Veteran Feminists of America


Music, art, innovation, peace: Yoko Ono presents 2012 Courage Awards for the Arts
by Edward M Gomez

The recipients of The Courage Awards for the Arts 2012 are:
Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar
Sabine Breitwieser & Jenny Schlenzka
Kate Millett
Carolee Schneemann
Martha Wilson

Kate Millett with Yoko Ono at Yoko Ono Lennon’s Courage Awards 2012 event at The Modern, New York City, February 26, 2012.

NEW YORK – At a private dinner gathering yesterday evening at The Modern, a restaurant on the ground floor of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) building on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, multimedia artist Yoko Ono Lennon presented her 2012 Courage Awards for the Arts to the Nazareth-based violinist and music teacher Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar, a co-founder of the Polyphony Foundation, a music-education organization whose mission statement notes that it “believes in the power of music to spark conversations and bridge the divide between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel.” Ono also honored the artist, human-rights activist and author Kate Millet, whose ground-breaking book, Sexual Politics (1970), offered a probing critique of patriarchy in Western society and culture; the feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann, who famously used her own body as the subject and raw material of her work; the performance artist and founder of New York’s Franklin Furnace Archive, Martha Wilson; and the museum curators Sabine Breitwieser and Jenny Schlenzka. Breitwieser is currently the chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. Schlenzka is an associate curator at MoMA P.S. 1, the branch of the museum in Queens that focuses on contemporary-art programming.

Breitwieser and Schlenzka had organized a public reading at MoMA last November of a portion of the transcript of the U.S. military tribunals that took place during the latter part of the Bush-Cheney administration at the American naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba. On Ono’s website, Imagine Peace, Breitwieser recalls that, after arriving at MoMA last fall, she had “wanted to emphasize performance as a collective and participatory project.” With that goal in mind, she “thought it would be interesting to examine if a public action or performance [could] create a ‘collective experience’ and a ‘collective memory’ among the performer(s), the audience, the space and the organizing institution.” Breitwieser notes that, in fact, the written record of the tribunal proceedings did seem to take on a new character when it was publicly “performed.” The reader-paticipants in last November’s event told her and Schlenzka, who had worked as a curator in the field of performance art before at MoMA, that, as Breitwieser puts it, “while reading the text[,] something happened with it[;] it turned into something else.”

Ono has explained that she created her annual awards as a way to “recognize artists, musicians, collectors, curators, writers—those who sought the truth in their work and had the courage to stick to it, no matter what. And with this courage, I see an avenue to peace. Each year, I choose several recipients to honor their work as an expression of my vision of courage.”

In accepting her award, Schneemann noted that, because Ono’s prize comes from one artist to another, for her it seems to honor “the grandeur of intimacy” that artists share and cherish among themselves in a community in which new ideas are always percolating. “Just keep doing it!” Ono replied, referring to Schneemann’s often controversial art-making, in which the frequently naked female body has played a symbolic role as both a laboratory in or a battleground on which ideas about artistic creativity and various notions of power have been played out.

Wilson, who founded the Franklin Furnace Archive in downtown Manhattan in 1976 as an alternative kind of museum and venue for performance art and other new, ephermeral art forms, with which mainstream institutions could not or would not keep up, recalled hearing Ono’s screaming against pounding rock rhythms and experimental vocalizations in moody sound collages on her 1970 record album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. “I was a young woman from a conservative, Quaker family in Pennsylvania,” Wilson remembered. She added, with a mixture of seriousness and irony, “I heard you scream, and that scream expressed all the frustration I had long felt for having been born female—and inspired me to overcome it and not be afraid to pursue my own life as an artist.”

Later during the evening, Ono told me: “These awards are very meaningful to me. I’m deeply inspired by all the honorees—by their courage, their determination, their spirit. In their own ways, they’re all working for peace.”