Is Magic an Art? (Part 2)

As I've said, magic is not an art. If it is, it hangs out at the very edge of art without taking much notice. Perhaps this isn't such a bad thing. Magicians have spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to convince the world it's an art form. This goes back at least a hundred years. Our Magic (1911) dedicated a chapter attempting to justify magic as an art and the seminal book by T. Nelson Downs was called The Art of Magic (1909). This may be an accident of language. The word art may just be a placeholder for something else. You can't call magic a philosophy because we actually do stuff. Science is out; we don't do experiments. Field is too vague, so is domain. Craft sounds uninteresting. Art may just be a position of default; the best they could come up with at the time.

In hindsight, it looks like that most of that energy was wasted. A lot of argument and very little to show for it. And those magicians that are most widely held to be artists, they seem to take the form off in strange directions. There is a widely held belief that art must be solemn. Even though Mac King and David Williamson are both brilliant practitioners, but few would rush to call them artists. Instead that title seems to go to those that perform seriously. There is a tendency to think that comedy cannot be artistic. (See also "Sunset at Blandings" in The Salmon of Doubt.)

And the attempt may have been misguided to begin with. Art is supposed to evoke emotional states in its audience, but magic only touches a limited range of emotions. I have never been to a magic performance that made me sad, or lonely. I have never seen any real interpersonal conflicts resolve through the course of a magic show. Of course, magicians heap autobiographical stories and allegorical meaning onto tricks, but the magic itself is not any more emotional than a reality TV show.

Art is, in effect, a post hoc classification. You have to wait until the painting is finished to decide whether it's art, or just a painting. If you explicitly start out to produce a piece of art (instead of saying you're going to try and invent a card trick) you are being pretentious. And trying to make an "artistic card trick" (again going down the path of absurdly vague definitions) instead of just "a good card trick" you will likely be pulled in strange and detrimental directions. This will also allow you to come back to anyone later who doesn't approve and reflect the blame back on them by claiming, "They just don't get it."

Instead, why can't we declare magic to be its own thing?

If we could have the confidence as an industry to step out on our own, we would really be on to something. We wouldn't have to feel ashamed that we somehow failed to earn respect as artists, and could worry about being magicians, wherever that path takes us. If we keep wishing to be artists, isn't that the same as asking your mother to buy you that Playstation so the cool kids will like you?

We will never be completely separate. Chemistry and physics borrow extensively from math and logic. Journalists and poets both make use of writing. We will always borrow from theatre and language and from a few other places too. Magic is not an art, magic is magic.

Magic's purpose doesn't seem to be to elicit a range of emotions like a Shakespearean tragedy. Fundamentally, it seems only to be capable of eliciting awe and wonder; a sense that you have underestimated the potential of the world around you and you should stop to reexamine what you thought you knew.

Perhaps a more productive use of energy would be to stop trying to become artists, and focus instead on being magicians.