Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Deception and Art

Lately, I am filled with all sorts of half-baked, crackpot theories. This, I hope, is a relief for the crack-baked, half-pot theories that are pervasive on some blogs and the message boards around which I lurk. Actually, many of the blogs don’t impart much useful information or even ideas for thought. They are of the “today I blew my nose” and “there is a new movie in my town” or the “look I have nothing to say so I will continue to say it” ilk. The message boards, on the other hand, rate a whole other essay.

Today, I want talk a little more about this magic as art theory.

First, it is hard for me to go with this pretentious “art” idea. I must use the term for lack of a better one. The problem is that until the Victorian era, the idea of a low art and high art did not exist. The terms came to be as class distinctions grew during the 1800s.

America, for its first 60 years or so, acted as if it were a classless society; “all men created equal” and such. The reality was that there were two classes the haves and the have-nots. This became clearer during and after the civil war. The rich could buy their way out of the fighting. After the war, the nation had to deal with the new found equality of the Negroes.

Pre-war, pre-1900, magic was on the same level as all the other performance arts. As America, really the world, approached the turn-of-the-century, the elite of society split the arts into high and low. Let’s take the example of the ballet. I do not believe any now could argue that the ballet is considered a high art. Well you can argue, but you would be an idiot. Ballerinas, before the split, were considered whores because the showed their legs. Now, not so much.

As a notion, art, high or low, comes from the society and usually, but not always, the elite and the critics. It is a divisive term. It does not come from within.

Why, then, isn’t magic accepted by society as a high art? I have already explored several reasons. Answers to questions like these rarely have single easy answers. The answers are numerous and hard.

One of those answers may be the nature of magic itself will always hold it back.

Magic is the only art where deception is the goal. Further, the method of deception is the secret. I hear the argument already, “doesn’t acting require deception?” Well, no, you may believe some one in a character, but they are not trying to deceive you that they are that person.

As opposed to that, magic actively tries to deceive. We are defying the laws of nature, spitting in the eye of god. People don’t like when someone tries to deceive them. In most of art, the goal is to reveal truth. Magic’s goal is to deceive.

I hear the bizarrists and storytellers out there crying foul. Yes, you are trying to show some greater truths about the world in your stories. Yet, you use a deception to convey it. The deception undercuts the truth making it less trustworthy.

Neither do people like secrets being kept from them. We are answer-seeking people, so much so that we look for answers where there are no questions. We look for answers where there are none. We will not loosen our grip on wrong answers, any answers. My mother is a good example. As much as I try to teach her that psychics are not real, she wants to believe. When one is disproved, I hear, “well, I believe some people have powers, but those fakers on TV ruin it for the real ones.” She needs to have the answer of “greater powers” however wrong.

Could it be these components, inherent to magic, that will always hold it back?

Now we can look at two exceptions, each a different side of the magic coin. Several people e-mailed me a video of Jerome Murat from Dailymotion, a YouTube type of video web site. Find the video if you haven’t seen it. This is a very artistic act. I wonder, though, if the audience watching it realizes that it is a magic act or do they see it as a character performance and puppetry. Clearly, deception is not his goal, it is an artifice used to create the character. That artifice is well hidden, also. His secret is kept from the audience, but his deception is a special effect rather than a trick. The audience, entertained, sees art.

Time after time, the name Ricky Jay pops up in my store. When it does, the lay people who bring him up always express their admiration in terms of his high level of art. A while ago, I watched an old Ton Snyder show. The guests were a very young David Copperfield, a very hairy Ricky Jay, and a very Scarne, John Scarne. Ricky Jay performed this effect:

He displayed a shuffled deck and removed the ace through eight of clubs. He turned the deck face down, spread it out, and lost the selected cards in it. The deck was shuffled and cut repeatedly as he produced those cards. After the first eight productions, he continued to produce the balance of the clubs. At the end of which, he showed the deck not to be shuffled, but in numerical and suit order.

In this case, I believe his artifice is an open secret. He does not reveal how he does the trick, but he does show he is doing it with great skill. The audience sees his art in action. It is not hidden. In fact, the impossibility of it overwhelms the audience. He fools them with the trick, but does not keep the secret away from them. The audience, with great admiration for an artist’s technique, sees art.

Perhaps, having only one of the “bad” elements is acceptable to the audience, whereas two elements would be too much for an audience to bear. I am not sure myself.

Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about.

Although, not to the exception of working to be a better performer, that is.

1 comment:

Neil Tobin said...

It's an interesting theory, that the element of deception is the component holding magic back from being embraced as high art. But there are other accepted high arts that utilize illusion.

Pilobolus uses illusionistic techniques in its dance performance. The trompe l'oile paintings of Harnett are intricately designed to trick the eye into mistaking two dimensional images for three dimensional reality. And the fact is, at one time magic was considered a high art.

When I think about why magic is generally no longer held in this vaunted position, I consider this: how many magicians do I know who are trying to express a personal vision through their medium?

That's what an artist does. A painter without a personal vision paints houses. A magician without a personal vision may be an able workman, but he isn't an artist. If we had more artists, then magic would be more worthy of being accepted as a high art.

Beyond that, there's a second question I ask: where are works of acknowledged art performed?

Dance companies and theatre companies perform in theatres and museums. Symphonies and opera singers perform in concert halls and conservatories.

But magicians generally perform in places where acknowledged performers of high art wouldn't dare go. They are at graduation parties and birthday parties and christenings and trade shows.

What about the magicians who perform at casinos and comedy clubs? That brings us to an interesting parallel.

Consider this: perform a comedic monologue in a comedy club, and you're a comic — that's low art. But perform a comedic monologue in a theatre or a museum, and you're Spaulding Gray — that's high art. Context makes a big difference on perception.

Certainly, we can't just get rid of the functional/ceremonial aspect of magical performance, no more than working musicians can just put away all the wedding gigs that pay the bills. But I would suggest that magic needs more visible performers of artistic magic. And it needs that magic to be presented in properly theatrical venues.

Until that happens consistently, the majority of the public will continue to think that functional magic is all there is.