Understanding Magic (Essay)

Published on Monday, October 25, 2010 in , , , ,

Starting Points

Let's start at the top. What is magic? Oops, way over the top. I'll try again. What is the ART of magic? I'm looking for a dictionary definition that's broad and all-inclusive, but not so broad that it includes anything which clearly isn't performance magic. We're not concerned here with the various styles, performers, designers and the differing tastes therein, but the field itself.

In his recent book set “The Art of Astonishment”, Paul Harris refers to magicians as “guides to astonishment”. Rewording this to apply to magic itself, we write the definition as “a performance of guided astonishment”. Hmm, this could apply to faith healers and even some con artists too. Their goal, however, is more the money that they can get out of such acts. Including this in the definition as “a performance in which the spectators are guided to a state of astonishment as a goal in and of itself”.

Magic is usually done as entertainment, so this should probably be included. What about magic that is done to teach concepts or to highlight a point? Instructional magic strays from our original point of magic as art, so it will not be included here. So what do we have now? “an entertaining performance in which the spectators are guided to a state of astonishment as a goal in and of itself”

Juggling is entertaining, often include moments of astonishment, and that's often the goal itself, so how does magic differ? Juggling, while difficult, doesn't progress into the realm of the impossible. So, the definition we have now is “an entertaining performance in which the magician portrays achievements that are perceived by spectators as having no possible explanation so that the magician may guide them to a state of astonishment as a goal in and of itself”.

Some may bring up the idea of performing difficult, but not impossible acts, such as dealing ideal bridge or poker hands to include in our definition. I believe that most audiences perceive such difficult or unlikely acts to be done by skill. For purposes of this discussion, I'll stick strictly to the ideal of the impossible. Having said this, I think we can consider our definition complete. OK, it sounds overly-scholastic, and for our purposes, “guided astonishment” will probably suffice most of the time, but at least we can now start from common ground.

Speaking of starting points, what is the “starting point”, the origin, of the art of magic itself? To answer that question, we'll have to go back even before magic was perceived art. Since magic is often jokingly called “the second-oldest profession”, this will go back quite far.

Obviously, any origin which predates recorded history, as magic's origin does, will ultimately be only theory. I'll simply have to go with modern theories where facts are not verifiable. The most popular theory today is that as soon as man realized he could deceptively perform the impossible, he began to do so in order to gain power and status over his fellow men. This theory, however, is less accepted today.

Eugene Burger, a Chicago magician, has pointed out several flaws in this theory. The two most astute observations are:

1) At this point in history, humans were still nomadic tribes of hunter gatherers, whose very survival depended on acting as part of a group. Individual status had no function in this lifestyle.

2) If deception was done to gain status, why were so many early practitioners (at least those that we have records of) kept apart , or even outright ostracized, from the group?

What theory is slowly gaining acceptance in it's place? A shamanism origin has been proposed. Shamans had a better understanding than the other of the phases of the moon, the effect of the sun on the seasons, medicinal herbs, and so on. Notice that all the knowledge is, from a hunter-gatherer's point of view, wholly practical. Because there was an understanding of these areas, yet little or no physical control of them, the shaman's specialized applications of their knowledge tended to be ritualistic.

This theory claims that magic itself was not so much a healing tool as evidence of the shaman's qualifications. The magic was not only to assure the sick (and their loved ones) they were in good hands, but also apparently offered as a unique diversion for observers. Even the early hunter-gatherers couldn't spend all their time on the basic survival and reproductive instincts! It's these curious observers of the shaman whom I truly believe were the first witnesses to magic as an art.

Although many believe that magic at this point was simply hallucinogenic visions, magic historians think it's more likely that early sleight-of-hand or other physical magic was used. Visions were originally theorized because of the close and varying, natural conditions in which magic was performed. Any modern close-up magician can tell you that this is not a limiting factor.

When the agricultural era came, and the first civilizations appeared, magic is believed to have made the full split. The ritualistic healing itself became the province of priests and spiritualists, and the performance aspect became a separate art. Many ancient civilizations have records of “Cups & Balls”. The fact that so many cultures had records of this effect suggests that it's a holdover from the shamanistic/nomadic days. It also suggests that shamans would exchange ideas when they'd run into the occasional friendly tribes. Wow! Prehistoric magic conventions! (The closing act of choice? Jay Marshall & “Lefty” )

Surprisingly, even at this early stage, the word “magic” hadn't come into being yet. Impossible feats were simply described as the performer's “practices”: Descriptions included “shamanistic practices”, “acetabularii” (figuratively translated: practitioners of Cups & Balls), and so on. The word itself came in the 6th century B.C.. A group of priests from Iran arrived in Greece. The ancient Greeks referred to these priests as “magoi” (singular - magos). This word came into Latin, and eventually into English as magi (singular - magus). The priests were interpreters of omens and dreams. The Greeks saw this as evidence of unusual powers, and called their strange acts “magic”.

Throughout most of the agricultural era (talk about a looong history!), magic was mainly used by the priests and spiritualists. From these civilizations up through the 19th century, little actually changed. Most magicians up through the 18th century still wore the long, flowing robes of ancient civilizations. Shortly after the dark ages, Italians (Jonas, Androletti, Carlotti) seemed to be finest exponents of the art of magic. In 1584, the first English magic book, “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”, was published revealing many of the conjuring tricks of the day (as well as these days).

A German physicist named Dobler, in 1840, devised what was to become modern sleight-of-hand. It was also around this time that Alexander Hermann, Bautier de Kolta and Robert-Houdin brought the art of magic into it's modern incarnation.

As we continue into the 20th century, most of the major historical points are a matter of public knowledge (thanks to the development of mass media). In the early 20th / late 19th century, magicians performed mainly in vaudeville. Houdini captured the public's imagination with his escapes and showmanship. While there were many great magicians from the '20s to the '60s, the art as a whole seemed to go into hiding, except from the odd theater/TV/movie performance.

Fortunately, Mark Wilson brought it back into the forefront of the public's mind with his regular show, “The Magic Land of Alakazam”, and his later “Magic Circus” specials. In the '70s, a decade later, Doug Henning amazed audiences. Starting in the late '70s, David Copperfield brought his spectacular brand of magic to live and TV audiences around the world.

My intention here was to give you a general overview of the history of magic, so please forgive me for my brief descriptions and large historical leaps. I've also left out something more. You'll note the earlier definition I proposed:

“An entertaining performance in which the magician portrays impossible achievements that are perceived by spectators as real so that the magician may guide them to a state of astonishment as a goal in and of itself”

This definition says nothing about performance styles, performing conditions, the particular artists or so on. This is because the history of the art of magic is still being written. Newer magicians will come along, and change the way we think. As you read this, David Blaine (remember his specials “Street Magic” and “Magic Man”?) may or may not be doing just that. Constant revolution and improvement are probably just what magic needs right now (and forever!).

Mumbo-Jumbo (or: The Vocabulary of Magic)

What do you think of, when I mention the word “magic”? Many people come up with the image of David Copperfield/Siegfried & Roy or a birthday party magician. While these are the most commonly seen forms of magic, there's actually much more to the world of magic.

Before we delve into the various branches of magic, I should mention something about magic in general. Magicians don't like the term “trick”, which is so often applied to what they do. “Trick” suggests a win/lose mentality that professional magicians abhor. Magicians who really believe the goal stated in part 1 of this essay, that of a guiding spectators to astonishment, have adopted the term “effect”. This term suggests that the magician is truly trying to give the spectator a special experience.

The most common way to divide up the various styles of magic is by performing situation. The three major branches of magic are “stage”, “parlor” and “close-up”. I'll describe each of these and their sub-divisions in the following paragraphs.

Stage magic, simply defined, is any magic that can be viewed when performed on a stage. Effects such as the “Chinese Linking Rings” or “Sawing a Woman in Half” are classic stage tricks. The “Sawing a Woman in Half” is a special type of stage magic called “grand illusion”. Grand illusion encompasses any stage magic that involves a human being or anything larger as the object of the magic. It's grand illusion that David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy and Lance Burton perform. In the other, smaller extreme, there's also “stand-up” magic. This is performed on smaller stages, like those in comedy clubs. If you've ever seen the Amazing Jonathan or Paul Kozak perform, you've been witness to stand-up magic.

Parlor magic is performed right on the same floor level as the audience, as opposed to a raised stage. The two most common forms seen today are birthday-party and gospel magicians. Gospel is a special type of parlor magic that is used to demonstrate religious (mostly Christian) concepts. With the replacement of intimate nightclubs by super-mega-nightclubs and comedy clubs, classic parlor magic is rarely seen today. Most of the classic parlor effects have been adapted to stage or stand-up performances.

A very unique branch of magic has developed relatively recently, called “close-up”. While the effects themselves, which are performed in close proximity to the spectators, have been around as long as many stage or parlor effects, they were traditionally done informally as simple amusements for friends and family. Only since the early '60s (about the same time parlor started to diminish), has it become more common for close-up magicians to find formal work at restaurants and dinner parties.

Close-up, like the other styles of magic, has developed it's own individual genres. Currently, the term “close-up” is also used more specifically to describe a show in which spectators gather around a table which is specifically set as the scene of the magic show. Other types of close-up magic are “table-hopping” , “walk-around” and “street magic”. In table-hopping, the magician is employed by a restaurant (or a party host) to perform at diner's tables while they're waiting for dinner. Walk-around is performed at parties without the aid of a table. All the magic happens in the magician's and/or spectator's hands. In large cities, such as New York, L.A. and San Francisco, there are organized places for street performers to weave their magic. Due to the limited locations it's found in, street magic has retained the same sort of “mythos” about it that surely surrounded the early shamans and charlatans.

Cards, coins and other common objects are often the tools for close-up. This form of magic has become increasingly popular due to it's intimate nature. People who have been exposed (or over-exposed) to stage magic believe that almost anything could happen if they're far enough away. Once they've had an impossible act happen right under their nose, or even in their own hands, they experience a new type of astonishment.

While descriptions such as “close-up”, “stage” or “parlor” do much to describe the genre of magic performed, they do little to describe the performing style of individual magicians. If we're to describe the style in which someone communicates anything, it's best to understand WHY someone is communicating their message. Surprisingly, there's only three basic motivations:

NATURAL: The natural motivation drives the artist to recreate real-world phenomena. Details become very important. In magic, this is not only limited to simulating that which is known to exist, but that which has even been suggested to exist. Mentalism, for example, is an attempt to duplicate the “natural” psychic powers of the mind. Giant memory demonstrations, sometimes presented as magic, are another example.

MEANING: In an attempt to convey meaning through art, components of the work are simplified. This is done in order to amplify the importance of the meaning of the work itself. The Broadway show “Ricky Jay and his 52 assistants” was filled with meaning, that of the richness of magic itself (Hey, good topic!). The props involved were, naturally, very simple: Cards, cups, balls and plastic toys.

AESTHETIC: In this type of motivation, no attempt is made to cling to meaning or naturalness. People often ask about this type of art, “What does it mean?” It doesn't mean anything, it is what it is. European magician Steve Sheraton has a good aesthetic act. At various points in his act, he sneezes, causing a 10 foot pole to come out of his nose, sticks his hand through his chest, and gets his jacket to sing.

Few, if any, artistic works stick strictly to anyone of these motivations. Most works are a combination. With these concepts in mind, we can actually use the following chart to graph styles of magic:

(A = Aesthetic, N=Natural, M=Meaning)

Artists whose work comes near the “N” vertex tend to be affected by the beauty of nature. Those near the “M” vertex are affected by the beauty of ideas. “A” vertex works are inspired by the beauty of art itself.

Some artists, like Rudy Coby, stay pretty consistently in one area:

Because Rudy Coby's act is based on comic-book ideas, he rarely attempts to seem natural. While his acts have some meaning, the meaning to him is more like a tool to help justify the comic book world.

Other magicians, like David Copperfield, work in a large area:

Copperfield is charted in such a large area due to his range from meaningful, romantic effects to his more natural/supernatural spectacular effects.

Note that neither approach is wrong. Homing in on a specific area allows you to explore that area in great detail, while performing in a larger area allows you a wider range. Both where you are on the chart, and how wide or narrow an area you commit to working in, is an expression of yourself.

Having discussed the many ways to perform magic, and the various motivations for performing magic, it seems only logical to discuss the various types of “magics”. It's admittedly unusual to hear the word “magic” in plural form, but this modification best suits what I'm about to describe. Magician Robert E. Neale has developed a breakdown of all the types of magics that exist, which offers a unique way of looking at magic. In a book he co-authored with Eugene Burger, entitled “Magic and Meaning” (available through your favorite magic dealer!), there is a fuller explanation of these divisions. So as not to discourage further research, I only briefly describe each type.

First and foremost, there is THE “primary magic” the imagination! Whatever else magic may be, it's a portrayal of something that began in someone's imagination. Hope is both a by-product and a tool of the imagination, which is what makes it so magical. Hope is almost “alchemic” in that it can increase or even create itself with just a little creativity.

The “secondary magics” are those in which the magic is drawn outward from the imagination, into the tangible world. The two types are “ritual” magic and “stage” magic. Ritual is the magic in which the goal is to maintain or improve some aspect of life. This can be anything from an Indian shaman performing a rain dance around a campfire to a Las Vegas gambler blowing on the dice and yelling “baby needs a new pair of shoes!” I am not for a minute suggesting that ritual magic is real or not real. The label merely refers to magic that believes itself to be more than a theatrical presentation.

Stage magic is of the type we discussed earlier in this chapter. Any magic which is performed with the audience aware of the use of deception would fall into this category. The context of this magic is ultimately understood as a diversion. Unlike ritual magic, stage magic is used to portray the imagination, rather than rely on it as a tool.

Mr. Neale make the rather interesting observance that both secondary magics are not as respected as they could be because they've grown too far apart. He suggests that ritual magic could take itself less seriously, and stage magic could take itself more seriously.

The next category is called the reduced magics. This category includes the type of magic which has all the basic elements, but doesn't reach it's full potential for one reason or another. “Detached” magic is a type of ritual magic in which the symbols used have no direct meaning to the person invoking the magic. Going back to earlier gambling example, the gambler more than likely has neither a baby nor need for new baby shoes. As you can see, superstition fits in this category. “Deceptive” magic is a branch of stage magic which is performed only to deceive. This sounds OK, but is done only to fool people, with no premises. We'll discuss the disadvantages of this later, in chapter 4. The final type of reduced magic is “Distractive”. Distractive magic is that which is done only to distract the observers from the day-to-day humdrum world. Deception may not even have to take place! Personally, I consider this to be the noblest of reduced magics, because sometimes a diversion may be just what's needed or desired by the audience in question. If you've ever seen The Amazing Jonathan or Sylvester the Jester perform, you've seen excellent examples of distractive magic.

“Restored” magics are closer to our experiences and views of the world. They use common beliefs and ideals to enhance the magic. Robert Neale suggests that the three basic human needs are survival, meaning and pleasure. This gives rise to the two types of restored magics: Humanistic - for the concerns of survival and pleasure, and Existential - for the concerns of meaning.

Existential magic is quite common (unusually common! <G>) today, such as Copperfield's romantic performances. Humanistic magic, that dealing with our direct experiences, is hard to find. Think about it, where are the magical equivalents of Picasso's “Guernica”? This isn't to say it doesn't exist today. Jeff McBride, a stage magician from New York, performs a great deal of this type of magic, and is leading the way to reintroducing it to magical artists.

The final magic is reflexive or “trickster” magic. This is magic that focus on deception itself. This is not to be confused with the reduced, deceptive magic referred to earlier. The difference here is that the focus is on reminding and informing audiences of the deceptive nature of the performance and (apparent) methods of deception. Gambling displays and “sucker tricks” fall into this category. The ultimate goal of this type of magic could be said to be appreciation of the workings of the imagination itself.

Examining the motivations, the performance styles and the various magics themselves are by no means the only ways to look at magic and magicians. I have, however, found these to be the most useful and thought-provoking methods of magical examination. It can be used t better define other magicians, as well as yourself (assuming you do magic). This brings up an interesting question - what magic of these types appeal to you? What can you contribute to the art of magic? How can you get there? Like any good methods of examination, this exploration has caused us to raise more questions than we answered.

Blood on the Bridge

I can vaguely recall the first trick I ever saw. It was called “Peek-A-Boo”. You know it. A parent holds up their hands or a cloth in front of their face and says “Peek-A-Boo”, and then brings the cloth down and shows their face. What's so magical about that? Think about it from the baby's point of view. Except for it's parents, the baby doesn't recognize or understand much about the world. The only thing the baby really “knows” (and they understand this only instinctually) is that it's senses bring it a complete picture of the world. This is, of course, false, but what if you believed it? If your mom hid behind a towel, your senses would tell you that mom was no longer around. Suddenly, you hear mom's voice say “Peek-A-Boo”, yet your other senses tell you she's not there! Mom puts the towel down, and your senses tell you she's back. Slowly, through repetition of this “effect” (or rather, “game”), you begin to understand that there's more to the world than your senses are telling you. (This is also why you never repeat an effect)

Personally, I've never been to Brazil. My senses have never experienced Brazil itself. Yet, I'm very sure that Brazil exists. I feel very sure that those images of Brazil on TV, billboards, etc., aren't just nice pictures dreamed up by a creative cameraman. In other words, while we experience the world through our senses, they can only give us an incomplete picture of our world at best.

Once we get over that philosophical hurdle in our lives, we have to find a way to compensate for this lack of perception. We tend to do this by labeling things and situations. In other words, we take a set of familiar stimuli and give this a name. Magic becomes possible when we take advantage of the bridge of unconscious assumptions that develop to join people's perceptions of a situation with their labeling of the situation.

If astonishment is the “blood” of magic, then these hidden assumptions are the “veins”. Take Copperfield's “Flying” illusion. For us to take it as flying, he can't have any means of support. Copperfield tackles this assumption on two levels: Visual & Mental. First, he simply flies without visible means of support. Our eyes tell us that he IS flying, and we are astonished. Soon, however, our minds tell us that there MUST be some support, and we just don't see it. Fortunately, Copperfield understands this, and routines the effect to fool the mind as well. Assistants pass hoops over him, and Copperfield even floats inside a glass box, cut off from any POSSIBLE means of support. At this point, astonishment should be the only reaction.

Of course, people's experiences and ways of thinking vary, so some may be astonished and others may not be. That's simply one of the constant challenges of magic.

Having discussed the fact that a magician's goal is the audience's astonishment, and the basic idea behind achieving this goal, the question that comes up is “Why 'astonishment?'” Out of all the forms of self-expression, why magic? Paul Harris has an excellent answer to that one. In his essay in his book series, “The Art of Astonishment”, Paul states that astonishment is our natural state of mind. I disagree with this only slightly. I believe that innocence is our natural state of mind, and astonishment is the reaction to the changing of perceptions.

As we start to accept our limitations and label situations, our world becomes increasingly narrower. Magic takes this world view and shatters some portion of it. Even if it's just for a moment, magic makes you think that there's more to the world than you may have previously thought. All art tries to bring you new perceptions, but only magic does this by trying to directly accessing one's natural state of mind.

Of all those who experience astonishment, some people merely take this as a fleeting experience, others may take it as something deeper. Regardless of the level of astonishment, watching someone accept an astonishing experience that you've given them can truly be the most satisfying moments for a magician. Ironically, in order for the magician, the “astonishment guide”, to create this moment, the chance to experience the wonder itself must be sacrificed. This is why I consider great magicians to be the true “givers” in art. In any other art form, the artist can always view either the work itself or a recording of said work and can see the work with perceptions similar to that of the audience. In magic, however, the magician himself can never really experience the astonishment, because he knows exactly what had to be done to achieve that state in the audience. This isn't to say that the magician never again experiences astonishment, just rarely, if ever, at his or her own work. Sometimes, spectators will astonish the magician simply with an unexpected reaction. “Peek-A-Boo”.

Where Art . . .

We've developed a standard definition of magic, explored various styles in the art, and even asked “Why/how this particular art?”. One thing we haven't discussed so far is where the art itself in magic resides. A common response to this question is the oversimplified, “The presentation is the art.” Let's start with that.

Isn't a well-designed and deceptive method enough? Wouldn't that fool the audience? Yes, and, ironically, that's the problem. Despite the old cigarette ads, it's not fun to be fooled. If an experience is created that isn't readily understandable, with no presentational context whatsoever, the audience will feel, at best, challenged to explain the true circumstances. At worst, the audience will feel that they have been insulted. Either way, the magician hasn't even come close to guiding the spectators to a state of astonishment.

This brings us to the first goal of presentation: To minimize an audience's aversion to the experience of being fooled. This sounds difficult, but the experience of professional magicians, and even the careful studies of trained researchers, have given us reliable methods for achieving just this. For his book, “Your Audience Doesn't Really Like Being Fooled”, Dr. William Nagler actually studied psychological and physiological data from over 50 students (audience members) as they watched magic performances.

Dr. Nagler found only four types of presentation that effectively minimized feeling of antagonism by the audience:

Conspiratorial Attitude: Neither the spectator(s) nor the magician understand how the trick works. Rene Lavand uses this type of presentation when doing his color-changing knife routine. He claims he does it to restore his own sense of wonder, since even he isn't sure how it works. NOTE: This is very different from apparently letting the spectator in on how a trick works, and then pulling the rug out from under him at the end. That approach obviously CREATES animosity.

Distancing: A story is woven around the effect. In this way, the effect takes the appearance of being of another time and/or place. In one routine, David Copperfield weaves a great story about the four-ace trick his grandfather taught him, and how the performance of the trick itself is David's fulfillment of a promise.

Non-Magic: In this approach, the magic isn't as important as the “business”. The by-play, the comedy, etc., are the focus here. The Amazing Jonathan exemplifies this approach. In one of his routines, his assistant (apparently having just seen her paycheck) comes in and spray paints all over the Amazing Johnathan's shirt. The Amazing Jonathan then swallows some bleach and water, and lets the chemical mix spill out onto his shirt. The spray paint is gone! Not one of the more mystifying effects, but it sure is fun to watch.

Triumphant: This is the familiar scenario in which the magician has seemingly goofed up the trick, but manages to pull off a stunning and satisfactory completion. This approach usually requires some acting ability to make the failure seem genuine. In his act, close-up magician Bill Malone shuffles a selected card into the deck. He then spreads the deck randomly around the table. He asks someone to pick up any card and put it into his hand. It turns out not to be the selected card. He apologizes for missing the card, and as he turns his hands over, the selected card is found to be on the back of his hand.

Mike Close, in his discussion of this book in Workers 3, adds two additional scenarios that minimize audience animosity:

Audience Anticipation: Alex Elmsley once suggested that if the audience were allowed to anticipate the climax, they would feel a sense of accomplishment, while still being fooled. Mike Close agrees with this approach with one caveat: The technical requirements should be finished by the time the audience anticipates the climax. There's a classic effect called “the sucker torn-and-restored napkin”. In this effect, the magician simply tears and restores a napkin. The magician then offers to teach the effect, and show how the torn napkin is switched for a whole one hidden in the hand. To add a surprise finish to the effect, the torn napkin is actually restored as well! In the hands of most magicians, this effect comes off as a sucker effect. Doug Henning, however, made it a great behind-the-scenes look at magic, and he lets the audience anticipate the final restoration, so they don't feel suckered.

Blow-Off: Mike Close also suggests that the final effect doesn't have t fit into one or more of these categories. By the time the finale' arrives, and the audience should be well on the magician's side. Now is the chance for the magician to break all the rules and expectations that have been built up in the audience. The goal here is being memorable, rather than minimizing audience hostility. This isn't to say that the magician should completely antagonize his audience throughout the last effect, just that the experience of said effect doesn't have to be as “nice” as the rest of the show. You'll note that David Copperfield's classic final effects (Statue of Liberty Vanishing, Floating Over The Grand Canyon, etc.) have almost none of the aforementioned characteristics, yet they are what Copperfield is known for.

Once the deceptive method has been created, and the audience can enjoy the effect, the magician must then proceed to properly fool them. Magicians have the awesome challenge of having to fool BOTH someone's intelligence and their emotions. In magic vernacular, this is referred to as, “hitting them (the lay people) in the head and the gut”. (Sometimes, when a magician is fooled by an effect, you'll hear them say something like, “Ouch! That hurt!” This is a reference to being “hit” STRONGLY in the head and gut.)

To fool somebody's intelligence, the effect must appear completely logical. When I say “logic”, I don't mean the classic Aristotelian study, but the rules accepted by the viewing audience. The two types of logic that occur in magic are procedural and thematical. Procedural logic emphasizes the fairness of the steps taken to achieve the magical result. Thematical logic gives continuity to the effect and/or act. The audience doesn't have to even be conscious of either type of logical inconsistency. If it's even suspected, there is no experience of magic.

Even if the audience is on the magician's side, and they can't intelligently fathom the method, magic ultimately becomes an art when it reaches the emotions. This is done by using dramatization. To make the audience “feel” the magic, the conjuror emphasizes the visible, the tangible and specific, rather than the symbolic or the general. Perhaps you've seen the mattress ad where they talk about how, even if someone on one side of the bed moves, the other side of the bed is completely still. How do they drive the point home? Do they quote charts and studies that prove this is so? No, they set ten bowling pins on one side of the bed, and drop a 20 lb. bowling ball on the other side of the bed. This image has two distinct advantages: 1) It drives the point home in a VERY understandable way, and 2) It makes use of a image that is ridiculous, and will therefore stay in a person's mind.

Modern wizards use dramatization to demonstrate how fair the conditions of the effect are. In one version of the bare-handed cigarette vanish, the magician asks the spectator to hold on to his wrists. All the spectators then realize that it can't go up the magus' sleeves, or into a pocket, or anywhere else, because he's under constant supervision. Even though the means by which the cigarette vanishes may remain the same whether the magician's hands are held or not, the version in which the hands are held will register as a stronger effect, just because of the dramatization. It's interesting to note that many of the presentational touches designed for emotional impact frequently have intellectual impact as well.

There you have it. The three aspects of presentation, the true art of magic. There's no sure fire way for any performer to get the audience on their side, baffle the intellect and finally reach the emotions. Especially while remaining brief and constantly interesting. Maybe that's why magic is called an art, not a science.

Magic and Art

So far, we've dealt with the unique properties of magic itself. Magic didn't simply spring forth as a totally unique experience, however. It does have much in common with every other form of self expression.

If we're going to talk about art as a whole, though, what IS art? Sorry to ask such an overused question, but it does need asking. To answer this broadly, the best definition I've run across is that art is the third of the three human instincts, after survival and reproduction. This human instinct is the one that drives us to express ourselves. The possession of this instinct is also part of what makes us human.

Scott McCloud, who's definition this is, has some of the clearest thoughts on art I've ever seen. While there's no absolute way to divide up a field such as art, Scott's definition at least makes some of the more obscure aspects much clearer and more understandable. What follows is Scott's thoughts on art applied briefly and specifically to magic. I highly recommend his book, “Understanding Comics” (Don't ask why I'm studying comics), for a more complete discussion.

Enough advertising, where were we? Oh yes, art as an instinct . . .

Imagine a man in a bar, trying to pick up a woman (I know it's difficult, but try). He's basically driven by the reproductive instinct. Let's say the woman herself isn't interested in this man and just wants to get away >from him. While her life may not be threatened, she's still driven by the instinct to “survive” in this situation. Maybe she spots another man coming in, claims it's her husband, and walks away (she's survived!). He starts to walk out of the bar depressed. The bartender sends the bouncer out after this guy, because he hasn't paid his tab. When the guy sees he's being pursued by the bouncer, he's now driven forward, literally and figuratively, by the instinct to survive! He just makes it to his car and speeds off, escaping the bouncer. He could now go try and find another date elsewhere (reproduction), or get dinner and head home to sleep (survival), but the first thing he does is stick out his tongue at the bouncer - Art!

Ok, ok, sticking your tongue out may not be anybody's definition of GREAT art, but it does illustrate the definition (remember what I said in the last chapter about ridiculous images staying in people's minds?). If art IS a natural instinct, why would nature provide us with such a pointless instinct as that of expressing ourselves? The first reason is that it lets us break out of the simpler roles that nature cast most other creatures in. Try as we might, we can't simply spend all of our time eating, hunting and procreating. Have you ever noticed that, when almost any pursuit (career, home life, etc.) gets tedious, you try and inject a little creativity?

Self-expression also provides mental and physical exercise for bodies that might not otherwise receive it. Art also helps mental survival by providing a “release” for emotional imbalances. Although probably not one of it's main purposes, the type of random activities that often occur when people attempt to express themselves, can also lead to useful discoveries! The artist, then, is the achiever, creator, explorer and more!

I don't mean to make art sound like a lofty pursuit, as it's often portrayed. Art, by our previous definition, can be something as simple as the flair with which you sign your name. Because art is such a basic instinct, it's very difficult to totally avoid all elements of self-expression. As far as the form of expression itself, it may have no practical value for anyone else. Yet strangely, as we've seen, art is important despite this.

You may be thinking at this point, “What about what we traditionally call ‘Art’? The plays, the paintings in museums, magic performances, etc.?”. In this type of art, the idea is to create an original, creative expression of your personal purpose. This “professional” art, regardless of the form it will ultimately take, goes through the same basic path.This path consists of the following six steps:

1. IDEA/PURPOSE: What are the impulses in question? What are the philosophies, emotions, ideas behind the work?

2. FORM: What form will the work take? Will it be a magic effect, a pot holder, a movie?

3. IDIOM: What genre does the work belong to? Maybe the work creates an entirely new genre! What “school” of art does this belong to?

4. STRUCTURE: How is the work composed? What should be added to the work? What should be left out?

5. CRAFT: How are the skills employed? What practical problems need solving, and what solutions will get the artist nearest to their goal?

6. SURFACE: How can the superficial aspects of the work be fine-tuned? What means of finishing/production values should be employed?

Ideally, the creator of any artwork starts with an idea, and works through the list to the surface details. Remember, I said IDEALLY. In magic, as in other art forms, it rarely works out that way. As a matter of fact, the art is usually pursued in exactly the reverse order.

This is most likely due to the way in which people are attracted to magic, or any art. For example, people of all ages watch magic specials when they come on TV. The great majority of these viewers will simply enjoy the special as it's meant to be enjoyed. Others, however, are more deeply influenced and are attracted to the art of magic as something they want to pursue. So, they make their first visits to a magic store, and start with some of the easier effects.

They learn the basics of magic - keeping secrets, how to keep the methods >from being apparent, and so on. The practice and practice, and keep buying new tricks, but never really delves into the deeper levels of magic. Eventually, for whatever reason, the person gives up any pursuit of magic for other callings in life. This person never goes beyond step 6 - SURFACE - in the art of magic.

Elsewhere, though, there's someone else who wants more out of magic, and studies more advanced techniques: sleight-of-hand, misdirection, subtleties, etc. At the local magic club, they're the hot-shot young kid who can do all the difficult sleights, even the cool ones from the new magic book that just came out. While they may be golly-gee-whiz-bang-great at magic clubs, they may have difficulty getting the reaction they want from a lay audience. They simply perform their favorite tricks in the order they think of them, and simply restate what's going on in their hands (Chicago magician Eugene Burger refers to this phenomenon as “the adventures of the props in the performer's hands”).

This magician's skills can get him work at the local magic shop at this point, but not in any regular performance venue. Still, maybe mastering CRAFT and SURFACE work is enough for this particular magus. Others who have reached this level may not be so satisfied, however.

Imagine a guy whose goal has been to work on a regular basis as a magician. He's learned the basics of magic, and he can handle all the technical requirements, but he's gone beyond this. He works just as hard on presentations and storytelling as he does on any other aspect of magic. He's creating original effects that have a powerful emotional impact. He gets work at say, a restaurant, doing magic for the patrons. He may even be recognized as one of the best in magic. He may even have books, videos or effects available in magic stores.

While he's very happy with his mastery of SURFACE, CRAFT and STRUCTURE, another magician might not be. Let's say there's a stage magicienne who has achieved all this, but worries that she's lost her individual identity, as far as magic is concerned. She breaks out and tries to find new ways to perform magic. She starts discovering her own personal IDIOM in magic, and her work starts to change to suit it. Her new style is noticed by others in magic, and some even start copying this new style, but only on the SURFACE, of course. She may even be starting to get noticed by the general public for her work (which may be good or bad!).

Even magicians who reach this level start to ask themselves: “I've practiced and achieved and am widely respected. Why am I doing all this?” This, as they say, is the $64,000 question. Magicians who ask themselves this question are reaching into who they are as artists. This raises questions which concern aspects of the effects FORM, IDEA and PURPOSE. While there are many possible answers to “Why am I doing this?”, in art there are two basic answers. The magician in question may want to say something about magic itself, or may want to say something about some aspect of life through art. This assumes, of course, that the magician has something to say in the first place.

What if the magicians chooses FORM? This conjurer would be attempting to discover any and all that the art is capable of. The “FORM” artist would be the type who shakes things up, and makes people think about magic (or any other given art) in new ways. Magicians of this type include Rudy Coby, Robert Houdin and Rene Lavand. In other art forms, this category would include Orson Welles (i.e., “Citizen Kane”), Picasso and Stravinsky.

The magi who choose IDEA/PURPOSE as their goal use art as a tool. They deliver their message or tell their story through their art. Invention isn't so important as the message that's to be communicated. Masters of the IDEA/PURPOSE school in magic include David Copperfield, Doug Henning and Robert E. Neale. Other art masters of this school would include Charles Schulz (Yes, of “Peanuts” fame), Charles Dickens and Frank Capra.

Of these schools of thought in art, there is no “best” to ultimately choose. Every work will contain both content and form, it's just a matter of where to place the focus. There doesn't have to be a permanent choice of on or the other, either. The magician, the artist, can change schools of thought as often as he or she changes projects! You'll note that many of the artists listed in the past two paragraphs never stuck strictly to one category or another over their entire careers.

It should be mentioned that this is not a definite path that everyone must take. Different artists will take their art to differing heights. While they may not have to go through all six steps, they will have to achieve the basic steps (i.e. SURFACE, CRAFT) before going any further (on to, say, IDIOM or STRUCTURE). The steps given are intended more as a complete map of the possibilities in art.

However, far an artists chooses to go, their is always one ultimate benefit: Their work inspires a new generation, and the cycle of interest develops again. Performing magic in newer, better, and more effective ways is the best thing that can be done to keep the art alive.

Parting Thoughts

For an essay titled, “Understanding Magic”, I seem to have talked mostly about magic, and very little about the importance of understanding it. Depending on your interests, magic may or may not be worth the effort. If you've made it this far through a magic web page, especially this far through a 6-chapter essay, I'm assuming you think it's worth some effort.

One of the more popular, and believable, themes in magic is that of telepathy. Telepathy effects suggest the possibility of direct mind-to-mind contact. This kind of contact is also what I believe makes magic itself fascinating. Obviously, we can never truly communicate in such a fashion. In this sense, we are “alone”. In other words, the full range and effect of our true thoughts and feelings can never really reach another mind unaltered.

Over human history, we have found various ways of communicating our general ideas - writing, music, painting, magic, movies, and so on. In, say, music, the idea travels from mind to hands (and/or lips) to instrument to air to ear to mind. Writing, on the other hand, travels from mind to hand to pen to paper to eye to mind. This is why they call the means of communication the “medium”. Anything you express will have to travel via the “middle” ground that bridges the gap between minds.

Tracing magic with this path takes us from mind to hand to prop to eye/ear to mind. As I mentioned earlier, no magic effect (or any other form of expression) will traverse this path unaffected. This brings up a unique challenge in magic, which uses the perception of another person as a tool of the trade! Granted, all forms of expression must take another's perceptions into consideration on some level, but magic goes beyond that. Isn't it difficult to communicate to someone's mind when you have to send a false message by subtly taking control of another's perceptions, just to express an initial idea? Yes, especially when you are trying to get them to enjoy the process, and know that the full idea you're expressing will not be fully understood! (Whew!)

Most artists of any type will tell you that any project they develop represents only about 30% or less of what they originally envisioned. This is due to detours made necessary by the medium itself, as well as other real world considerations (money, laws of physics, etc.). While many artists make use of these detours as a choice, it's almost a necessity in magic! If some unusual detour is taken and seen by the audience as just a way to get around some inconvenience, the feeling of magic is lost.

One nice thing about magic, is that it's one of the few forms of communication in which individual voices are still important. TV, advertising, magazines, movies,as well as many other examples, are all ultimately communication of one mass of people to another. Magic welcomes anyone who's dedicated enough to understand and accept it's scope.

We've covered much ground in this essay. I hope I've shown that magic can be an art, and that the art form goes beyond just the performances you witness. Our definition, or any change made to it in the future, will be great for the art as long as it's expansive. Magic's future can be just as rich, if not richer, than it's past, which is also constantly being redefined and rediscovered. We've discussed the various performance styles, artistic motivations, and the varied levels of magic itself. Hopefully, you understand a little more about the nature and the intrigue of astonishment, as well as how to approach that goal.

Before I finish this essay up, you may have realized that I haven't talked about the subject that first comes to mind when the word “magic” is mentioned: THE METHODS! I haven't talked about methods because they are such a minor part of the true art of magic. Whoah! Halt! What?!? Granted, no magic trick would be effective without it, but if the method is the main point of focus, then the magic is being done incorrectly. Even if the method itself is foolproof and invisible, if the audience is searching for the method rather than enjoying the gift of astonishment, the art is not there.

You'll also notice I use “methods”, rather than “secrets” as my word of choice. This is because I believe the true secrets of magic can never be taught in the traditional way, but only learned by personal experience, observation, and hard work. These secrets can never truly be exposed.

While reading this essay, I'm sure the thought has passed through your mind: “Scott, what makes you think you know everything about magic?” I don't know everything about magic, nor is this essay intended as the be-all and end-all of magic. This is simply an attempt to put my understanding of magic down on pape . . ., uh, website, as I understand it TODAY. I've only studied magic seriously for the last 10 years, and I know that I have much, much more left to learn! Perhaps you understand magic in a completely different, but equally valid way. If so, or you have any other comments, constructive criticisms, or questions concerning this essay, feel free to e-mail me (See address under Site Information at the bottom of the rightmost column)! I'd enjoy hearing from you!

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