market for a certain product, modern art.

One (mostly) good thing about the digital revolution, which is otherwise sucking us all into a plutocratic dystopia, is that the Internet has reduced the barriers to cultural production enormously. Many types of cultural goods are now much easier to make and much cheaper to distribute. You don’t need an investor to capitalize your production costs or a distributor to get your stuff before the public. You just need a laptop and a camera (and maybe an inspiration). And, no matter how small you are, you always open worldwide.

It’s true that when your product goes online it will be competing with a zillion similar products—and products that do have investors and distributors, such as streaming services, are much more likely to attract audiences and become profitable. But the Internet makes your work accessible to anyone who wants to see it or read it or listen to it or buy a copy of it, because barriers to cultural consumption are also much lower. Goods are far easier to access and to acquire.

Back when all of life was offline, back when to buy a record you had to go to a record store, back when there were record stores, the infrastructure required for cultural goods to get from creation to consumption had many more moving parts. These parts are the principals of Eakin’s story. His focus isn’t on the big-name modern artists, like Picasso and Matisse, who are offstage for much of the book. It’s on figures most people have never heard of: dealers, gallery owners, collectors, curators, and critics—the components of what sociologists call the art world.

The art world isn’t a fixed entity. It’s continually being reconstituted as new artistic styles emerge. Twentieth-century fine art, in Europe and the United States, passed through a series of formally innovative stages, from Cubism and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, and each time art entered a new stage and acquired a new look the art world had to adjust.

At the most basic level, the art world exists to answer the question Is it art? When Cubist paintings were first produced, around 1907, they did not look like art to many people, even people who were interested in and appreciated fine-art painting. The same thing was true of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings (around 1950) and Andy Warhol’s soup cans (1962).

But you don’t know it’s art by looking at it. You know it’s art because galleries want to show it, dealers want to sell it, collectors want to buy it, museums want to exhibit it, and critics can explain it. When the parts are in synch, you have a market. The artist produces, and the various audiences—from billionaire collectors to casual museumgoers and college students buying van Gogh posters—consume. The art world is what gets the image from the studio to the dorm room.

The general American public, in the period when modern art emerged, around the time of the First World War, had no interest in it. Wealthy Americans, the sort of people who could afford to buy art for their homes, had no taste for it. Even the art establishment was hostile. In 1913, a Matisse show at the Art Institute of Chicago instigated a near-riot. Copies of three Matisse paintings were burned and there was a mock trial, in which Matisse was convicted of, among other things, artistic murder. The demonstrators were art students.

In Eakin’s account, the creation of a Picasso market in the United States—“Picasso” standing for modern art generally—took almost thirty years, from the first American Picasso show, at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery 291, in 1911 (eighty-three works, one sale), to “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1939 (more than three hundred and sixty works). The MoMA show, as Eakin puts it, “electrified the city.”

High-end department stores like Bonwit Teller and Bergdorf Goodman began selling Picasso-themed clothing. A national tour followed, and from then on, Eakin concludes, “the story of modern art—the collectors who acquired it, the scholars who studied it, the museums that showed it, and the ordinary people who waited in long lines to see it—would be written in America.”

Modern art had many middlemen and women in the United States—Albert C. Barnes, Walter and Louise Arensberg, Katherine S. Dreier, Galka Scheyer, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Hilla von Rebay, Hans Hofmann, Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg. Eakin has chosen to center his story on just two of these people: John Quinn, a collector and an all-around cultural impresario, who died, of liver cancer, in 1924; and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of MoMA, which opened in 1929. Using these figures gives his book a certain symmetry: Quinn tried and failed to do what Barr finally succeeded in doing, which was to get Americans to accept and appreciate modern art.

Quinn was a successful Wall Street lawyer who spent much of his money in support of contemporary art and literature. He was not only an art collector. He was the principal American adviser and promoter of modern writers like William Butler Yeats, Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. He bought their manuscripts as a way of supporting them, and he helped make their work known in the United States. He negotiated Eliot’s American book contracts at a time when Eliot was barely a coterie writer. He brought Yeats to the United States for a national tour. He arranged for the first American production of J. M. Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World.” He acted as a talent scout for the publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

Culture industries need to adapt continually to changes in the legal, financial, and political environment—tax laws, depreciation rules, government regulations, quotas and tariffs, the availability of capital, and geopolitical developments, like wars. In what was possibly his most significant achievement as a supporter of modern art, Quinn single-handedly got Congress to rewrite a 1909 tax law that imposed a tariff on imported art less than fifty years old while exempting “historic art.”

Eliminating the modern-art tariff made it much more feasible for American galleries to exhibit and sell contemporary European painting. Most of the works in Stieglitz’s Picasso show at 291, for example, were drawings, because they were assessed at a lower value than paintings. It was too expensive to bring paintings over from Europe.

Quinn wasn’t just collecting for himself. He was on a mission. As Eakin puts it, he wanted “to bring American civilization to the forefront of the modern world.” He thus operated as, in effect, a one-man art world. He subsidized New York art galleries, often buying many of the works they showed. He was a key figure behind the 1913 Armory Show, where the public could see more than thirteen hundred works of modern art, and where Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” became a succès de scandale.

When modern art was attacked for undermining American values—the Times called the Armory Show “part of the general movement, discernible all over the world, to disrupt and degrade, if not to destroy, not only art, but literature and society, too”—Quinn worked the press, giving interviews to New York papers in which he labelled unsigned attacks like that one “Ku Klux criticism.” Over time, he built up a huge collection of modern European painting and sculpture, which he stored in his ninth-floor apartment on Central Park West.

The apartment was a rental. Quinn was rich, but he wasn’t J. P. Morgan rich. Morgan spent something like sixty million dollars on art, most of which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which he was the chairman. Quinn didn’t have that kind of money. On the other hand, Morgan was buying Old Masters (he was the force behind the 1909 tax law exempting “historic art” which Quinn got rewritten), while Quinn was buying work that almost no one else wanted. From the point of view of the American art world, the incredible collection he amassed, containing works by, among others, Brâncuși, Braque, Duchamp, Gris, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Seurat, van Gogh, and Villon, was close to worthless when he died. No American dealer could sell it, and no American museum wanted to hang it.

Knowing this, Quinn directed, in his will, that his collection be sold at auction, with the proceeds to go to his sister and his niece, who were his only heirs. (Quinn never married, but he had relationships with a number of notable women; at the time of his death, his partner was Jeanne Robert Foster, the daughter of a lumberjack, an astonishingly beautiful and gifted woman who was closely involved in his search for new art.) Since Americans didn’t want it, much of Quinn’s collection of European art thus ended up going back to Europe.

Conveniently for Eakin’s narrative arc, Alfred Barr, then a young art-history professor at Wellesley, was able to see some of Quinn’s collection before it was dispersed, which allows Eakin to propose that one of Barr’s aspirations when he accepted the directorship of MoMA three years later was to reassemble the Quinn collection and bring it back to America. This was impossible, of course. The pieces were now in too many hands. But MoMA became, in effect, Quinn’s museum, and Quinn’s canon (plus photography and a few artists, like Klee and Kandinsky, whose work Quinn did not collect) became Barr’s canon.

And it is still MoMA’s canon. If you walk through the fifth floor of MoMA today, where art that is owned by the museum and that was made between 1880 and 1940 is displayed, you will be looking at the very works whose art-world adventures are the subject of Eakin’s book.

Probably hundreds of people pass by those works every day, and none of them seem scandalized, even by Picasso’s eight-foot-high “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” painted in 1907—five naked women in a brothel, cubistically rendered, two with faces like African masks, aggressively confronting the viewer. (You need to stand very close to the canvas to get the proper effect, though almost no one does.) The shock of the new has worn off. This was probably not the kind of public acceptance that Quinn and Barr had in mind. But, as Gertrude Stein once said, “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you cannot be both.”

There is a Paris side to Eakin’s story, too. Again, the focus is mainly on two figures: the gallerists Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Paul Rosenberg. (A third operator, a kind of freelance dealer and ladies’ man named Henri-Pierre Roché, who referred to his penis as “mon God,” and who scouted deals for Quinn, has a colorful part in the story.)

Modern Art and the Esteem Machine

Cartoon by Will McPhail

Of the circumstances that culture industries are obliged to adapt to, none played a more powerful role in the first half of the twentieth century than geopolitics. Kahnweiler did not sell his artists’ work in France, even though his gallery was in Paris. His collectors were in Germany and Russia, countries where modern art was created and understood. But the First World War and the Russian Revolution shut those markets down. As a German national, Kahnweiler even suffered the seizure of his collection by the French government.

A decade later, the rise to power of Stalin and then Hitler made conditions much worse. The governments of both leaders made modern art a political target. (The Nazis referred to modern art as Kunstbolschewismus—Bolshevik art—even though it was equally anathema in the Soviet Union.) Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did not just censor modern artists and writers. They imprisoned them and they killed them. After 1933, the year Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany, the United States suddenly became attractive as a place where modern art could safely be shown. Hitler and Stalin provided the tailwind for Quinn and Barr’s mission to modernize American taste.

Kahnweiler and Rosenberg are keys to Eakin’s story because both men represented Picasso, and Eakin thinks that Quinn and Barr were determined to make Picasso the face of modern art in America. He says that Barr regarded “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” in particular, as a painting that could define MoMA’s entire collection.

But Barr had a hard time persuading his board of trustees to actually buy art, as opposed to borrowing it for exhibitions. The museum mounted highly successful retrospectives of Matisse in 1931 (thirty-six thousand visitors) and van Gogh in 1935 (a blockbuster, and really the exhibition that established a public for modern art in the United States), but the trustees declined to purchase a single work by Matisse, and they passed on van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” an image that would one day grace countless coffee mugs.

MoMA’s efforts to acquire “Les Demoiselles” is a good example of the twists and turns in the road from artist to public. When Picasso finished the painting, he let some people see it in his studio in Paris, where it acquired what Eakin calls a “cultlike status.” But the work was rarely exhibited publicly. Picasso liked to hold on to his best pieces, and he kept “Les Demoiselles” rolled up for years. In 1924, he sold it to Jacques Doucet, a fashion designer. (Doucet’s wife refused to allow him to hang it in their living room. The new was still a shock to her.) Doucet paid twenty-four thousand francs—about twelve hundred dollars at the time.

Barr knew where the painting had gone, and in 1935 he tried to persuade Doucet’s wife, who was now a widow, to lend it to MoMA for a show on Cubism. She refused. But a year later she sold the work to a Paris dealer, Germain Seligmann, for a hundred and fifty thousand francs—about six thousand dollars. Imagining that he could get a good price for it in New York, Seligmann had the painting shipped to his gallery there, and that was how Barr found out that it was back on the market.

When he approached the MoMA board, however, the members balked at Seligmann’s asking price of thirty thousand dollars. Barr exerted what pressure he could, including having art-world allies testify to the work’s historical significance, but to no avail. In the end, he found a provision in a bequest to MoMA that permitted the sale of one of the works in the donor’s collection in order to purchase another. He picked a Degas horse-racing scene and offered it to Seligmann in exchange for “Les Demoiselles,” a transaction that did not require board approval.

Seligmann and Barr agreed that the Degas was worth eighteen thousand dollars. Seligmann had reduced his ask on the Picasso to twenty-eight thousand, and he now said that he would “donate” the remaining ten thousand—an act of generosity that was the financial equivalent of an air kiss, since no cash changed hands. As Eakin points out, the deal still left Seligmann with a three-hundred-per-cent profit.

And so, for the cost of a run-of-the-mill Degas, and almost thirty years after it was painted, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a work as apotheosized in the history of modern painting as “The Waste Land” is in the history of modern poetry, was finally available for public viewing. In 1941, the museum did acquire “The Starry Night,” also through an exchange. Today, the paintings hang within a few yards of each other on the fifth floor.

The story in “Picasso’s War” is well told, with an impressive level of biographical detail. As a picture of interwar transatlantic cultural exchange, it necessarily (because of the Quinn-Barr hook) leaves out a lot, notably Bauhaus and Dada, both of which had an impact on American art-making and American taste. But, as an account of the means by which Picasso and the styles of painting with which he was associated achieved cultural prestige in the United States, it’s an admirable and enjoyable book.

Does it matter that Eakin doesn’t have much to say about the art that his protagonists are scheming to promote? A little. Artists and writers do not operate in some otherworldly zone. They want recognition. They want sales. Like everyone else in the art world, they are responsive to the social, political, and financial environment, and this affects their artistic choices. Still, what mattered most to the artists Eakin is writing about was the work of their peers and the art of the past which they emulated or reacted against, and that is a subject on which many books have been written.

Eakin also leaves unanswered (and unasked) an obvious question: Why did Americans’ tastes change between 1911 and 1939? It couldn’t just be because Alfred Barr found the means to acquire Picassos for his museum. What turned modern art from a matter for connoisseurs and academics into, to put it crudely, a middlebrow phenomenon?

The transition must have involved significant social changes. For modern literature, the work of writers like Eliot, Stein, and Joyce took a chronologically parallel route to acceptance and, ultimately, canonization. You could not even legally bring a copy of Joyce’s “Ulysses” into the United States until 1934, twelve years after it had been published in Paris. But at some point Americans who aspired to cultural literacy started to feel that it was important to read “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land,” and to know how to look at a Picasso and a Kandinsky. These were works that an educated and worldly person needed to have some familiarity with. What made people think this?

Quinn and Barr never met, and that was probably for the best, since they were very different personalities. Barr was a brilliant museum director who had an essentially academic approach to modern art. Quinn was a businessman. His edges were much rougher. His letters to the writers and artists whose work he advocated for reflect his complete (and completely pro-bono) absorption in their legal and financial affairs. And he seems to have been genuinely appreciative of their work.

But he was also a ranter and a bigot. Obliged to acknowledge this, Eakin quotes one letter in which Quinn refers to Rosenberg as “a cheap little Jew,” and another, to Ezra Pound, in which he complains about the “million Jews, who are mere walking appetites” in New York City. This may underplay the bigotry. There was a lot worse to pick from. In 1919, for instance, when Quinn was trying to get Eliot’s poems published in the United States, he grew frustrated with the publishers Albert Boni and Horace Liveright, who were Jewish. “It is a dirty piece of Jew impertinence,” he complained in a letter to Eliot, “calculated impertinence at that, for that is the way that type of Jew thinks he can impress his personality. . . . Feeling as I do about this matter, of course I have the keenest possible feelings regarding Jew pogroms in Poland. . . . It also occurs to me that I might be willing to even agree to make a modest contribution and take a modest part in a pogrom here. There might be a couple of additional pogroms in the outlying districts, one in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn.” We don’t encounter this Quinn in Eakin’s book. Nevertheless, three years later, Boni and Liveright published “The Waste Land,” in a deal negotiated by Quinn. Business first.

Is the art world, as we’ve known it, still intact? Obviously, the market is functioning. Art gets displayed, reviewed, bought, and sold. For a while, it seemed that painting and sculpture might be less susceptible than other cultural goods to the effects of digitization. Unlike a song or a book or a video, a painting is unique. A Pollock is worth millions; a copy of a Pollock is worth the cost of the materials required to produce it plus whatever permission fee was charged for the reproduction by the rightsholders.

It was therefore possible to feel that the monetary value of a painting correlated with its art-world value. Pollocks were worth a lot of money because museums displayed them, critics argued about them, art historians assigned Pollock an important place in the story of modern art, and so on. The art world could continue to perform its gatekeeping function in much the way it had in Alfred Barr’s time.

But the Internet does not suffer exemptions. Nothing may go undigitized. Today, many collectors do not buy physical works of art. They buy art works (among lots of other stuff) in the form of N.F.T.s, which are purely digital products. They don’t need the physical work, because they’re not assembling collections; they’re speculating.

It’s not that people have never bought art on speculation (although, historically, you’d be better off in a stock-market-index fund). It’s that the art world has started to come apart. Curation and criticism are increasingly detached from the rest of the mechanism. The market today is driven by dealers and collectors, neither group appearing to care whether museums and reviewers have validated the work they are buying and selling.

Certainly, art critics may feel that they’re becoming irrelevant. In an article on recent sales at auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, in which very new paintings by very new artists attracted seven-figure bids, the Times art critic Jason Farago concluded that “the time between a new work’s creation, digital dissemination, purchase and resale has become so compressed that the old legitimation mechanism simply cannot function.” He worried that this might be “part of a larger and, in the end, hazardous cultural reversal in which numerical measurement, measured in dollars or in likes, are the only records of quality or importance.” Welcome to the desert of the virtual.

And are paintings still unique? Advances in 3-D printing may soon make it possible to produce a copy of “The Starry Night” that is indistinguishable from the canvas Vincent van Gogh painted. Your dorm room can look exactly like the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art. You may want to think about installing a gift shop. ♦

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Welcome to Drag: The performance art celebrating gender fluidity – Queen's Journal

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I walked into Crew’s and Tango’s, a queer bar in Toronto, and my senses were flooded with light, glitter, wafts of vodka cranberries, and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” blaring on the speakers as a drag queen performed. 

Ivory Towers, a drag queen fashioned with caution tape as a bodysuit that matched their vibrant yellow hair, led an entranced crowd through the last stanzas of the song. Their stage presence was as powerful as their black thigh-high stilettos. 

When Helena Poison joined the stage in an incredible pair of ass-less chaps with rainbow fringe going down the pant leg, the two engaged in banter with the crowd members, all of whom hung onto their every word. 

Drag performers like Towers and Posion have had to create a space for themselves in an outwardly heteronormative and patriarchal society. 

The first renditions of drag culture trace themselves back to Shakespearean times when male performers cross-dressed to portray female characters. They travelled through the United States during the prohibition era where speakeasies provided solace for gay men to express themselves and explore their gender identity. 

Rowena Whey, a leader within the vibrant Kingston drag community and a practicing drag queen of six years, told The Journal what the culture means to her. 

“Drag is an art form where we perform gender, that takes a lot of forms,” Whey said. 

While she adopts a female presenting gender for her performances, Whey stressed that drag comes in varieties; there are drag kings and non-binary performers as well. 

“Drag is an all-encompassing art form,” she said. “Not only is it makeup, fashion, body contouring—it’s also dancing and singing and acting and comedy.”

Her first encounter with drag was in Edmonton at the Evolution Wonder Lounge where she was mesmerized and intrigued by a performer who would later be her partner. 

“I didn’t really know drag existed until I moved to Edmonton,” Whey said. “I started doing drag for Halloween one year, but if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right.” 

Whey spent time watching makeup tutorials and making her own clothes for her drag persona. 

“When it came time to go out, I was in drag for 15 hours. If I could do that I could do it as a career,” she said. 

Whey talked about the lengthy process of getting ready for a show, from venue hunting to styling to makeup to hair. The work that goes into drag is all-encompassing. 

“They like to say that when you’re doing drag makeup, there’s this like wow moment where you actually feel like your transformation is complete,” she said. 

“For me, that doesn’t really happen until after my entire face—lips, lashes, like everything—is on, but my wig doesn’t have to be on, which I always find strange.”  

When asked to name who her biggest inspiration has been, Whey said Elton John.

“I love that he is an out and proud queer man, he’s not afraid to be flamboyant. He’s theatrical and out of this world and over the top. I always felt that really deep down.”

Catch Rowena live at the Grad Club and Daft Brewery on the first Wednesday of every month and the last Thursday of every month, respectively. 

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