Sunday, November 13, 2011

"...But Is It Art?"

We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice-peg,
We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yolk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog, for the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: "It's clever, but is it Art ?"
That is Kipling.  It's from a poem called the Conundrum of the Workshops

I don't know a lot of Kipling.  I know that he wrote probably the best tribute to the heartbreak of losing a dog.  I know also that he wrote the story that became one of my favorite John Huston films, "The Man Who Would Be King."

I was reminded Kipling as I read this essay by Jamy Ian Swiss.  Swiss is a working magician and author of some of the best book reviews I have read on magic, or any other topic.

Swiss makes the case that magic is held in low regard by its audiences because, in large part, it is held in low regard by far too many of its practitioners.  In the interview with Derek DelGuadio that I have previously written about, he notes that in no other art form is a low threshold of skill celebrated.  The self-working tricks that I relied upon as insurance against a hostile audience may have democratized magic, but they have also diluted and diminished it.

What were originally intened as "gateway" effects, designed to give the beginner the sense of accomplishment that would, in theory drive them forward in the study and development of technical ability, became an end it themselves.

Purchasing a magic trick can be an excercise in disappointment especially if the goal of the transaction is to learn the secret.  As has been noted elsewhere, the technology is, by necessity, simple and reliable.  Anyone expecting very complex technologies is bound to be disappointed.  I would wager that if one were made privy to the secret of Copperfield's Statue of Liberty vanish, the initial response would be "Really?"

And for those who are not chased out of magic by their disappointment, the next area of concentration is on technique.  They move beyond the self-working "toys" and concentrate and what has come to be described quite accurately as "knuckle busting."

To travel the halls of a magic convention is to see clusters of magicians showing one another their interpretation of some move or another.  This time-honored process has led to life-long relationships and the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next, but, divorced from a lay audience, it becomes at some level like an echo chamber with each new iteration lacking something of the fidelity of the one that came before.

I used to work with a colleague who had a sign in his office that read, in effect,
"That's all very well and good, but what is the audience doing during all of that?"

Swiss maintains that magic sucks because too many practitioners concentrate on fooling the audience and ignore the opportunities that come from having accomplished that.  It's as though after having used the red crayon, the artist felt sufficiently self-impressed to ignore the other 63 colors in the box. 

Imagine the possibilities that arise after you have convinced an audience that their assumptions about the way the world works can be manipulated, or even subverted all together.

There is an often-repeated theory to explain the enduring popularity of Houdini.  It holds that, at the time of his career, America was experiencing a massive influx of immigrants from eastern Europe.  They had escaped oppressive regimes and arrived in a new world where they spoke little, if any, of the language and found themselves forced to work in oppressive conditions for miniscule wages.  Houdini, himself an immigrant, showed them with each new appearance that they too could escape and overcome any challenge.

It's not clear that this was every explicitly a part of his performances, but the implication is there for the taking.  In our own time, David Copperfield demonstrated that, under the right circumstances, and with the right piece of Peter Gabriel's music, he was capable of just about anything.

Magicians talk about magic as an art form and I am not certain they have made a convincing case for it to be considered as such.  What is more certain is that it, like the Crayolas referenced earlier, is a medium to allow for the exchange of ideas and emotions.

It's always a challenge to attribute poetry to Penn & Teller, but this is pretty close. Not only does it contain strong technical magic and their trademark blood, but it is in service of a grander idea.

Don't get me wrong, I'll watch a performer saw a woman in half all day long, but it is an illusion without an effect.  Despite what we see, we know that the performer has not really cut his assistant in two.  In my country, we would call that "murder."  So, it's a trick and we, as audience members, are being fooled.  And, as Swiss points out, only magicians think the audience likes to be fooled:
Quite possibly the single most egregious myth that magicians have perpetrated on themselves (and, I might add, it is solely upon themselves), is that "it is fun to be fooled." Really? I don't think so. Was it fun to buy that new car only to discover it was a lemon? Was it fun to declare fidelity in a marriage vow, only to be cuckolded? Was it fun to vote for your choice for the highest political office in the land, only to learn that he subverted the Constitution that he swore to uphold, or had to flee from office in order to escape Congressional subpoena?
If then magic is a medium--a means, rather than an end in itself--what should magicians be doing with it?

Magic, I would argue, is a medium for telling stories and in that way is most like theatre.  And, when I was studying theatre, one of the most important ideas I learned was about dramatic action.  This idea should strike a chord with performers because it is about transformation.

With each new play we would study, we were obliged to ask the question who is the character that is changed most by the events of the play?  In a play like "Death of a Salesman," it is Willy Loman, but in a classic play like "Antigone" it could be just as successfully argued that it is the character of Creon who is most transformed.

Answering this question of who is acted upon, who is transformed, gives the key to the production.  It informs the direction, the design and the performances.  And without an answer, the production can seem aimless and the performances uninspired.

It is interesting to note that  a little more than 100 years ago, the great British magician John Nevil Maskelyne made his reputation, in part, on presenting his illusions within the context of  short plays.

Does every effect have to be framed within some kind of "Once Upon a Time" context?  No.  But every effect should be considered, routined and sequenced with this in mind.

Sometimes the story a performer tells is about themselves as a magician:  each new effect adding to the legend and creating specific expectations within the audience.  And sometimes the story a performer tells is just about a specific effect...

I would argue that without his patter, "Sam the Bellhop" is unremarkable and difficult to follow. With the patter, Malone bolsters his character as the kind of guy you would want to meet in a bar and share a beer with. He also gives a context for all of the shuffling and dealing which, in turn, emphasize his mastery of the deck.

Eugene Burger does something quite remarkable with an effect known as the "Gypsy Thread."

The magic is very basic, and yet the effect is dramatic in the sense that the audience is transformed, their world perspective is challenged.

While Burger's style is not appropriate for anyone other than Burger, his approach to presentation is one that elevates his material and his art form and is, above all, focused on his audience.

And that's when it becomes art.

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