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On Poetry and Difference in Yoko Ono's Grapefruit

Keegan Cook Finberg

In a what she called a “footnote” to a lecture and performance at Wesleyan University in 1966, Yoko Ono addressed the philosophical issues of overlapping arts media and identities. Differentiating her work from “Happenings,” which were long non-linear performances becoming popular in Tokyo and New York, she offers an artist’s statement as a philosophy of difference:

People talk about happening. They say that art is headed towards that direction, that happening is assimilating the arts. I don’t believe in collectivism of art nor in having only one direction in anything. I think it is nice to return to having many different arts, including happening, just as having many flowers. In fact, we could have more arts “smell,” “weight,” “taste,” “cry,” “anger” (competition of anger, that sort of thing), etc. People might say, that we never experience things separately, that they are always in fusion, and that is why “the happening,” which is a fusion of all sensory perceptions. Yes, I agree, but if that is so, it is all the more reason and challenge to create a sensory experience isolated from other sensory experiences, which is something rare in daily life. Art is not merely a duplication of life. To assimilate art in life, is different from art duplicating life.1

Ono’s repeated use of the word “assimilate” for the growing together of the arts is loaded: Ono’s background made her interested in issues of assimilation in both U.S. and Japanese cultures.2 The daughter of a wealthy banking family, Ono lived between the two countries her whole life. At the start of World War II, the family moved back to Japan because of growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S.See Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moyhihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, Second Edition: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (Cambridge: MIT Press, [1964] 1970). First they lived in Tokyo during the firebombing and then Ono moved to the countryside for the duration of the war, where the villagers made fun of her for being Americanized. Shortly after the war, Ono settled in the U.S. permanently, though her adult life in the 1960s was punctuated by trips to Tokyo.

Several years before her Wesleyan lecture, as Ono was creating instruction art that bridges artistic media categories, the question of which immigrants could achieve cultural assimilation and how was a preoccupation of sociological public discourse in the United States.3 When Ono gave her Wesleyan lecture in January of 1966, the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, an immigration law which abolished the national origins quota system that favored northern Europeans, had recently been signed into law. This national origins system was repealed based on reports that concluded that all ethnicities were equally “assimilable,” despite previous suggestions that people from Asian and African countries were less likely to assimilate, or, as the U.S. President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization put it, to make “satisfactory adjustment to the American scene,” and therefore should be limited in number.4 The 1965 law repealed overtly racist exclusions to instead instate a system that privileged certain classes and occupations based on the supposed needs of the U.S. labor force. A preference for scientists, engineers, and doctors brought an influx of Asian immigrants to the U.S., beginning what many argue was a new manifestation of anti-Asian racism.5

When Ono critiques a conversation about assimilation, I suggest that readers recall not only interdisciplinary blending in the art world but also the cultural project that seeks to homogenize racial and ethnic difference in favor of capitalist forms that obscure and exploit them. This valence of “assimilation” invokes issues central to Ono’s work: relations between the U.S. and Japan as they were shaped by policies built on the management of difference through economic and labor-based modes. The word “assimilate,” echoes Ono’s experience as an immigrant and nods toward American racism against Japanese people in particular during and after World War II. In this light, a political theory of identity becomes visible; this passage suggests that it is most possible to honor the strengths of singularity by a practice of intermixing but not fusing culture.

Encapsulating Ono’s aesthetic theory in addition to her art’s political possibility, this passage also enters a robust contemporaneous conversation in the art world: debates about artistic autonomy and absorption. Arguing that a turn to interdisciplinarity may be “assimilating the arts,” and that this process is related to the act of “assimil[ation] of art in life,” Ono speaks against the arguments of critics like Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg that interdisciplinary artwork degrades individual media specificity.6 She is against any program that would flatten her notion of various hybrid identities, which exist “like many flowers” insomuch as they have a sort of togetherness, but never “one direction.” “Happenings,” interdisciplinary public performances, which Fried or Greenberg would argue damage the arts that they incorporate, like painting or theater, for Ono are actually the artworks most suited to isolating and deepening those very independent media.7 She continues, “but returning to having various divisions of art, does not mean, for instance, that one must only use sounds as a means to create music. One may give instructions to watch the fire for 10 days in order to create a vision in ones mind.”8 In this last argumentative turn, Ono makes reading central to her artwork: the process of combining art practices that also respects discrete identities – or sensations – happens best through reading instructions.

This essay argues that, in their interdisciplinary procedural approach, Yoko Ono’s midcentury instructions offer a crucial response to changing sites of labor and renewed forms of racial capitalism after World War II. I will attend to Ono’s instructions written between the U.S. and Japan and perform a reading of her book Grapefruit (Tokyo, 1964), which has previously confounded literary and arts genres. When read as a work of poetry, Grapefruit engages capitalist fictions about race and immigration through an attention to changing labor practices and changing publics in the U.S. and Japan. My reading exposes a political and aesthetic philosophy that intervenes in previous debates about modernist media autonomy, illustrating not only the limits of arguments about “pure” media, but also the assimilationist politics inherent in notions of media blending or “arts in general,” which was central to Ono’s Fluxus milieu.9 Ono’s philosophy of isolating identity through overlapping arts illustrates the potential of refusing both approaches, and instead insists on a dialectical relationship to politics through instructions.

In the sections that follow I will draw on scholarship about racial capitalism to explore how Ono’s work dramatizes the privileging of certain forms of life and labor by imposing various forms of death on others.10 As Yoko Ono scholars have noted, many of her instructions reference the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Americanizing of postwar Japan under a U.S. constitution. Instead of putting these instructions within a framework of trauma or destruction art, however, I allow them to perform the procedural work of poetics, which offers a theory of racialized and gendered bodies in particular sites. This frame affords Ono’s instructions the imperative to differ from Ono’s verbal declaration of her political commitments, which through the years have been various, ambivalent, or vague.11 This procedural poetics model allows me to draw a throughline between Grapefruit’s attention to neocolonialism, labor management systems in postwar Japan, and burgeoning global neoliberal rationality as part of the matrix of racial capitalism. I conclude that Ono’s work offers a critique of genre and a theory of difference that anticipates later approaches to coalition building in feminist and ethnic studies.


Grapefruit and Poetry in General

What sort of art is telling someone to “watch the fire for 10 days”? Ono called work of this kind that makes up Grapefruit, “instructions,” “events,” “scores,” or “pieces.” In the same “footnote” I quoted above, she writes “event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from the various sensory perceptions. It is not a getting togetherness as most happenings are, but a dealing with oneself.”12 Art like this probes models of aesthetic interdisciplinarity to explore how national projects to reimagine race through capitalist fictions are central to “dealing with oneself,” or to considering identity. Although this process of considering identity centers the comprehension of texts, it is active and public.

To illustrate what I mean by public, I must periodize the 1964 edition of Grapefruit with an attention to genre. Coming at a moment when interdisciplinary works were challenging conventions in the arts, Ono’s book Grapefruit offers an opportunity to bridge current academic disciplinary divides. As a text work from a gallery artist and musician, it invites the methodology of literary scholarship to politicize debates about media autonomy in art history. At the same time, from the other direction, it brings notions of action into the realm of poetry, which is still often imagined to be a singular, private activity. Historically, Ono has borne the brunt of racist misogyny both in the popular eye and in art historical and literary studies scholarship. Working between and beyond nation and genre as well as between and beyond accepted gender expectations, Ono hit a sensitive nerve. When she was taken seriously by the art world – even if her reception in popular culture was wildly unfair – her work from the 1960s was often studied as proto-feminist or proto-conceptual art. These readings often ignore the racial, cultural, and linguistic aspects of her instructions to focus on performance. Recently, critics have been readier to connect her early artwork to the violence of both the Vietnam War and World War II, and in the last twenty years or so, Ono’s art of the 60s has again gained warmer popular and scholarly attention.13 However, the difficulty of balancing Ono’s life story, her aesthetic contribution, and her politics has created siloed areas of study in the arts, and Grapefruit has often been neglected by both the poetry and the art world.14

The 1964 edition of Grapefruit is a book of instructions mostly in English that also uses the Japanese language. The instructions are divided into the sections “Music,” “Painting,” “Event,” “Poetry,” and “Object.” It is substantially different from the 1970 Simon and Schuster version in English, despite the fact that they are often conflated.15 Putting the 1964 edition in its proper context is important both because of its position as a piece of bilingual literature and also because the years following Grapefruit’s publication would bring the height of a period that art critics have called the era of “arts in general” or the “dematerialization of art.”16 Ono’s work fits this genre of “arts in general” because the “general” notion of artworks is most apparent in action-based, performance, and participatory art of the period, categories that a work like Grapefruit invokes.

Yet although the description of “arts in general” came to characterize experimental work from the 1960s New York scene – and scores like Ono’s came to be emblematic of Fluxus art – Yoko Ono had been working with notions of event before the 1960s. She can be credited with the very first “event” as artwork. “Lighting Piece” (“light a match and watch till it goes out”) was written and performed in 1955, and “Secret Piece,” which instructs to play a note “with the accompaniment of the birds singing at dawn” was written in 1953. Both of these works were compiled in Grapefruit, and yet despite the central importance of Grapefruit to the zeitgeist, Ono’s work is not often considered part of this philosophical turn; even within Fluxus, a group otherwise known for its inclusivity, she was often bullied or excluded.17

Putting Grapefruit at the center of this interdisciplinary moment helps us see it more clearly. As theorist Thierry de Duve explains about interdisciplinarity of the sixties, “to me it is still startling that you could be an artist without being either a painter or a sculptor or a musician or a poet or an architect or a playwright or whatever. An artist in general. ‘What is your profession?’ ‘Oh, I’m an artist.’”18 De Duve’s performative interplay of overheard conversation illustrates that the trend toward interdisciplinarity of the sixties is theatrical and participatory. Furthermore, that his explanation consists of overheard conversation as performance draws on the history of poetry. Because poetry is an intimate address meant to be overheard, as the adage about lyric claims, it has always raised questions about what constitutes the public and private spheres.19 De Duve’s illustrative artist exists within a poetic mode of address created between “the public” and “the private” in 1965 when these very categories are becoming increasingly contested. With the assimilationist project as the backdrop, U.S. conservatives began to represent the state as a coercive force against individual freedom and Keynesian liberals and leftists began to use “the public” as a way to shorthand an interest in guaranteeing access to all.20

Linking arts “in general” to methods of reading poetry, Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit engages changing labor practices and changing publics, an engagement which is inextricable from Ono’s interdisciplinary experiments with reading. Reading Grapefruit allows us one lens through which to see that this larger turn toward reading and enactment was a response to anxieties about both media autonomy and changing national models of economy and identity. Ono’s instructions help us see that “arts in general” shapes the category of poetry as well. When discussing literature – and poetry in particular – notions of mid-century reading are usually constructed around ideas of a private or even anti-theatrical activity, what is considered “modernist reading” or even “good reading.”21 As many scholars have shown, modernist reading is invested in the entrenchment of the familiar liberal categories of public and private.22 Yet, at the same time, reading is an integral part of experimental and participatory arts in the twentieth century; these experiences of reading just don’t usually get classified as poetry or thought of as literature.

Reading Ono’s scores as poetry illustrates the multiple registers of what she calls assimilation; as the instructions move between arts media, they also acknowledge the violence undergirding national economic and racialization projects. For example, BLOOD PIECE, a score that appears in the painting section, meditates on the difficulty of achieving a singular art (rather than what Ono calls a “fusion” in her footnote) through impossibilities of bodily participation:

Use your blood to paint.

Keep painting until you faint. (a)

Keep painting until you die. (b)


1960 spring23

Though it is impossible by normative standards of performance duration, over the course of an entire lifetime an artist could theoretically perform the entire score. Or, the lack of lettering after the first line could indicate that the second two lines are choices – a performer can choose to follow path “a” or “b.” These musings on how, or if, the score should be performed are created by the verbal pun on the “pain” in “painting.” By literalizing the pun, “BLOOD PIECE” shows the futility of realizing “pure” painting and opens questions of readerly participation with impossible instructions. The score draws attention to bodily cycles, duration, the limits of genre or medium, and the limits of labor (should the performer faint or die from doing the work?).

It is through an extended pause with the text that we come to these conclusions. The piece almost enforces this type of attention through its difficulty as performance. It’s hard to pass over it quickly, yet at the same time it troubles this familiar category of attention toward poetry in its impulse toward painting. “BLOOD PIECE” makes a strong statement about the impossibility of realizing the work as instructed while working within a poetic mode. It also points to the difficulty of inhabiting any space or genre permanently (we must use poetry to explore the duration of painting, for example) and to the ethics of work (if I’m not willing to perform the score, then who is?). It’s important to note that in Grapefruit these instructions are interspersed with other pieces that are easier to perform (hammer a nail into a mirror; light a match; count the winkles on a stomach). Because they sometimes call us to take action, they make us think about reading as a more expansive process, using and moving beyond the categories that modernist close reading allows.

Engaging in this active process reveals Grapefruit to be a political text, exemplative of a theatrical element of reading that becomes increasingly definitive in experimental poetry of the period. Ono shows that dominant midcentury accounts of art and literature that pit theatricality against absorption – public against private – do not work here. Despite their clear relationship to performance, these works require reading, the very model of absorptive activity, according to polemical accounts of medium specificity in art history.24 Likewise, the literary critical accounts of reading that separate poetry from the public sphere and from political change cannot hold up against such theatrics.

My commitment to reading these texts “as poetry” is, in part, a response to what I see as the impoverishment of that category as it has been constructed since modernist formulations. As a critical conversation about media-specificity and art practices came to define modernism, experimental work became obsessed with emplaced legibility.25 While many arguments about modernism, and about the avant-gardes specifically, attend to works like Fluxus scores as artworks or performances, rather than as texts, thereby excluding them from critical conversations about reading, my tactic takes the rise of language-based participatory work as signaling a political possibility of procedural reading. More largely, by reconfiguring arguments about the end of media-specificity, this change also signals the end of a sort of closed-genre poetry, codified by various theories of experimental writing, modernism, and techniques of New Critical reading. Despite wanting to read Ono’s work as poetry, I am not interested in pointing out the formal similarities between these scores and more traditional poetry (though this could be easily done). Rather, I contend that, if read with the procedures that we use to read poems, Ono’s instructions can activate the category in ways that serve to broaden both interdisciplinary modernist studies and theories of modern poetics. This requires attending to these works as written documents although we know that event scores on the page should not be thought as fixed complete texts.

Of course, circulation and reading practice are inextricable – performative and public “events” of the time are interpersonal and quiet when they are mailed or printed as instructions in a book. Ono sometimes mailed her instructions (mail art was the main conduit of dissemination for many Fluxus members), and international small Fluxus presses like Beau Geste and Something Else Press were part of a larger trend in emergent global networks of readership.26 In the case of Grapefruit, despite only producing 500 copies in 1964, Ono sent birth announcements to an international group of artists proclaiming the arrival of the book alongside pictures of her newborn baby. Grapefruit’s “birth” happened to roughly coincide with Tokyo hosting the Olympics, a feat that was meant to showcase Japan’s full recovery from World War Two and its subsequent economic prosperity.27 Ono was in Tokyo at this time (she lived in Tokyo from March 1962 to September 1964 before returning to New York), and because she was interested in nationalist spectacle, she set up a small stand in the midst of promotion for this premiere global cultural event in order to peddle her book.28 This combination of the gendered metaphor of production through the art of the birth announcement and her liminal participation in nationalist spectacle exemplifies some of the central preoccupations of Grapefruit


Reading Grapefruit

Though Ono had been working on scores through the 1950s, she did not previously publish them. She had been corresponding with George Maciunas, the founder and self-elected chairman of Fluxus, about a publication of her complete works, but when Maciunas’s disorganization and lack of funds made it seem like it might not happen in a timely fashion, Ono published it herself in Tokyo by means of a small press she called Wunternaum in 1964. During this phase, Grapefruit underwent several modes of presentation and circulated through multiple media in addition to meditating on fusion and isolation within the work itself.

Though written in the English language, Ono’s texts from this period were often first created within a Japanese context.29 The Japanese context for the scores is crucial, not only because of Ono’s personal experiences during the war, experiences which directly inspired her scores, but also because the scores reflect the larger political climate in Japan. The allied occupation lasted from 1945-1952, the later part of which violently imposed an agenda of anti-liberal and anti-left ideals.30 The Cold War essentially Americanized Japan – when the occupation was over, the Japanese were left with a U.S. constitution and a security treaty that kept a large number of U.S. troops on Japanese soil – as it also brought rapid economic growth. The period coinciding with the Cold War was later referred to as the “economic miracle,” or Japan’s “miracle economy,” and 1964 was the acme. Tokyo hosted the Olympics to demonstrate this wealth – for example with the display of the Shinkansen highspeed train – and also to illustrate for the world how westernization shaped Japanese culture. Writing about the arts festival at the Olympics, Noriko Aso explains “the vision of Japan represented [in the ancient arts exhibition] – homogenizing, purportedly inclusive yet elite centered, asserting an independent stance that was nevertheless tilted toward the United States and away from Asia – served at once to strengthen mechanisms of domestic mobilization and to reaffirm the position of Japan in the international order born of the Cold War.”31

Japanese culture was affected not just by increased Americanization and wealth accumulation but also by major changes in the ideology of labor, manufacturing, and production. After Japan’s defeat, General MacArthur’s headquarters – which oversaw the occupation of Japan – created several methods for overhauling industry, including training programs in Scientific Management run by the Civil Communications Section and the Japanese Productivity Center. These programs, created by American managers and adopted for Japanese workplace propaganda, emphasize small changes to improve efficiency and productivity at group and individual levels rather than as part of a totalizing plan based on innovation or on worker skill development.32 Systems like lean production and Kaizen – a business term that can be translated to mean “continuous improvement” – changed the Japanese economy through a management philosophy based on personal responsibility from the lowest acceptable level. Built on philosophies that target the responsibility of individual workers, these types of strategies, which anticipate and later echo American neoliberal philosophy, became a standard for Japanese economic production and success.

Ono’s Grapefruit responds to this combination of Japanese defeat, Americanization, economic boom, and change in labor. Like these scientific management programs, her book focuses on small changes and improvements, and although it ridicules notions of Kaizen as productive in a capitalist sense, Grapefruit also makes a link to the U.S. version of liberalism, moving into neoliberalism at this period. This set of concerns is apparent through a number of textual choices unique to the 1964 edition. Although most of the book is in English, every few pages opens to a spread of an English score on the left page with Japanese text on the right. Illustrating Ono’s philosophy of resistance to assimilation, the scores in Japanese are not translated versions of the English scores that face them but rather different scores all together (for example, scores in English in the “Music” section will appear in Japanese in the “Event” section). In another bewildering touch, the Japanese scores – though clearly translated versions of the English – differ substantially, often including extra lines, and omitting examples or dates.33 Ono further resists streamlined organization from the top by not numbering the book’s pages. But lest one think that Ono’s art performs a sort of lean production, she also challenges efficiency of any kind by writing the book title by hand on each copy in her initial print run of 500. To parody American nationalism, the book claims that it was copyrighted on the fourth of July.34 It also cites many of the major players of the New York avant-garde as influences on the dedication page, marking Ono as a New Yorker within a particular milieu, even while the scores in both English and Japanese reference forms of traditional Japanese culture.35 An important part of Grapefruit is the going-between aspect of cultural and national identity; many accounts claim that Ono gave the book its title to show the hybridization of her cultures – at the time she believed a grapefruit to be a mixture of an orange and a lemon – and took it to be an analogy to her mixed sense of belonging. These markers heighten our awareness of the cultural moment of exchange and domination between the U.S. and Japan.


The textual history of Grapefruit further reveals its preoccupation with issues of efficiency, inclusivity, and agency. Many of these instructions began as what Ono calls “word spread scores,” or instructions passed on by word of mouth. Some of them were written down for a solo exhibition in 1961 at George Maciunas’s gallery, the AG Gallery, on Madison Avenue in New York City. The small show was an exhibition of “paintings and drawings” that ran for two weeks in the dark (Maciunas could not pay the electricity bills). Displaying the mixture of cultural influences that interested Ono, in the front of the gallery were Ono’s “instruction paintings,” and the back showed her traditional Japanese calligraphy paintings done in sumi ink. When visitors arrived, Ono would show them around the gallery and explain the instructions behind each painting shown in the instruction area. For example, she would tell them that the oddly shaped canvas on the floor was “Painting to be Stepped on” and that they were welcome to help make it. For “Smoke Painting,” she invited visitors to burn part of the canvas on the wall and watch it smolder. Small notes with the scores written out were also affixed to these works. These pieces have been called destruction art, and put in the context of Ono’s history – her family hid during the 1945 bombing of Tokyo and she did indeed watch the city smolder – they work to meditate on how art is engaged in global political action.36 This word of mouth method of conveying the work provided an auditory performance and a communal interaction; in this way the scores are realized several times over – by concept, text, voice, or action that follows, and by the object resulting. In other words, though reliant on language, her earliest pieces were deeply involved in questions of perception, the body, and community. A connection with her audience was crucial to the way she thought about her scores.

As Ono continued to live and exhibit her work between the U.S. and Japan, her instructions would migrate between the English and Japanese languages. In her subsequent exhibitions, Ono included more written scores, a move which deemphasized the presence of the artist – once she even had her husband write out the scores for her to further remove herself from the process – and highlighted issues of unrealizability or impossibility.37 As Thomas Kellein points out, the small innovation of unrealizability, or scores meant to be read (not performed or created in the gallery), was actually something of a boon for Maciunas and for Fluxus.38 It was economically helpful to all involved that in 1962 Yoko Ono presented her work at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo but replaced the paintings that had been on the wall at the AG gallery with texts for people to read. It meant less expensive materials and no cost to move or install artworks; in sum, it meant less preparation and production time. Ono had developed a small but ingenious innovation within the Fluxus production process.

As we saw with BLOOD PIECE, Ono’s art from this period has more to do with the impossibility of following instruction – and the possibility of creating procedural reading strategies – than expensive paintings. Likewise, scores like “LAUGH PIECE” (Keep laughing for a week) and “COUGH PIECE” (Keep coughing for a year) are straightforward instructions but impossible to realize. This impossibility is an important part of the object and the purpose of the art, albeit a money-saving convenience for the Fluxus group. The oscillation between object and performance is an integral part of her work throughout the 60s, and the first edition of Grapefruit begins with a note to George Maciunas that explains, “most of my pieces are meant to be spread by word of mouth, therefore, do not have scores…word-spread pieces are not included in this text.”39 Ono’s scores can work like a game of “Telephone” to morph and change with personalities and misunderstandings. By hinting that there is something that readers cannot access, this letter deems the word spread scores impossible to reify and therefore uncommodifiable (to Maciunas’s chagrin). It also exposes a paradox of participation, readers should know that there is work they can never access.

By leaving the question open about whether or how we are to perform these works, Grapefruit asks, more largely, whether participation or action is possible through reading, which echoes its major political inquiry about participation in a changing public sphere. We can see the action of arts media circulating or switching as a way of addressing these questions. The fact that there is no subject in the scores except the reading subject is a way to persuade readers into action.40 In this way Ono is maintaining her own sense of community outside the community of the audience-reader that Maciunas has set for her. Her word-spread mode of circulation engenders an affective participatory experience of the gallery that is distinct from circulation of the market; Grapefruit’s revolutionary potential lives in this very multiplicity.41

When Grapefruit circulates as a book, it is marked by these other modes of earlier and simultaneous circulation. In a Japanese context, the scores speak against efficiency, models of economic growth, and assimilation to a Western cultural landscape. Within an American context, the scores present a question of how one can participate in the public when the public is disappearing. As political theorist Wendy Brown writes, “as neoliberalism wages war on public goods and the very idea of a public, including citizenship beyond membership, it dramatically thins public life without killing politics.”42 Ono’s work moves through national contexts to dramatize this conundrum of the displacement but continuation of politics, here defined as struggles over resources and values. Even Ono’s earliest pieces questioned the boundaries of performance, the politics of the body, and what makes community.


In its organization as a book, these preoccupations become even clearer. For example, the section headings of Grapefruit do not necessarily describe differences in each section’s content. A score in one section could just as easily appear in the next section; sometimes instructions do in fact appear in multiple sections in English and Japanese respectively. Yet, in the midst of the coming together of all the arts, or as Ono calls it, “the fusion of all sensory perceptions” Ono organizes her book by genre. Writing about this trend of generic nominalism in Fluxus, Branden Joseph states the issue clearly: though Fluxus scores work to dissolve the disciplinary status of the object, they do “not imply that there [is] magically, no longer any such thing as a painting or a sculpture… [they do] imply… that the disciplinary and medium based distinctions traditionally handed down could no longer be received as ontological facts, or even mutually accepted conventions, but had to be reiterated in each instance.”43 In other words, genres still denote specific attributes. However, by reiterating the media in each instance, attention goes to the medium as much as it does the “content” of the score. For Ono’s work, this amplification or reiteration is importantly about coalition, difference, and the possibilities that reading holds. In showing the impossibility of a distinct or monolithic medium or category, Ono emphasizes the centrality of reading to any art form.

In each section, Ono’s scores stem from social and political contexts as well as comment upon them. Ono herself has said that her idea for instructions came from periods during the war, after the firebombing of Tokyo, when her family was starving and she exchanged fake meal orders with her brother.44 “TUNAFISH SANDWICH PIECE” is an illustrative example of the helpfulness of Ono’s wartime story. It recalls the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by asking us to imagine the melting of “one thousand suns in the/ sky at the same time” that shine for one hour and then “melt.”45 While recalling unprecedented destruction, it is also a cheery American meal order ending “make one tunafish sandwich and eat.” It appears in the “Music” section in English and again in Japanese in the “Painting” section, invoking not only a plausible sandwich, or something to see, but also an impossible sound: the sound of thermonuclear threat and remembrance. Its simultaneity encapsulates what Christine Hong explains as the common American myth that the 50s and 60s were moneyed and cheerful, which fails to recognize “the potent imperialist concoction at the heart of military Keynesianism – the notion that U.S. war violence abroad stimulated universal prosperity, expanded social welfare, and democratization at home – within the lethality of Jim Crow.”46

            I turn to one final piece from Grapefruit, “SUPPLY GOODS STORE PIECE,” to explore its how its procedural poetics invoke a modality of racial capitalism:

Open a supply goods store where you sell body supplies:







The third eye



1964 spring

Though it is obvious why this piece is categorized under “Objects” (this one is only in English), it seems a dark take on the blazon form as the bodies of absent subjects are cut into pieces to shill. The odd diction of “supply,” a word with etymological roots in plenty and abundance, illustrates that these bodily pieces are extra and to be displayed for potential supplemental use.47 Just as the sections of the book show, in this particular piece, categorization is a generative process. Ono shows that the very losses and gains brought about by circulating through arts media, genre, and spaces, are also the fluid or movement-bound aspects of identity and bodies. This consideration of bodily fusions remakes theories of media essentialism or purity, allowing distinct categories to be active singular forms while also creating combinatory identities or collectives. Here notions of reading poetry include durational quandaries, halos and humps. By reading the scores as poems, we expose not only their localized cultural and ethical implications – the way they answer political and aesthetic concerns of the time or the way they interpret this moment of arts in general – but also the cultural and ethical concerns that surround this type of interdisciplinarity which intensifies in experimental poetry throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

These notions of interdisciplinarity are often cordoned off from theories of political resistance or organizing, even if both are crucial to the category of poetry and its study. By now it should be clear that I think of interdisciplinarity and political resistance within the same paradigm. To come back to the theory which began this essay: Ono does not “believe in collectivism” but she advocates for creation of “many different arts” coming together as “many flowers.” Similarly, for Audre Lorde, delivering a speech entitled “Learning from the 60s” in 1982, the strongest coalition building in Black communities must be based in a mutual understanding of difference across race, class, and nation. Lorde explains, “in order to work together we do not have to become a mix of indistinguishable particles…Unity implies the coming together of elements which are, to begin with, varied and diverse in their particular natures.”48 Lorde suggests strength comes from honoring difference, and more recently, Grace Kyungwon Hong develops a theoretical paradigm based on an expansion of this notion. Hong uses the term “difference” to refer to a “practice that holds in suspension (without requiring resolution) contradictory, mutually exclusive, and negating impulses.” She writes, “‘Difference’ names an epistemological position, onotological condition, and political strategy that reckons with the shift in the technologies of power that we might as well call ‘neoliberal.’”49 In 1964, Ono’s hope “to assimilate art in life” by attending to difference through combination (rather than fusion) prefigures part of Hong’s philosophy. Ono’s poetics uses interdisciplinarity to expand notions of the public as they interchange between nations and to question of what poetry can do for political action.

Importantly, “SUPPLY GOODS STORE PIECE” is also about a store. As it brings our attention to supply chains, goods, and logistics, the score is creating a market category for body parts and animal parts, suggesting that they should be categorized and sold. Thus, some of the historical stakes of the political categories of “public and private” – the terms that scholars like Lisa Duggan argue are the master terms of neoliberalism and liberalism – emerge when we consider the way Ono handles “supplies.” These terms hide stark inequalities of wealth and power and of class, race, gender, and sexuality across nation-states as well as within them. Duggan writes “inequalities are routinely assigned to ‘private’ life, understood as ‘natural,’ and bracketed away from consideration in the ‘public’ life of the state.”50 Ono brings previously naturalized as well as racialized and sexualized parts into public commerce, ultimately questioning distinctions between these categories. This move of making public, and of cynically monetizing is a hallmark of the era as liberalism gives way to neoliberalism. As theorists like Wendy Brown have argued, this increasing marketization built a logic or a form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms. The score points out that we surely buy and sell our lumps and humps as part of living under capitalism, but we don’t usually call it that. Furthermore, it is rare that we acknowledge our tails, horns, and halos – these magic animalized extensions, perhaps reminders of myths and exclusions based on gender and ethnic markers – while we are at the store.

These issues of the privatization of race and gender as well as increasingly marketized reason are carefully figured in Ono’s “SUPPLY GOODS STORE PIECE,” and they are important to think about in terms of the genre categories of Grapefruit; the genre categories are used to market and make public and also to explore and think beyond the very boundaries of marketable forms of reason. “SUPPLY GOODS STORE PIECE” exposes that dismemberment is at the center of commerce. Similarly, many instructions will not codify how to do the work or realize them; for example, “BLOOD PIECE” exposes the inherent pain in doing work, “TUNAFISH SANDWICH PIECE” takes atomic bombing as an ingredient to an American meal. In these acts, Ono’s scores evoke a central tenet of racial capitalism: that some are subjected to violence and death in order to add value to those granted the privilege of life. As Grace Hong explains, after World War II, “the mutually constitutive relationship between life and death – the fact that life for some must mean death for others –remains disavowed and thus unchallenged.”51 Or, as Ono shows us in “Touch Poem VI,”: “Invite only dead people”; inviting dead people is necessary for the reproduction of those living. This relationship between value production and violence is apropos to Grapefruit’s position between Japan and the U.S.; Japan’s economic and political success relied not only on a catastrophic military defeat, but also on a U.S. martial order to establish economic management techniques and modes of state governance.

When I suggest a procedural poetics model, I am pointing out that we can arrive at these conclusions through modes of reading and attention. Reading poetry in this case reveals that Ono’s philosophy of difference is a practice that combats liberal logics, pointing out both overt racism and disingenuous “assimilation” in arts and culture. Grapefruit illustrates not only the limits of arguments about “pure” media but also the assimilationist politics inherent in notions of media blending or “arts in general.” Refusing both approaches, Grapefruit instead insists on a relationship between politics and aesthetics that envisions coalition building and potential ways of combating the logics of racial capitalism.

  1. First published as an insert in The Stone, this piece of writing, known as “To the Wesleyan People,” is later widely reprinted with small changes in the 1970 edition of Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings. Judson Memorial Church Archive at the Fales Library Special Collections, Box 16, Folder 52, The Stone script with January 23, 1966 letter; Yoko Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970). There are no page numbers in the 1970 edition or in the 1964 edition of Grapefruit. This essay focuses on the 1964 edition (called simply Grapefruit without the 1970 subtitle), which is an artist book limited to 500 copies; I am grateful to the Museum of Modern Art Artists’ Book Library and to the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives at MoMA for allowing me to work closely with it. Yoko Ono, Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternam Press, 1964). 

  2. I am inspired by Jieun Rhee, who explores a phenomenon that she explains as Ono being identified as “Japanese artist in the West and New York avant-gardist in Japan” through Ono’s personal and professional history and the contexts of her performance of “Cut Piece.” Jieun Rhee, “Performing the Other: Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece,” Art History 28, no. 1 (February 2005): 98–99. Also see Brigid Cohen, “Limits of National History: Yoko Ono, Stefan Wolpe, and Dilemmas of Cosmopolitanism,” The Musical Quarterly 97, no. 2 (2014): 181–237; Alexandra Munroe and Jon Hendricks, eds., Yes Yoko Ono (New York: Japan Society H.N. Abrams, 2000); Midori Yoshimoto, Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005); Barry Shank, “Abstraction and Embodiment: Yoko Ono and the Weaving of Global Musical Networks,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 18, no. 3 (2006): 282–300. 

  3. See Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, Second Edition: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City, (Cambridge: MIT Press, [1964] 1970). 

  4. United States. President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, Whom We Shall Welcome; Report (Washington: U.S. Govt., 1953),

  5. Lisa Marie Cacho, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 40–43; Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), 143–63. 

  6. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press., [1965] 1993), 85–93; Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Lacoon,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1940] 1986), 23–41; Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1967] 1998), 148–72; Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). 

  7. The term “happening” was most famously used by Allan Kaprow to indicate a long non-linear performance. Al Hansen, A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art (New York: Something Else Press, 1965), 24. For genealogies of happenings within the Japanese and New York cultural and art historical context (respectively), see Yoshimoto, Into Performance; Judith Rodenbeck, Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011). 

  8. Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings

  9. Fellow Fluxus artist Dick Higgins’s theory of media blending is called “intermedia,” which he defines as work that falls between media; as he wrote in 1966, the happening is an example. Dick Higgins, “Intermedia,” in Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins, ed. Steve Clay and Ken Friedman (Catskill, New York: siglio, 2018), 24–30. 

  10. I look to Lisa Lowe, Grace Kyung Hong, Lisa Marie Cacho, Jodi Melamed, and Charisse Burden-Stelly for the definition of racial capitalism that I provide in the sentence above. For historicizing the midcentury, I also look to Christine Hong, who calls Cold War U.S. militarism in Asia and the Pacific “a modality of racial capitalism” that enabled a range of incommensurate political outcomes, “cognitively mapped as ‘representative government’ for some and ‘despotism’ for others.” Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Grace Kyungwon Hong, Death beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Cacho, Social Death; Jodi Melamed, “Racial Capitalism,” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 1 (2015): 76–85; Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Modern U.S. Racial Capitalism: Some Theoretical Insights,” Monthly Review, July 1, 2020, 8–20; Christine Hong, A Violent Peace: Race, U.S. Militarism, and Cultures of Democratization in Cold War Asia and the Pacific, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020), 6. 

  11. For an assessment of what he calls the “mixed bag” of Ono’s personal activism and how it relates (or not) to Grapefruit, see Austin Allen, “‘My Beautiful Never-Nevers’: Yoko Ono’s Poetry Revisited,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 4, 2022,

  12. Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings

  13. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Remembering Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece,” Oxford Art Journal 26, no. 1 (2003): 99–123; Kevin Concannon, “Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece: From Text to Performance and Back Again,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 30, no. 3 (2008): 81–93; Rhee, “Performing the Other”; Munroe and Hendricks, Yes Yoko Ono; Klaus Biesenbach et al., eds., Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015). 

  14. Most critics acknowledge Grapefruit’s importance, but there has not been sustained attention to the published book. Rather, scholars of performance, art, and music often attend to one or two scores. That said, the last three years have brought some indication that the public is ready to recognize Ono as a poet. See Allen, “‘My Beautiful Never-Nevers’: Yoko Ono’s Poetry Revisited”; Fred Sasaki, Is Yoko Ono Underappreciated as a Poet?, interview by Claire Voon, Chicago Magazine, May 6, 2019,; Anna Ioanes, “Observations on an Event: Yoko Ono: Poetry, Painting, Music, Objects, Events, and Wish Trees / Anna Ioanes,” ASAP/J (blog), February 27, 2020,

  15. The later edition was “introduced by John Lennon”; it removed all Japanese language, added “Film,” “Architecture,” and an “Information” section that explains how each piece was first realized. It also adds more whimsical pieces (which means the whole work appears less violent), illustrations, a questionnaire, picture games, and mailing pieces. Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings

  16. Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (December 1990): 105–43; John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (New York: Verso, 2007); Branden Wayne Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (a “Minor” History) (New York: Zone Books, 2008); Jasper Bernes, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017). 

  17. See Rhee, “Performing the Other”; Yoshimoto, Into Performance; Kathy O’Dell, “Fluxus Feminus,” TDR 41, no. 1 (1997): 43–60. 

  18. Benjamin Buchloh et al., “Conceptual Art and the Reception of Duchamp,” October 70 (October 1994): 141. 

  19. For more on this sense of poetry (lyric, in particular) as overhearing made popular by the New Critics who were inspired by John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on the subject, see Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9; Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, eds., “General Introduction,” in The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 1–10. 

  20. Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 7. Also see Hong, A Violent Peace. for the relation between violence abroad and democratization at home. 

  21. The U.S. cultivated a sort of private reading within the academy that favored difficulty and aesthetic appreciation as “good” reading. Merve Emre, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 3. 

  22. Andy Hines, “The Material Life of Criticism,” Public Books, January 22, 2018,

  23. Ono, Grapefruit

  24. Fried, “Art and Objecthood”; Fried, Absorption and Theatricality

  25. The concept of modernism was codified in the 1960s by theories from Greenberg (Art and Culture), Fried (“Art and Objecthood”), and Cavell (Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy). They all use experimentalism, or the scientific model, to explain their arguments and the result is a privileging of visual arts over literature. Ellen Levy, Criminal Ingenuity: Moore, Cornell, Ashbery, and the Struggle between the Arts (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 9; Michael North, Novelty: A History of the New (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 173. A different but related trajectory is experimental literature coming from groups like the Situationist International and Fluxus; for this trajectory, experimentalism later became defined by readerly-writerly participation. First theorized in 1970 by Roland Barthes, the categories of readerly vs writerly text later become foundational for studies of experimental literature. 

  26. See Craig J. Saper, Networked Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). 

  27. For the relation between art and culture at 1964 Olympics and Japan’s stake in the world order see Noriko Aso, “Sumptuous Re-Past: The 1964 Tokyo Olympics Arts Festival,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 10, no. 1 (March 1 2002): 7–38; Namiko Kunimoto, “Olympic Dissent: Art, Politics, and the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964 and 2020,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 16, no. 15 (August 1, 2018): 5. 

  28. See the film Aru wakamono tachi (Some young people) released just before the Olympic games. Nagano Chiaki and Midori Yoshimoto, “Some Young People – From Nonfiction Theater,” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 17 (2005): 98–105; Midori Yoshimoto, “Off Museum! Performance Art That Turned the Street into ‘Theatre,’ Circa 1964 Tokyo,” Performance Paradigm, no. 2 (March 2006): 102–18. Also see Biesenbach et al., Yoko Ono, 81, 100–101. 

  29. These scores were first written in English for events in New York City. Some of the scores that make up Grapefruit were written for Ono’s Chambers Street Loft series in 1960 and 1961, and others were first written for her exhibition Paintings and Drawings at the AG gallery in 1961, which I will discuss in this essay. Biesenbach et al., Yoko Ono, 58; Christophe Cherix, “Yoko Ono’s 22 Instructions for Paintings,” The Museum of Modern Art Magazine, May 2019,

  30. This is what is known as the “reverse course” – when leftist labor trends were halted, tens of thousands of workers were dismissed for supposed communist sympathies during the “Red Purge,” and the U.S. agenda in Japan embraced economic recovery foremost; this began in late 1947. Eiji Takemae, Inside GHQ: The Allied Occupation of Japan and Its Legacy, trans. Robert Ricketts and Sebastian Swann (New York: Continuum, 2002); John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, (New York: Norton, 2000). 

  31. Aso, “Sumptuous Re-Past,” 8. 

  32. For a comparison of post-World War II Japanese Scientific Method and Taylorism, see William M. Tsutsui, Manufacturing Ideology: Scientific Management in Twentieth-Century Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 11, 239. 

  33. For example, “STOMACH PIECE,” which reads in English “Count the wrinkles on each other’s stomach./ Put a canvas on the wall of your/ bed room…” does not include “your bedroom” in the Japanese text; in the Japanese version of “PAINTING UNTIL IT BECOMES MARBLE” white and gray are included in the colors you may ask visitors to paint over where the English just suggests black ink. Dates, though included in English pages, are not included in the Japanese versions of scores. Translations Yuki Obayashi, personal conversations and email, January 2022; Ono, Grapefruit

  34. Ono, Grapefruit

  35. Ono, Grapefruit

  36. See Kristine Stiles, “Survival Ethos and Destruction Art,” Discourse 14, no. 2 (April 1, 1992): 74–102; Brigid Cohen, “Ono in Opera: A Politics of Art and Action, 1960-1962,” ASAP/Journal 3, no. 1 (February 17, 2018): 41–66. 

  37. Ono wrote the instructions in English, translated them into Japanese herself, and then asked Toshi Ichiyanagi to write them out in the Japanese language. As Ono herself explained, “to make the point that the instructions were not themselves graphic images, I wanted the instructions to be typed. But in those days, regular typewriters for the Japanese language were not available. Only professional printers and newspapers had typesetting machines. So I thought of the next best thing, which was to ask Toshi Ichiyangai to print out the instructions by hand.” Yōko Ono, Instruction Paintings (New York: Weatherhill, 1995), 5–6; Munroe and Hendricks, Yes Yoko Ono, 78; Biesenbach et al., Yoko Ono, 84. 

  38. Thomas Kellein, The Dream of Fluxus: George Maciunas: An Artist’s Biography (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 98–102. 

  39. Ono, Grapefruit

  40. The Japanese language omits the subject and this grammatical feature assists translating the scores. They are made to circulate between language as well as media; in our conversations about translating the scores, Yuki Obayashi made the observation that the Japanese scores in Grapefruit seem to have English in mind. Obayashi personal conversation, January 2022. 

  41. See Jonathan Flatley, “How A Revolutionary Counter-Mood Is Made,” New Literary History 43, no. 3 (November 8, 2012): 503–25. 

  42. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. (New York: Zone Books, 2017), 39. 

  43. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate, 83. 

  44. Ono mentions this origin story many times, but I believe the first time she recounts it in print in relation to her art is in “To the Wesleyan People.” Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings

  45. Ono, Grapefruit

  46. Hong, A Violent Peace, 6. 

  47. “Supply,” in OED Online (Oxford University Press), accessed April 22, 2020,

  48. Audre Lorde, “Learning from the 60s,” in SOSCalling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader, ed. John Bracey Jr, Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 657. 

  49. Hong, Death beyond Disavowal, 7. 

  50. Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?, 5. 

  51. Hong, Death beyond Disavowal, 12. 

This essay was shaped through years of collaboration and conversation. Thank you to Yuki Obayashi for her translation and insight, Davy Knittle and Knar Gavin along with the members of Poetry & Poetics Working Group at University of Pennsylvania for asking difficult questions early on, Virginia Jackson and the UC Irvine Poetics | history | Theory lecture series for summoning another iteration, and to Candice Amich, Jessica Berman, Craig Dworkin, Sarah Fouts, Andy Hines, Tania Lizarazo, and Stephen Pasqualina for reading previous attempts at this argument. Finally, I am grateful to Sarah Dowling, Jane Malcom, and the two anonymous peer reviewers for Amodern, all of whom generously led the essay to further clarity.

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