I’d like to start my visit to Art21 with a close reading of a favorite artwork of mine: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s War Is Over! slogan. This work relates to many of my current preoccupations, and will hopefully serve as a good introduction to the other subjects I will be covering in the next two weeks. Specifically, I am interested in this work’s aspirations towards presence and how, over the course of the past 40 years, this presence has been revealed to be contingent in various ways. I’ll be breaking up this post into two parts for brevity’s sake, with the first post focusing on the slogan’s original context and function in 1969-70, and the second examining its material reappearance as a postcard in 1970, 2002, and 2007 (1).
To be clear, many art practices of the 1960s and 70s aspired towards a kind of presence. For example, Michael Fried’s famous 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” lays out the terms and stakes of an anthropomorphized presence in minimalist art. We can see these aspirations in pop art too, as Clement Greenberg implies when he discusses how presence can be achieved through both “size” (e.g. minimalism’s human scale) and “the look of non-art” (e.g. pop’s commercial design) (2). Indeed, in hindsight, it is interesting to compare minimalism’s gestalt with Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola gestalt, in which “all the Cokes are the same, and all the Cokes are good” (3, 4). Finally, it is possible to see this aspiration in the direct linguistic address of conceptual art of the period, as well (5).
In their 1969 slogan, “War Is Over! (If You Want It) Happy Christmas from John & Yoko,” the artists approach presence through a combination of the pop advertisement and conceptual art’s linguistic address (6). This combination conflates the existential responsibility of individual choice with the consumer’s buy/not-buy binary. The slogan also plays upon the utopian longing that animates all advertising, in which a commodity promises to solve life’s problems. This blending of the sacred and the profane might strike one as unexpectedly cynical, and it is possible to further draw this out through an examination of the slogan as discourse. For this, I turn to art historian Janet Kraynak’s excellent essay, “Bruce Nauman’s Words” (7).
For Kraynak, the personal pronoun and present verb tense of the slogan’s direct address signal that we have entered what linguist Emile Benveniste calls discourse: “the subjective, lived time of language – as opposed to ‘history,’ which isolates [language] from the subject and from the ongoing rhythms of time.” As discourse, then, the slogan’s address creates a situation in which “each subsequent viewer represents another potential ‘you,’ produced at the time of encounter.” These moments are “infinitely repeatable,” creating the desired effect of eternal presence (8).
However, understanding John & Yoko’s slogan in terms of Benveniste’s discourse has unexpected implications. For if it is now possible to have the word “you” describe each subsequent viewer, the word “war” must now also describe current and subsequent conflicts. Thus, although War Is Over! was produced as an idealistic response to the Vietnam War, the slogan’s lack of a specific referent implies the eternal continuance of war, the very thing John & Yoko ostensibly want to end.
It is this paradoxical simultaneity of idealism and cynicism, agency and powerlessness, presence and contingency that elevates the work beyond propaganda. Indeed, in its contradictions, this simple slogan elegantly evokes the human condition. As John Lennon said in response to the campaign’s perceived naïveté, “We keep on with Christianity although Christ was killed, and it’s the same thing” (9).