Yoko Ono Fuses Art, Activism And Commerce To Achieve World Peace In The 21st Century

The artist is going corporate—and it's not a bad thing.

Yoko Ono is doing more than just imagining a better world—she’s creating it. The boundary-breaking cultural icon is on the front lines campaigning for a host of causes ranging from international peace, responsible emissions, gender equality and fracking limitations. Decades after first appearing on the world stage alongside late husband John Lennon, Ono’s revolutionary flame shines on and her rebellious spirit makes her an unrivaled force for positive change.

Last week she took time to honor a fellow philanthropic crusader, Hard Rock International CEO Hamish Dodds, by presenting him with the Spirit of Excellence Award on behalf of the T.J. Martell Foundation. Since 2008, the pair have teamed up annually with WhyHunger for “IMAGINE THERE’S NO HUNGER,” an initiative that has brought 9.7 million farm-fresh meals to starving children in over 20 countries and taught over 8,800 family and community members techniques for sustained food production. 

Before taking the podium, Ono sat down with VH1 to reflect on the work she’s done not only with Dodds, but also throughout her extraordinary lifetime. In the midst of troubling times for our planet, she offers advice for how to stay hopeful in the face of negativity, outraged in the face of apathy, and fearless in the face of overwhelming opposition.

For Ono, art and activism are two sides of the same coin. Having begun her career in downtown New York City’s conceptual art scene of the early 1960s under mentors like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, some of her most affecting pieces have plain instructive titles like Cut Piece, Hammer A Nail, Painting To Be Stepped On. At her recent retrospective in Bilbao’s Guggenheim, signs reading “Participate” hung next to many of the installations. The simple declarative is a recurring theme, even when it comes to her (oft-misunderstood) musical legacy. How else do you explain her astonishing 12 number one entries on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart? Clearly her art moves people to stand up and express themselves in a myriad of ways.

Conversely, look to Ono’s large scale public demonstrations undertaken with Lennon. 1969’s worldwide “War Is Over (If You Want It)” billboard campaign sells peace in the same manner as Coca-Cola in a Warholian commentary on advertising and consumer culture. That same year, Ono and Lennon invited the world press into their honeymoon suite for the Bed-In for Peace, showing off a humorous theatricality that invokes the spirit of performance art.

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Participate! Art or activism, it can be impossible to distinguish the two. Regardless of what you label it, all of Ono’s work engages viewers by demanding involvement and challenging the way we think. As her art has evolved, so has her strategy for moving towards a better world. She was quick to adopt the internet, which she says has completely revolutionized her ability to organize and spread information. “You know, when John and I started doing things like the Bed-In and all that, nobody was really around us. So we thought, ’Oh, are we the only ones who are doing it!?'” However, it’s rare that she feels that way today. “The more the better, in a way. We really need every one of us in the world to do something. Otherwise, you know, there’s a doomsday waiting!”

As the global crisis grew more dire, Ono sought bigger allies, utilizing the resources and outreach of like-minded charitable companies. Enter Hard Rock and Dodds, who support an enormous number of causes including Amnesty International, the American Red Cross, and their own Pinktober Breast Cancer drive.

“Hard Rock offers ideal machinery to do something to better the world,” she says of her current partnership. “I’m very happy that I’m working together with people like Hamish, because he really knows exactly what’s happening in the world and that we have to do something about it.” She also credits Hard Rock with helping create a new generation of earth-conscious citizens. “Kids love it. It’s Hard Rock, you know— rock and roll! So there are many many children who ordinarily would not particularly like activism, but [now] they love to be part of it. I think in that sense it’s very, very powerful.”

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