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Laughing in the Museum is Allowed

Bill Radke

Michael May

My Cage (Silence for Cellphone)
(Jonathon Keats)

Jonathon Keats: It seems to me apt that the [Stephen] Colbert portrait should be between the men's and women's room. The urinal of Marcel Duchamp came out of the restroom, and to bring this portrait right back in, or as close as you can get, is a way of bringing the humor full circle.

It effectively not only brought into question, "What is art?" but also, "Who are our icons?" and, "What is important to us?" The National Gallery is seen as the epicenter of our most important figures, our heroes. Yet, at the same time, it's also a black-box situation. We don't know how pieces go into that museum, or why they're there. For Colbert to go and say to the administration, "Well, why can't I be there too?"--it's a very interesting way to open up the conversation. And not only that, it's a very interesting way to ask whether the people that we usually think of being significant are really as significant as those who we might otherwise denigrate. TV personalities, or actors playing TV personalities in the case of Colbert.

Jonathon, there are a lot of serious statements to be made. Why should art be playful?

Keats: Humor in art has a way to make art accessible, to bring people into the conversation that otherwise wouldn't be. And this can be seen in the fact that so many people are coming to the National Portrait Gallery that have never come before. In essence it puts them in the role of playing along. It's a form of play, not only in the realm of art, but also in the larger realm of American identity.

You've had a lot of fun in your work. You distributed a cell phone ring tone of John Cage's 4-33, which is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

Keats: Actually it was a digital remix of that.

Oh - a remix.

Keats: Yes. It was pure digital silence. Unfortunately, Cage didn't have the opportunity to work with pure silence. You used to have to go into a big auditorium in order to experience it. This is a way to take it out of that context and spread it through the world, just as the world gets more and more noisy.

So, if I am going to a museum this weekend, how can I make the experience more playful?

Keats: Taking nothing seriously, even work that takes itself seriously, especially the labels on the wall that take the institution seriously. Taking all that and tossing it out. And looking at the work obtusely. Looking at the work with utter and complete freedom to interpret it however you want. That is the essence of play, really making the museum your own. It will not only elevate the work, because it will make the work meaningful. But it will also elevate you in a way you never thought, because you thought it was all just a joke.

I'm going to play your John Cage ring tone during our next piece. Listeners will be able to hear both at the same time.

Keats: Oh good! I hope it isn't too distracting.

Me too.

  • Music Bridge:
    The Suns Gliding!
    Artist: Tom Verlaine
    CD: Around (Thrill Jockey)

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