Yoko Ono and how teachers dislike creative children

Yoko Ono’s birthday is today, and she is 83. The daughter of a Buddhist and a Christian, and born into a wealthy family in Japan that moved back and forth to the United States, at a very yound age she started creating some of the most radical and avant-garde art in the art world. Her art work is sometimes beautiful, sometimes shocking, sometimes whimsical, sometimes tragic. She invites people into her work, to participate in it. She would ask people, for example, to imagine a painting in their minds, rather than painting it. The audience in her 1965 performance “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall was persuaded to cut off her clothing piece by piece. And of course she was also singing, once upon a time, with John Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band. She is as prolific today as she ever was.

Yoko Ono performing "Cut Piece" at Carnegie Hall in 1965
Yoko Ono performing “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall in 1965

In many ways Yoko Ono embodies the project of The Creative Hours, in that her conceptual art challenges people to see and think differently, and seeing and thinking differently is the golden road to creativity. In her book Grapefruit, a “book of drawings and instructions” she asks readers to “Watch a movie without looking at any round objects”, or, “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and talk about many things.” In her more recent book Acorn, she instructs “Count all the puddles on the street / when the sky is blue.” Ono is different from others, and has struggled with criticism and ostracism her whole life–even being blamed for breaking up The Beatles–because her way of thinking and being were divergent from the norm. But her difference is also the very root of her brilliance and creativity.

Reading an interview with her in Songwriters on Songwriting today, this passage caught my eye:

When Yoko Ono was a child in Japan, her writing was rejected by teachers who objected to the fact that it didn’t fit into existing forms and that she had no desire to make it fit. “It’s not that I consciously tried not to conform,” she explained, smiling, “I was just naturally out of the system.”

This is often the experience of creative children. And it turns out that in fact teachers dislike creative children in spite of their assertions to the contrary. 96% of teachers say that daily classroom time should be dedicated to creative thinking, and yet they seem biased against the very children whose thinking is most creative. At school, creative children are punished rather than rewarded, and the system seems designed to extinguish creativity. In spite of all the lip service, most creative children are different, like Yoko Ono.

The characteristics that teachers value in the classroom are those associated with the lowest levels of creativity. Teachers want students to be responsible, reliable, dependable, clear-thinking, tolerant, understanding, peaceable, good-natured, moderate, steady, practical and logical. Creativity is not moderate or logical. It is associated with characteristics such as determined, independent and individualistic, people who make up the rules as she goes along, divergent rather than conformist ways of thinking. You can read some of the research in this article.

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For good reason Ken Robinson’s talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most viewed talk on the TED web site. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” he says, and rightness and wrongness, as anyone who has ever received a graded paper can attest, is the very backbone of education.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality isn’t really that surprising.  It’s nearly impossible for a teacher, outnumbered by his charges, to help the rebels and mavericks flourish in an environment requiring more supervision than vision. The system is set up for teachers to prefer the obedient. You have to be a strong character to stay creative in a classroom that thwarts the very thing it purports to serve.

But being disliked, even hated, is something artists often face. At one time Yoko Ono was “arguably the most hated woman in the world”, as pointed out in an article about last year’s exhibit Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960-1971 . The sense of being outside, or against, or in the shadows, or wrong is often part and parcel of the creative life, for better or for worse. And Yoko Ono embraces this. Her works allow that dislike, rejection, scorn, even hatred to enter in. They do not defend themselves against them. Look at Cut Piece, Rape, Painting to be Stepped On, and Painting for Cowards in which the artist performing the work shakes people’s hands through a hole in the canvas. The courage of her work is its vulnerability.

Whatever happens to the artist, starting young, starting in school, no matter the pleasures of creation or their rejection and resistance, no matter the joys or trials, all of it is inspiration and fodder for great art.

Mirror Piece, from Grapefruit, 1964
Mirror Piece, from Grapefruit, 1964

Author: Caterina Fake

Caterina is a writer, artist and entrepreneur. Founder of Findery and StorySet. Co-founder of Flickr, Hunch, Sesat School. Board member, Sundance Institute. Traveler, homeschooling mother, free thinker. Internet enthusiast.