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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Magic as art: what the heck is art? (2 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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Profile of George Ledo
Oh my, now I’m really going to tap dance on month-old, un-refrigerated raw eggs... Smile

I’ve been working on a follow-up to my piece on magic as theater, which I’m going to title Magic as Theater II: Spectacle, but in the meantime I thought it would be interesting (in a death-wish sort of way) to look at this thing called art and see what it really is and what it has to do with magic. As usual, since my background is theater and design, I’m going to focus on art from the viewpoint of that world instead of from the viewpoint of a magician.

Art has been defined, discussed, argued, and otherwise examined by lots and lots of scholars and critics over the centuries. So, for me to even attempt to summarize all that material here in a few paragraphs fits into the category of galaxy-class presumptuousness. Therefore, I’ll cut it down to solar-system-class presumptuousness and focus on only one type of art, one with which we are all familiar: paintings.

A painting (say a portrait, or a still life, or a landscape) that’s considered a work of art has several characteristics that define it as such. One of these characteristics is that it stands on its own. It’s not a part of something else, and it doesn’t support another work. It’s complete in and of itself.

Can it support another work, or be part of it? Of course. Bill Palmer brought this up a few weeks ago when he mentioned Maxfield Parrish’s work for Mazda Edison. The same holds true for Norman Rockwell’s work for the Saturday Evening Post. But if we take any of those paintings out of their commercial context, they can still stand on their own.

This is where art and design are different. When I design a stage set, I’m not expecting people to walk into the theater, admire it, ohhh and ahhh all over the place, and then go home singing its praises. Sure it would be nice, but that’s not the point of a stage set. The thing’s sole purpose in life is to provide an environment in which the play, musical, opera, or whatever, can take place. It’s an environment that reflects the themes explored in the story and that allows it to develop. I like to refer to a set as a visual metaphor for the story.

Still, it may be drop-dead gorgeous, but, strictly speaking (and in spite of our designerly egos), it’s not a work of art.

But let’s get back to paintings.

The second characteristic is that the work makes a statement. This statement can be as light as Monet’s interpretation of the water lilies, or as expressive as Rembrandt’s portraits, or as dramatic as a Turner seascape, or as strong as Picasso’s denunciation of war and its horrors in his Guernica. Or it can be anything else.

But it makes a statement. It attracts the viewers, pulls them in, and delivers something that touches them at an emotional level if only for a moment. We’ve all seen the Mona Lisa: that little smile says something a little deeper than “cheese.”

This is where so many art students get hung up. Their work doesn’t make a statement. It doesn’t interpret anything, it doesn’t clue the viewers in as to how the artist feels about the subject matter, and it doesn’t touch them at any level. That landscape may be technically very good, but there’s nothing there: it’s just a snapshot.

The third characteristic of a work of art is the artist’s technical mastery of the medium, of the subject matter, and of the delivery. I don’t want to use the word “perfection” here, but it’s something close to it. The work is done well.

Every now and then somebody will come along and claim that this thing called “art” doesn’t follow any rules. There can’t be rules; it all comes from within, and if the artist thinks its art, then by golly it’s art. Talk to any college art professor and they’ll tell you that every semester a few students walk in with this “revolutionary new” mentality. They don’t stay very long.

Art does have rules: composition, balance, eye movement, the use of contrasting or complementary colors, tension, and gads of other things. Even modern art and dada had rules; otherwise they wouldn’t have been modern art and dada.

So, at this point we have three things that characterize a “work of art:” it’s a self-contained piece, it makes a statement that touches us at an emotional level in some fashion, and it’s very well done from the technical standpoint.

Wow. I saw a Harley just last week that would qualify as a work of art.

Sorry. Smile

The fourth thing the painting needs to be “a work of art” is to be recognized as a work of art by knowledgeable viewers, i.e., those who are in the art field and have a background in studying and comparing art. I could spill some paint on a board, hang it on the wall, and call it art, but, if the art world doesn’t agree with me, my board will never hang in a gallery or a museum.

Which brings me to the issue of “objective vs. subjective.” It’s really funny how so many art students and artists operate on a totally subjective level, while their work is viewed by others from a very objective standpoint.

Art student: “Ziss iss my masterpiece! My magnum opus! It is ze ultimate expression of truth and beauty!”

Professor: “Well, see, this is confusing, because you’re painting it like it’s supposed to be a very realistic image – almost a snapshot -- of a trashed ’56 Chevy, but yet most of the detailing isn’t drawn very accurately. Your lining technique needs work. And it looks like you were painting from memory, not from research.”

Student: “But zat is ze point, Perfesser; zat is my interpretation!”

Professor: “Sure, but if you’re showing it as a realistic painting, it needs to be accurate.”

Student: Dead silence.

Professor: “Also, the composition is very static: there’s no movement or tension in the scene. Your eye doesn’t move from one part to another.”

And so it goes. Use of color, use of real or forced perspective, brush technique, color and detailing in distant objects, light direction, shadowing and shading. Maybe the fact that the student made a bad choice of medium (watercolor) for his trashed car. And, eventually, the question of what the painting says or doesn’t say, whether it touches us or not. Whether it’s even perceived as a completed work or as a dry run.

In cases like this, the student will usually refuse to accept the very stuff he or she came to school to learn. He or she will not take the critiques that are part of the study. It’s downright fascinating to stand back and watch it.

Anyway, if we look at these four characteristics, we can define a work of art as (in this case) a painting that stands on its own, makes a clear statement, is well executed technically, and is acknowledged as a work of art by knowledgeable viewers. It doesn’t need to be good enough to hang in the Louvre, and it may never make the painter a legend, but it’s a work of art.

I didn’t draw a map of how to get to heaven here: all I did was define what a work of art is. I also did not define sports, or engineering, or tiddlywinks: they have their own definitions. I defined “art” as it applies to a painting.

What this tells me is two things. First, art isn’t this be-all, end-all, holier-than-thou, ultimate, unattainable thing that we have to bow and pay homage to. Art is just “art.”

Second, something (in this case entertainment) doesn’t have to be “art” to be legitimate and to be enjoyed and appreciated by the masses. Lots of people enjoy sports and have no interest in art: sports touch them where they want to be touched. Other people attain absolute and total enjoyment from reading the stock market pages. I know: I did at one time.

So, if we take this to the next step, we can realize that we are totally free to decide whether we want our magic act to be “art” or not, because it doesn’t have to be “art.” If we want it to be “art,” we need to focus on what makes it “art,” just like the art students do. Otherwise we don’t need to do this.

I’ve been thinking about magic pretty often for the past couple of years since I discovered the Café and my interest perked up again. And I keep trying to figure out whether I want to get back into performing. But every time I think about my mortgage company, and the utility companies, and the local supermarket, gas station, department stores, and Costco, and our homeowners, car, and health insurance, and (last but not least) Borders and Home Depot, I realize that I’d much rather be a gainfully employed entertainer than a starving artist.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
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Inner circle
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Profile of gallagher
Hey George,
super analysis.
One point missing, though,
from my perspective;
the fifth characteristic of Art:
The importance to do it,
.. the 'need' to do it,
for one's self.

This kind of underlines,
pushes the previous four.

shakey knees and all,
gtx magic
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Special user
United Kingdom England
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Profile of gtx magic
This video is fantastic viewing. A street magician doing is every day entertaining,but with a bit of computer technology "CGI" added and edited in,this makes it thoroughly outstanding as a promotion to the art of magic. How great it would be if you could do this. Very enjoyable to watch.

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.
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