Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow—a tiny figure in tight jeans and a short, snug-fitting jacket—was talking about her art. She stood out in marked contrast to her surroundings, the cavernous 19th-century Great Hall of the Cooper Union in Lower Manhattan, where Abraham Lincoln once spoke before he ran for the presidency. Just next to her, in fact, stood the cast-iron lectern Lincoln used in 1860, and I could easily imagine his tall, black-clad figure looming behind it—again, in contrast with Yoko’s, not only in size and garb, but in origin too. Japanese by birth, she represented the East, while the spirit of Lincoln symbolized the West. Her presence that day was part of ArtWalk NY, an annual fundraising event for the Coalition for the Homeless.
Many of Yoko’s comments concerned art works she had undertaken with John Lennon that reflected their joint commitment to peace. Reproductions of a number of these were shown on a giant screen behind her. One was a poster they designed in the 1960’s. In big letters at the top are the words, “War Is Over!” and then in much smaller print: “If You Want It.” At the very bottom of the poster: “Love from John and Yoko.” She said the poster had been displayed, in large format, in public spaces in nine cities around the world.
Her own preoccupation with peace revealed itself even more clearly in an exhibit of some of her pieces on view, at the same time as her Cooper Union presentation, in a gallery farther down in Lower Manhattan. A few days later, I walked over to see these “installations.” The gallery had the appearance of a warehouse, which matched the bleakness of the portrayal of war’s destructive effects. Along one side, for example, were piles of plaster body parts—unpainted arms, legs and torsos strewn along the floor. At the end of the pile was an outsized trash barrel filled to the brim with more body parts. Nearby was a cage with empty shoes strewn at one end. The shoes and the body parts evoked the deadly atmosphere of the concentration camps in which millions were exterminated by the Nazis.
On a landing above the main floor, its stair railings wrapped in barbed wire, a huge photograph showed a scene in the Bronx. A young man lay bleeding on the sidewalk, the legs of his attackers visible beside him. Violence runs rampant here in our cities too, the photo was telling us. Farther along the landing was a table covered with sections of maps, both foreign and domestic, including parts of a map of New York City to emphasize violence’s omnipresence. By the table was a pail filled with buttons for visitors. “Imagine Peace,” was their message. And so we do, in hopes that peace—which now can only be imagined, as violence continues to rage in Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territory, as well as in our cities—may one day become a reality.
At the beginning of the Cooper Union event, the head of the Coalition for the Homeless said that close to 40,000 men, women and children are sleeping in New York City shelters every night, the largest number ever, and that this number does not include the many huddled overnight in doorways and subway stations. Who can doubt the connection between what is spent on armaments for war and the levels of poverty in nations that use major portions of their resources for war, at the cost of not providing for humanitarian needs? Dwight Eisenhower, military leader though he was, understood that dark relationship when he said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies...a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
The rising number of homeless people is the dark reminder of that reality in our own country. As Yoko and John’s poster says, war is over—if we really want it to be. So far, we don’t want it enough. But Yoko reminds us through her art, and through the memory of John Lennon, to keep struggling for peace.