Yoko Ono Lets Audience Cut Up Her Clothes in Conceptual Art Performance (Carnegie Hall, 1965)

Back before it was com­mon prac­tice to pref­ace one’s web posts with the phrase “trig­ger warn­ing” (which, BTW, might well apply here)…

Before the Inter­net…

And slight­ly before the pub­lic rev­e­la­tion of her rela­tion­ship with John Lennon turned a Japan­ese avant-garde artist into an Amer­i­can house­hold name…

Yoko Ono main­tained an aura of imper­vi­ous­ness onstage at Carnegie Hall, as audi­ence mem­bers accept­ed the chal­lenge to cut away her cloth­ing one piece at a time.

This now-famous con­cep­tu­al per­for­mance was doc­u­ment­ed by film­mak­ers Albert and David Maysles, who cap­tured ner­vous laugh­ter and audi­ence com­men­tary along with the onstage action. (Ono had pre­vi­ous­ly per­formed the piece twice in Japan where—with the excep­tion of one man who wield­ed the scis­sors as if intend­ing to stab her—audiences proved ret­i­cent and respect­ful.)

What does Cut Piece mean?

The motion­less­ness Ono imposed upon her­self (and all sub­se­quent per­form­ers of the work) keeps things open to inter­pre­ta­tion.

It’s been hailed as a deeply sym­bol­ic fem­i­nist work and rep­re­sent­ed in the press of the time as an unin­hib­it­ed, inter­ac­tive strip show. Many an aca­d­e­m­ic paper has been writ­ten.

With so much con­trol ced­ed to the audi­ence, even the per­former could­n’t pre­dict for cer­tain whether the inten­tion of the piece would synch with the real­i­ty.

Cut Piece can­not be mis­tak­en for pure impro­vi­sa­tion, how­ev­er. Like John Cage’s 4’33”, it has a score, com­plete with vari­a­tions:

 Cut Piece 

First Ver­sion for sin­gle per­former: 

Per­former sits on stage with a pair 

of scis­sors placed in front of him. 

It is announced that mem­bers of the audi­ence 

may come on stage–one at 

a time–to cut a small piece of the 

performer’s cloth­ing to take with them. 

Per­former remains motion­less 

through­out the piece. 

Piece ends at the performer’s 


Ono has said that the impulse for Cut Piece came from the desire to cre­ate art free from ego, the “men­tal­i­ty of say­ing, ‘here you are, take any­thing you want, any part you want,’ rather than push­ing some­thing you chose on some­one else.”

She also took inspi­ra­tion from a famil­iar child­hood sto­ry about the Bud­dha self­less­ly giv­ing his own body to pro­vide food for a hun­gry tiger. It seems an apt metaphor, giv­en the facial expres­sions of cer­tain audi­ence par­tic­i­pants. Were they fak­ing a con­fi­dence they didn’t feel, or were they just jerks?

Did I men­tion the trig­ger warn­ing?

Doc­u­men­ta­tion, as any per­for­mance artist will tell you, is not quite the same as being there. Reen­act­ments, too, may fall short of the orig­i­nal.

Ono reprised the work in 2003, at the age of 70, not­ing that her moti­va­tion had shift­ed from rage to love, and a desire for world peace.

When artist Jon Hen­dricks per­formed it in 1968, he did so in a thrift store suit, thus ignor­ing its cre­ator’s con­vic­tion that part of its pow­er came from start­ing out in one’s best clothes.

It’s all very ball­sy, and hor­ri­fy­ing, and com­pelling, and a lit­tle hard to watch.

Would you con­sid­er try­ing it in your local library, com­mu­ni­ty hall, or as part of a school fundrais­er?

A longer analy­sis and his­to­ry of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece can be found here cour­tesy of Kevin Con­can­non.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Yoko Ono, Age 80, Still Has Moves, Dances with The Beast­ie Boys, Ira Glass, Rober­ta Flack & Friends

Down­load the John Lennon/Yoko Ono “War is Over (If You Want It)” Poster in 100+ Lan­guages

John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Two Appear­ances on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 and 72

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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  • iamkomombo says:

    I watched ‘Cut Piece’ with the speak­ers turned to silent. I found myself more and more dis­turbed by Ono’s breath­ing as the piece unfold­ed. You can see the breaths becom­ing deep­er and more rapid, the more uncom­fort­able she becomes. It seemed to me to be a very dis­turb­ing but also very brave por­tray­al of the expe­ri­ence of humil­i­a­tion and shame.

  • betsyej.lee says:

    I nev­er saw this piece before.I don“t think I could do it myself!it seems that Yoko ono was pre­sent­ing her­self as sacrifice.that is,to the piece she was doing.I would“ve been able to do it,myself!from:betsye lee

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