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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Food for thought » » Magic: handicapped as an art form? (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

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Big Daddy Cool
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On 2007-04-21 02:46, Scott F. Guinn wrote:
I think we have to be careful about "adding meaning" to magic. Don't get me wrong. magic should have meaning. But IMO, it should have its own inherent meaning. I have not exactly been quiet on these forums regarding my own opinions about those performers who take a 30-second 2-coin transposition trick and turn it into a 20-minute "deeply meaningful story about life, death and what happens after and between the two," to the point where you've forgotten there WERE two coins, much less what colors they were and which was where. To me, that is not art, that is the antithesis of art.

I had the great privilege of seeing Tommy Wonder do his stage act in person. He did the routine silently to music, and there were no "messages" or "hidden meanings" in the act. It was not only moving and beautiful, it may well have been the closest thing to perfection I've ever seen in any art form. I could say about the same regarding seeing Shimada's act for the first time.

I don't think "the focus on literalism" handicaps magic as an art form. I think that a whole lot of really bad magicians who think they are "magicians" because they bought five tricks are what handicaps magic as an art form.

The highest compliment I've ever been paid came from a very talented artist--a painter. After seeing me perform, he asked me if we could talk, "one artist to another."

It is no secret to anyone who has been a member here for long that I often disagree with Scott on this very issue. At one point in my career I would have agreed wholeheartedly, but somethings have happened to me to make me realize that magic is so much more than special effects. Actually, let me qualify that statement, magic tricks are theatrical tools to tell a story, make a statement, or to educate and/or instruct.
In my book Theatrical Magic, The Book (now available from Leaping Lizards Magic) I discuss in length how I arrived at my current belief, and why it is important. I think it is a valuable resource for anyone struggling with this issue, and Scott, I would recommend that you read it too. Not to change your mind, but to help you see where I and many others are coming from.
David Parr, Eugene Burger, Robert Neale and Eugene Poinc have all found ways to blend artistic and commercial expressions of magic successfully. Jeff McBride has also done so. His stage performances are so layered with symbolism and meaning it becomes a fascinating exercise to just sit and peel the layers away. Who isn't moved by Jeff's Rainmaker routine? That is a commercial magic routine that is laced with symbolism and commentary - far more than a trick, it becomes high art.
Since David Parr mentioned it, I am going to pick up Magic Mirror as well. I for one am looking forward to digging into it!



Quote:
On 2007-07-03 11:03, erlandish wrote:
David,

I've had a chance to digest the theoretical portion of the Magic Mirror and am halfway through the suggested routines that embody Neale's ideas. There's some really great stuff in there. Thanks for the recommendation.

That said, I'm still stuck on the original chestnut. The routines involve a lot of symbols and metaphors that relate to the human condition, but I'm still curious about whether or not the routines cross over from allegory into art. Perhaps that's even the wrong question to ask, I don't know. I'm most familiar with Eugene Burger's forays into this approach to magic, and almost certainly a lot of what he does FEELS like a work of art... It's definitely loaded with meaning and style, feels like an aesthetic object, and so forth... But if we take as premise that an allegory does not necessarily qualify as art, what is it that helps Burger's work transcend? Is it "artfulness" that does it?

For instance, I pull out a red ball. I say, "This red ball represents the frailty of existence. All it takes is seemingly nothing to make it disappear." [retention vanish] "Thank you and good night." I've got an allegory. Presentationally, it's junk, but it's still technically a metaphor about the human experience.

What's the gap between the red ball vanish and one of Burger's best routines? In bridging that gap, do we also cross over from mere allegory into the realm of art?

This took me back to my university days when an idea popped in my head that, since the question of "Is X art?" is basically unanswerable, maybe it's better to look at it differently. I came to the idea that perhaps what's important is whether or not the creator/communicator wants it to be evaluated as art -- in essence, the creator/communicator gets the luxury of being the sole arbiter as to whether or not what he or she has done is art. What he has almost no control over, however, is whether or not it happens to be good art -- to be good, it must effectively communicate, and only the communicated party can make that assessment. That theory is undone the moment there's one troublemaker in the art community who creates a wonderful painting that everybody thinks is a masterpiece filled with metaphorical richness, at which point he declares that it's not art but just a piece of junk he one-offed while on opium or something.

Blah blah blah blah need sleep...

Again, I've had many disagree with me about this, but one definition of art (and the one I subscribe to) is that a work evokes a desired, specific and intentional emotional response from the audience/viewer. If an artist can cause that desired response, then he has successfully created art. If not, then he may still have a cool performance piece or painting, but it fails to become art.
We'll catch ya on the Back of the Cereal Box!
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erlandish
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On 2007-07-03 12:04, Big Daddy Cool wrote:
Again, I've had many disagree with me about this, but one definition of art (and the one I subscribe to) is that a work evokes a desired, specific and intentional emotional response from the audience/viewer. If an artist can cause that desired response, then he has successfully created art. If not, then he may still have a cool performance piece or painting, but it fails to become art.


My reservation with this idea is this sort of scenario. I charge you with a chainsaw. I evoke the desired, specific and intentional emotional response of pure terror. Am I an artist?

Something less drastic. I say something cruel to my girlfriend. In a desire for revenge, she sleeps with my best friend. I find out about it, and feel heartbroken, just as she desired. Is she an artist?

From a different standpoint... Two people are watching a magician levitate a rose, only one happens to be right next to him, and the other is watching it in a videotaped recording. Each evokes different emotions because one person can write off the experience as a camera trick, whereas the other cannot. This, even though both people are watching the exact same thing. Is it only a work of art for one of those people?
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Big Daddy Cool
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Well, this definition only applies to visual and performance art (including audio, video and film). It does not apply to random acts of human existance.

For the rose scenario the answer is obvious - is there only one desired response?
We'll catch ya on the Back of the Cereal Box!
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karbonkid
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With art you cannot plan on a desired response. You can aim for it, but, I think you will seldom achieve your desired response from every audience upon every performance. Painters do not do it. Actors do not do it. Magicians do not do it. But that will never mean what these people do is not art.
Whit Haydn
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Marketing and Propaganda seek to elicit a "desired response."

Art seeks to reveal some truth about how humans experience reality, and let the audience respond as it wills.

Thrills, chills and laughs are what entertainment-oriented audiences pay for, so the wise artist offers that as well--that is showbiz and marketing.
Big Daddy Cool
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I agree with all. I just said that was the definition I subscribe to.

Whit - Theatrically, if magic is presented correctly the audience will get those things. Meaning doesn't have to be some sobering downer. It can come in all forms. Your performances certainly prove that to be true...
We'll catch ya on the Back of the Cereal Box!
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Whit Haydn
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Of course not! The Wizard of Oz and Santa Claus, Dr Lao, Dr. Who, Prospero and many magical characters are funny or fun--as well as interesting and meaningful.
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Hi erlandish. Sorry I haven't checked into this discussion for a while; I've been very busy with a new show. I'm glad you picked up The Magic Mirror and that it has stimulated further thought along these lines. I had a feeling it would be your cup of tea! I think you summed up the uncertainty of artistic expression very well: The artist has an artistic intent, and whether or not the audience understands or appreciates that intent is out of the artist's control. That's the nature of the beast. That said, I think that more of the symbolic content of magic gets through to the audience than we magicians realize or are willing to acknowledge.

I don't think allegory is necessarily a separate thing from art. In the middle ages, art was practically ALL allegory, religious allegory. For a contemporary example of effective artistic expression in the form of allegory, see the movie Pan's Labyrinth.

When Marcel Duchamp started the Found Art movement, based on the concept of everyday objects taken out of their normal context and placed in an artistic context, it sparked a major debate about what constitutes art. One can go around in circles forever with such questions and debates. It's great to consider these questions, because thinking about them is good exercise, but we should be careful that they do not interfere with our ability to get the work done -- that is, to make what we make (call it "art" if you wish) and send it out into the world.
Big Daddy Cool
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On 2007-07-03 15:06, Whit Haydn wrote:
Of course not! The Wizard of Oz and Santa Claus, Dr Lao, Dr. Who, Prospero and many magical characters are funny or fun--as well as interesting and meaningful.


Whit - I was agreeing with you...
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Whit Haydn
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I was agreeing with you emphatically. Smile
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Quote:
On 2007-04-21 01:56, erlandish wrote:...
I was wondering what people thought about whether or not magic's literalism is handicapping it as an art form...


There is an iconic dimension to literalism which permits the audience to relate the events to their experience as metaphor. Such is far from a handicap.

There are also extra dimensions to conjuring as an art which permit the performer to bring in any idea from any other field into the universe of discourse within a performance. How wonderful to have implicit permission to spin a yarn from quantum mechanics, everyday life, Greek Mythology and the very act of spinning a yarn withing the performance of a trick we all do... the torn and restored thread... if we so choose. Yes quantum chromodynamics, the fates and by implication the nature of our lives as stories we tell ourselves, tell others, as told by others are there to spin, to weave and when a whole cloth is woven, to display.

Handicapped? Mostly by those who would use a wand as a crutch IMHO.
...to all the coins I've dropped here
erlandish
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On 2007-07-03 12:52, Big Daddy Cool wrote:
Well, this definition only applies to visual and performance art (including audio, video and film). It does not apply to random acts of human existance.


Something less random, then... A documentary allows us to follow the life of two disadvantaged youths as they try to find personal self-realization through basketball. The documentary elicits joy at the success and tears at the setbacks. Is that documentary art?

The point of the floating rose is that it encapsulates my argument. All other things being equal, if you're at a live show, the magic is stronger. If it's taped, the magic is weaker. If you're watching a stand-up comedian, the impact might be about the same either way. If you're watching a movie, actually being there and seeing the actors in flesh and blood makes the experience weaker, it's a reminder of the falseness -- it becomes stronger after the filtering of moments. Again, literality trumps meaning.
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Big Daddy Cool
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On 2007-07-03 17:13, Whit Haydn wrote:
I was agreeing with you emphatically. Smile

Ladies and gents Whit and I will be at the bar til 2 AM - drinks are on us!

How's that for meaning?
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enginemagic
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It's all in how you do it, putting a good story with the routine can make it good as I have learned the past months. The video I made of my first show last week, I listened to the audiences reaction on how I talked and showed the trick is important. Getting a little comical seems to work well with many. My gospel magician buddy has good stories to put with his routine. The audience enjoyed that well.
theres a lot to learn out there,many interesting subjects,and hobbies to enjoy
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I think artists create a sense of wonder and magicians do it as well as any other artist.
If there is a single truth about Magic, it is that nothing on earth so efficiently evades it.

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karbonkid
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Tommy,

Some of them 'can' do it as well as any other artists. I still don't think many even bring their game up to even approach something called it art.
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The effect already points to something else. The audience will make the connection on their own, somewhere in that pea sized brain of their's. They don't need some geek in black to spell it out for them. They are not stupid, they have after all let us continue to perform after thousands of years of bad jokes and crappy double lifts, when they could easily have burnt us all at the stake several times over. Some Magi take their symbolic or attempted metaphoric interpretations TOO literally, oh the irony of it all... Relax and have fun! Stop thinking so hard!
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Here, Here, PT! Excellent.

I'm not truly concerned about who is not doing as much as I am with who is. I just want people putting a good product out there. If you love magic and have studied it, it will show in your performance. I just be the best magician I can be, and if that makes other magicians look terrible, or bad, then so be it. They need to step up their game anyway, and stop asking questions like:

"What DL should I use?"
"What are the best effects for standing up?"
"Who is Phil Goldstein?"

Until that happens, which it never will, magic will always, to some degree, be handicapped.
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"We sing about beauty and we sing about truth...at $10,000 a show"
--Dr. Hook

Seriously, the demonstration of an impossible effect is the central convention of the art of magic--not a handicap.

1. The purist theory would state that emotions and meanings should arise naturally from the impossible effect. Beauty and truth are in the magic itself.

2. The artistic theory would state that theater, character, dance, music, and theme can be integrated into the impossible effects as a part of the whole.

3. The entertainment theory would state the comedy or horror, story or spectacle should dominate, that "presentation is everything."

I do not think these theories are mutually exclusive, but the party line these days seems to lie somewhere between number 2 and number 3.
The views and comments expressed on this post may be mere speculation and are not necessarily the opinions, values, or beliefs of Alan Wheeler.
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Whit Haydn
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Kurt Vonnegut said something to the effect, that if you want to know how to judge a painting, you should look at a million paintings--"Then you can never be wrong."

I liked that comment on art a lot.

I also feel that a great painting, or great art of any kind, will "fascinate." It draws you back to it again and again. You never tire of looking at it.

To me, a great magic act is one that you can watch a thousand times, and still enjoy it as much, if not more, the next time. Billy McComb was such a performer.

I could watch him over and over, doing the same acts with the same patter and never be bored. There was something fascinating at the core of his act--the strange old gentleman and how he looked at life, at the world, at his work, and how he treated his audience and volunteers. He was genuinely unique and special.

The character he created for the stage was as indelible as any in literature or theatre. The character is as inseparable from his magic and chicanery as the Professor in the Wizard of Oz is inseparable from his crystal ball, turban, horse-drawn wagon and other claptrap.

There are always several things being communicated at once to the audience--including the "created character" being performed, and the performer playing that character.

How does the magician as a "real magic" character look at his magic, and feel about his powers? How does that influence the way he handles assistants from the audience, his own assistants or stage staff? How does he relate to the power he supposedly has?

How does the performer behind the character feel about the faked magic and how does it impact his relationship to the audience and to the work of magic? The magician is able to create a very complicated relationship with the audience because of their constant or shifting awareness that he is both the character being created, and the creator at once. He can reveal interesting things to the audience about both the hidden and revealed "person." The audience is "fascinated" by the revelations of character and meaning.

All kinds of interesting and thought-provoking questions come into play in any magic act that are of the same kind as that generated by literature and theater.
These arise out of the stucture of the effects produced themselves, and do not need to be "added on" like ketchup to an effect.

One of the most memorable and artistic things I ever witnessed in a magic act is when Dai Vernon did the monte. When he came to the bent corner, just as the audience was ready to pounce on him--but before they had a chance to commit to it--he non-chalantly notices the corner, picks up the card and unbends it, while "casually" revealing that it is not the Ace the audience would have put their last dime on.

This was very gripping for me. Vernon beat the audience twice. He not only fooled them, but he let them off the hook gently--he never allowed anyone to embarrass himself--he was more of a gentleman about winning than anyone in the audience would probably have been.

This generosity and reserve comes from a secure place of power. It is as good a revelation of character as you might find anywhere in literature.

Every magic trick is in itself theater and story. When I ask someone to pick a card, I automatically become the protagonist of a story, and the card-selecting spectator the antagonist. The story is being created as we proceed. There is conflict ("Will he find the card?"), struggle (the spectator wants to shuffle), and hopefully, a happy resolution.

The spectators are assigned a role as participants, as witnesses if nothing else, to an "event." Unlike most other forms of theater, in a magic show the audience are not passive, but active. The performer relates to them and attempts to "prove" something to them.

As a creator, I look into that story and try to direct everything that happens on the basis of my understanding of who the character I am playing is, and how he relates to the procedure and to his audience, as well as on the understanding of who I really am, and what I am really trying to accomplish as a "fake" magician.

How the character addresses the audience, how he handles problems and accidents, how he manages conflict and emotionally reacts to the situations and antagonists in the audience--these are all rich sources of artistic gold.

These are drawn out of the effect itself, and not "added-on."
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