If not art then what?

As I've mentioned before, I don't think it's wise to think of magic as an art.

This does not mean that we can't attempt to incorporate artistic elements into the performance of magic. Creating something which is aesthetically appealing or emotionally engaging is a desirable goal which extends beyond the arts. Mathematicians delight in reading or discovering a proof which is economical or ingenious and scientists experience enormous awe looking at images of the Hubble Extreme Deep Field. But we don't feel any temptation to call mathematicians and cosmologists artists.

In the conversations I've had, people often react with discomfort to the idea that magic be its own discipline instead of a subordinated art form. Perhaps the notion of operating without a label makes people uneasy. So as an alternative, why not consider magic a science?

Magic as Science

It's really not that far fetched.

When I first became seriously interested in magic, I was about twenty and already enrolled as a math major at UofT. When I started learning my first trick, the Cups & Balls (this was my inspiration, this was my source) I was struck by the elegant simplicity that underpinned most of the tricks which mirrored the way proofs worked in math. It was the same kind of thinking. Years later, I came across an interview with Persi Diaconis (magician turned Stanford statistics professor) where he expressed essentially the same opinion.

From a completely different direction, Richard Feynman, in his Messenger Lectures gave a brilliant description of the scientific method which resembles the way pieces of magic are constructed. I may expand more explicitly on the similarities in a future post, but the central quote is this:

The game I play is a very interesting one. It's imagination in a tight straight jacket.


The straight jacket is reality, which impacts on a magic trick in two ways. First, whatever your solution is, it must conform to the laws of physics. A levitation cannot be accomplished by turning off gravity, that's a restriction that cannot be forgotten.

And second, to be successful, a magic trick has to be deceptive. And whether or not you deceive someone is an objective fact. Either the audience knows how the trick operates or they don't. Either a scientific theory matches what is observed in the real world or it doesn't.

In these ways, magic is constrained to reality in ways that other art forms (theatre, painting, sculpture, film, poetry) are not. JK Rowling did not have to demonstrate that Hogwarts was real before she got Harry Potter published. But a magic trick has to work and deceive people before it can properly be called a magic trick.

Magicians are, at their core, empiricists. That is, they seek methods that are grounded in reality (they must work in the real world). Elegance in implementation is desired, but secondary to practical concerns. It must work before it can go further. In practice, there seems to be a correlation between elegance and effectiveness (Newton's laws are simultaneously posses simple to write down and extremely powerful in their predictive powers) but elegance and intuitive appeal doesn't seem to be a necessary requirement (take for example Quantum Mechanics).

This is in stark contrast to the arts and philosophy who feel almost no pressure to ground their work in firmly in reality. (The possible exception may be sculptors and architects whose work actually has to have some structural soundness to it.)

So for my work, I want to advance magic as a practical discipline instead of an artistic one. I believe that much more progress lies in that direction.