Can Magic be Art New Thoughts

One cannot look at a magic-related Internet discussion egroup notice-board web-forum without seeing the word 'art' bandied up and down the electric super-motorway as if art and magic were two concepts unequivocally equated arid the most well-suited word-companions that one could ever hope to find lumbling with each other in the coats-room at an ideas-party. It seems that through the literature of magicians determined to deem their own magic important and worthwhile, a whole new generation of novices has been born which learns artistic pretensions before an in-jog overhand shuffle replacement. Indeed it would seem to the casual surfer of these virtual fora that the artistic community had recently accepted magic (in particular close-up magic with lots of touching) as a Fine Art and ranks the Sucker Silks along with the opera (and I use the word very cleverly to mean the plural of opus) of Bach.

Such is one extreme. On the other hand, so much as mention concepts of art to the average 'working pro' and he will deem such discussion ludicrously pretentious; after all, magic is about what's commercial, what's loud enough to be heard over noise, what gets the laughs. It is a cralt, he will say, and there is no room for talk of art. lIe will jlidge his success by the nmTlber of bookings taken in a year and little else interests him: he happily performs exclusively the material of other performers (all fairly published I am sure) and spurns any abstract discussion of performance.

Magicians at both extremes seem to miss something, and both groups are potentially just as patronising and risible as each other.

One meets plenty of the latter type, but I wonder how much they genuinely enjoy their work. Presumably they express little with it, and if they do not seek to do so, I imagine that (hey are happy just going out and performing the same routines night after night and counting their cash at the end of the year. Presumably they might as well be doing any kind of freelance work: the magic is an incidental choice of craft. Now I know the importance of business acumen and firmly believe that we should all spend our professional lives making plenty of money from what we enjoy, so I have no quarrel with the canny marketing ability of some of these magicians. But when these people with their sharp suits and unpleasant odour talk of their extensive trade-show work as if it were the pinnacle of performance success, I try to create a distraction and leave. ("Look! Eugene's beard's on fire." or "Look out! Max has got a gun.")

It is a shame that more magicians do not live their magic, (although that does not mean pathologically plucking coins from a shop-clerks' ears each time you pay for something... there is a fine line between wishing to produce child-like astonishment and treating people like infants) and a pity that more do not find a certain romance and delightful wickedness in it, or that joy of taking people to the edge of their models of the world and showing them the chasm beyond. I can only enjoy what magic gives me, and remain utterly delighted that I have nothing better to do with my time than walk around figuring out impossibilities or awakening to find a delivery or two of expensive gadgetry waiting for me on my doorstep.

I suppose we cannot approach magic artistically if we do not possess such a sensibility. To treat it as art in a way that was only fooling ourselves could be immensely odious and rife with pretension. If the artistic world-view is alien to a particular magician, I imagine it a futile endeavour to attempt to convince him that the elusive beauty of art may reside in areas close to his craft. If he remains happy drawing little creative satisfaction from his profession, and if he never experiences the feeling of elevating his performances beyond trickery but knows no different, then so be it. If it just remains a job, or a hobby, and never really means anything to him, then all good luck to him with his endeavour. We must part company amicably.

But for those of us who do approach our magic as having the potential of being art, or at least genuinely artistic, wc have open to us a new aspect of ourselves that constantly grows and challenges us, one which delights and instructs, and one in which we might find a means of imparting our peculiar slant on the world. However, the benefits derived from this approach do not automatically render the practice art. Do those of us who deem magic art merely seek a soothing tonic lot that guilty feeling of fraudulence, which besets any conscientious performer? Does it stem from the desperate cries of ageing magicians who, perhaps, approach the twilight of their careers and worry that their success in the magic world means very little? Are we merely frustrated performance artists trapped in a pedestrian genre, desperately seeking some iiiusion of worth in a trivial pastime? Is this chapter nothing more than the frightened mouth-rubbish of a goateed quack who lears he may be living a terrible lie?

How are we to decide? It is clearly the case that magic does not immediately call out to be recognised as art. We must begin our search for answers by turning to the seminal Our Magic by Maskelyne and Devant, This was the first time that magic theory was set out for the fraternity, and remains, in my opinion, still the best work of its type. The section of the book of most interest to us at this juncture is the first part, in which Nevil Maskelyne carries out an extensive and quite wonderful study of 'The Art in Magic,' which, in his words,

"is a very different thing from "The Art of Magic. The latter term may embrace an immense number of diverse considerations. The former rStes to one side only of magic; a side which has never received the attention it deserves. Our immediate aim is the elucidation of those fundamental principles which, being reduced to practice, justify the claim of magic to be classed among the Arts - not, of course, the mechanical arts, but among the Fine Arts - the Arts with a capital A."

This statement contains a faith in the status of magic that would nowadays easily strike us as misguided. The double-edged proliuicacy of close-up magic arid dealer business, which has both allowed our profession to flourish and be trivialised, has opened the floodgates to enthusiasts who have affected the popular conception of magic for better and for worse. The term 'sleight-of-hand artist' suggests little in the way of creativity and less of gravitas, and indeed the feel of modem close-up magic would seem to be a reaction against an old school seen as pompous and out-of-date. The result is a modem form of entertainment that happily trivialises itself, and would be embarrassed to deat with the issue of art.

What a concept... magic placed amongst the Fine Arts. However, the pride felt by Maskelyne and the sweeping authority with which he makes comments on art and related issues are relics from a Victorian age: one which delighted in grand statements and orgulous, magnificent artworks. We manifested then a pride in our age and a faith in the worth of our constructs, whch I, personally, would dearly love to exist in some form today.

The story today is depressingly different. Art and ideas are disposable: London's grand and everlasting Crystal Palace could never be built in a post-modern world - instead we have a temporary Millennium Dome, built to stand for a while and then be taken away. It was a moving moment for me when the gilded and ostentatious Albert Memorial was uncovered in London a few years ago after being renovated to its former high Vidorian glory. The post-colonial guilt felt by intellectual middle-America has no doubt given rise to some of the wilder excesses of hermeneutic relativism, and we can no longer comfortably make definitive and objective statements about ourselves and the world for fear of oppressing and offending. We may have left behind the mentality that justified slavery and the British Empire, but instead we have veered close to a kind of intellectual nihilism. We have left the workhouses for trendy schools and parenting schemes which would never impose structure and direction upon children for fear of oppressing them with 'discipline.'

Unfortunately for Nevil Maskelyne, we can no longer talk of art in the same way that he does in this magnificent book. Since his writing in 1911 art theory has swung and leapt in various directions, and the complacency of that period is far behind us. It is worth looking at Maskelyne's approach to defining art and the movement of aesthetic theory and the Philosophy of Art over the century to our current situation. Then, perhaps, a new defence can be offered for our owr~ ambiguous times. If we can allow ourselves validly to approach magic as having the potential of art, then we can approach it as more than craftsmen and copyists. In doing so, we can develop creatively and start to express something with our work.

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