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Bill Palmer
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There is a tendency in magic to try to explain art without really understanding what Art is.

In 1954, a fellow named Russell Lynes wrote a book about the public's perception of art vs. the artist's conception thereof called The Tastemakers. In it, he traces, by example, the way that perception of various artworks change over the years, from higbrow to middlebrow to lowbrow. One of the examples he uses is James Whistler's "A Study in Grey and Black" and how the perception of this particular painting changed from high class to the point of being almost a joke.

If you are not familiar with the painting by that name, please google it, then come back to this post.

You found it? Good. You probably didn't know that was the actual name of the painting. I didn't either until I read the book.

If you can find a copy of the book, you really should read it, because it will give you some real insight into how tastes change over the years.

Art starts as something unique. Then, by imitation it spreads through various layers of society until finally it becomes trite. The artwork itself does not change, but the public's perception of it does. By the time it has filtered through the critics, the art purveyors and the public, to the point that it becomes as commonplace as a postage stamp, it loses its unique characteristics and becomes worth very little...except as an original or as an example of something original.

Sometimes Art skips the "highbrow" level and goes directly into "middlebrow" and slides down into "lowbrow" within a matter of months. Thomas Kinkade's work is a perfect example of this. Check this out

Perhaps an easy way to judge the artistic value of something like this is to see if it shows up in catalogs such as Sportsman's Guide.

Sometimes we confuse "artist" and "artisan." An artist creates new things. An artisan is a craftsman who makes things well. An artisc can be both. A potter who creates a new type of cup, pitcher, vase or sculpture is an artist. When he makes multiple copies of his own work, he is an artisan. So, in this case, he is both.

The same is true of a magician who finds a new idea, works it out and presents it. Once he has created the presentation he has created the Art. When he can duplicate it in performance with consistency, then he is also an artisan.

In the performing arts, there is also a kind of Art called "interpretation." This is different from creating something from whole cloth. The interpreter takes an art work and performs it for an audience, conveying his impressions of what the creator of the work intended (or perhaps, may not have intended!).

Actors, musicians and magicians fall into the category of performing artists. Now here's where the problem becomes sticky. If I am supposed to portray Hamlet, and I perform it the same way Richard Burton did, I would be guilty of plagiarism and of stupidity. I would need to find my own way of performint the role. A good director will help with this.

Good musicians do the same thing. Igor Kipnis was not a composer, but he knew how to play anything that was set in front of him in a style appropriate to the composer. He also knew how to inject his own feelings into the music. This is part of artistry. What would be a contrast to this? Suppose you have a MIDI sequencer. You carefully enter all the notes into the program and play it back. It will sound mechanical, even if you use algorithms that allow small "interpretive" changes. It's as artistic as the motor of a music box.

A similar example is this. One of my instruments is the 5-string banjo. I learned how to play it by taking songs off records. Most of these were not written down at the time. When I played "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" it was note for note like Earl Scruggs recorded it. Was this artistic? No. It was a copy. The bulk of bluegrass banjo players are just like that. One of Earl's big pieces was a song called "Ground Speed." Scott Vestal took the song and ran with it. He added things to it that Earl had never dreamed of. Is this artistic? Yes, it is.

And, of course, when we would play or compose something new, that would be artistic, too. Most of the time, this would be imitative art.

The real innovators and artists on the 5-string banjo are people like Bobby Thompson, Bill Keith, Allison Brown, Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck. Each one of them started with Scruggs style as the foundation and went off in their own direction with it. You can listen to some banjo players and not be able to tell who they are, no matter how well you know the material. But when you listen to these five players, you recognize them immediately from their style.

Magic is very similar to music in this respect. Very little magic starts out as highbrow art any more. It goes directly into middlebrow, and slips into lowbrow almost immediately.

Street Magic (aka Guerilla Magic) is a good example of this. Fifteen years ago, nobody would walk up to someone on the street and inflict magic upon them. Now there is a whole generation of magicians who are doing that. They purchase the DVD's from various sources, learn all the same tricks and perform them like clones. If you are familiar with the commercials, such as the Oscar Meyer commercial where kids each sing one line of the song, imagine doing that with performances of street magic! And most of them are imitating Blaine or Cyril (mainly Blaine because his stuff is easily available.)

There are two other aspects of this that I will cover in future posts.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."
Bill Palmer
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If you had trouble finding Study in Grey and Black, perhaps I should have mentioned that it is also called Arrangement in Grey and Black and Arrangement #1 in Grey and Black. Most of us know it as Whistler's Mother.

I should also point out that my reference to MIDI sequencing was specifically about mechanically entering notes into a sequencer, not using a sequencer as a MIDI recorder. There's a big difference. One has to do with art.

And this is a good place to get into that part of Art. Art requires training and knowledge. Interpretation of Art also requires training and knowledge. When a trained musician hears a piece of music, chances are that he or she will hear things going on that get past the average listener. Why is this? Well, musicians are trained not only in playing music, they are also trained to hear music and usually to write it. In order to understand any art form, a fundamental knowledge of its techniques are absolutely necessary.

While attending a clinic conducted by Bela Fleck a few years ago, I listened to a young banjo player asking about what he needed to know about music. He was amazed that Bela knew all the scales and chords on the fingerboard. That's fundamental. It's like knowing the classic force, the pass, the top change, the transfer palm, and all of the other fundamentals we have in magic. If you skip the basics, you don't have any foundation.

The same thing occurs in graphic arts. If you don't understand composition, proportion, perspective, colors, shades, hues, you really don't understand Art.

So here's another myth -- there's no such thing as bad art. Poppycock!

There is bad Art in every art form that exists. Sturgeon's law applies to art just as much as it does to anything else. If there is no such thing as bad art, then how can we have great Art? There must be levels of artistry.

How can you judge what is bad and what is good? Sometimes it's obvious. Sometimes all it takes is one child who is willing to say, "Mommy, why is the Emperor walking down the street naked?" or, "It's in your other hand."

If a piece of music sounds really awful, it just may be bad music.

If a work of graphic art looks really awful, it just may be bad art.

Sometimes critics are the last to get it. Do any of you remember when the chimp who fingerpainted fooled the critics? The zookeepers got the horselaugh on that one.

So, how can you tell Art from artisanship?

Good question.

For one thing, art has originality. If you copy the patter and moves from a DVD of magic, and you duplicate it perfectly, that's replication -- artisanship. If you take the same routine and use a blue backed deck instead of a red backed deck, that doesn't change anything.

But if you take the same routine, re work it to fit your own personality, remove the parts that don't fit you, add some new ones, and make it look different, then you may be on the road to interpretive artistry.

Replication is fine when you are learning. It's even fine when you are first learning a new routine. But if you want to really put yourself into the performance, then you have to modify the routine to fit your persona. And that is interpretation.

Another factor is this. Art has style. If you can find your own style, not a copy of someone else's, then you are on the way to becoming an artist.

Remember the references to the bluegrass banjo players? I once asked Earl Scruggs if he had tried to play any of the type of material that Bill Keith did. He said, "I've been playing my style for 40 years. Why should I change it?" And that was the single most important banjo lesson I ever had from anyone.


I had been trying to play like Earl Scruggs. They don't call it Scruggs style because Sonny Osborne played it. They call it Scruggs style because Earl developed it.

So, even though I still played Scruggs style on the Scruggs pieces I got requests for, I started working on my own style.

And I enjoy playing it! Smile
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."
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