I have an artist friend who is also interested in magic. But since he is not actually magician, he often asks for my take on things in the world of magic.
He asked me for my thoughts on the Nate Staniforth book called This is Real Magic
. You can see a nice trailer for the book here which makes use of an unusual magic trick:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGe2T-0e46I
I have not read the book. And my reasons as to why became a rambling essay on the nature of magic in the 21st century, and how Andy's work over at The Jerx
fits into that.
So - apologies for the following lengthy brain dump. But some of you who are interested in Andy's work may find some of it of interest.
I saw that book on Amazon awhile ago but never got round to reading it. It is not something that really grabs me.
I will explain why.
Magic is about astonishment. And the people who hate astonishment the most are magicians. It is a paradox of sorts.
But what is a magician?
A magician is a layperson who - one day - was so fooled by a magic trick that they HAD to find out how it was done. And that set off a chain of events where they discover more secrets in magic books and (this is when you truly become hooked) magic shops. Eventually magicians become addicted to the rush of learning new secrets. That is the real reason we refer to the sellers of magic secrets as magic dealers - they are dealing out cheap hits to magicians addicted to learning new secrets.
At this point. Half of them also become interested in the attention that performing magic gives them. Whilst the other half just become more and more obsessed with secrets.
Magicians actually get angry when secrets are withheld from them.
As such - magicians are always cynical when these books come along about a magician's search for "real magic" and how he had to travel to India to learn the real wonder of magic. It is like a woman becoming a hooker so she can find the man of her dreams. It is pure [censored].
There is very little wonder and astonishment in magic. If you offered to teach a trick after fooling a layperson - 99% of them would want to know the secret.
Still - there are intelligent magicians who feel that there must be more to magic than this? It is quite depressing when you really understand magic on this level.
So what tends to happen is this. You get those magicians who embrace magic for what it is. And they see value in being good at something that is inherently un-noble. You see this a lot in work places. Some guy who is doing a humble job. But in his mind he feels a duty to be the best janitor/cleaner/fast-food server he possibly can be. He takes pride in his dedication to a task which will go un-noticed and unrewarded by others.
On an existential level this is a compelling idea explored in the work of Albert Camus:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_Sisyphus
Now that is one reaction. And it is one that most professional magicians pursue. But like with a hooker it is ultimately about delivering an experience in exchange for money. So there is no artistic value in this mindset.
Another reaction is to ignore the issue altogether and become a magician's magician. You spend all your time learning new secrets and varying tricks. Your real audience is the community of magicians. With the occasional trick performed for laypeople just so that you have some experience of performing to laypeople to draw on when discussing magic with magicians.
Another reaction is to become a pseudo-intellectual who is sure that there is some deeper meaning in magic. This approach will often try and embrace the Shamanistic roots of magic (see The Mystery School ala Jeff McBride). Or it will try and argue there is something profound about the nature of astonishment.
That approach was popularized by Paul Harris. It is a very seductive idea since Paul Harris is the most influential creator of magic in the world. Since most magicians love Paul Harris - they will quote his philosophy when asked. But they don't really believe it.
In Art of Astonishment - he wrote an essay explaining his outlook. You can find a reprint of it here:http://forums.ellusionist.com/showthread.php?72598-Astonishment-Is-Our-Natural-State-Of-Mind.
That approach was also popularized by David Blaine. Who was a student of Paul Harris. It is a popular way of approaching magic since it is buried in the idea of not getting in the way of the magic. You create an anti-style where you don't use presentation or any dramatic tricks to get in the way of the layperson's experience of astonishment.
This is great for magicians. Because shaping a presentation that entertains an audience is the hardest part of magic. And the part that magicians are least interested in since it has nothing to do with the method/secret side of a trick that magicians are most interested in.
As you can see it is not hard to put together a book detailing how you went from a young person performing magic. To somebody who gets burned out. To somebody who journeys to the East to connect with thousands years of Shamanism/magic to discover that magic come from within and is ultimately about reminding ourselves of the astonishment that should be a part of our everyday life.
I could write a hundred books like that in my sleep. Indeed - in Art of Astonishment there is an essay by David Abram in which he went on the same journey. As such the Nate Staniforth book is just a book-length copy of the ideas set out by David Abram.
I am pretty sure this is the essay that appeared in the book:http://www.primitivism.com/ecology-magic.htm
This approach is something that Doug Henning tried to achieve with his magic. He had a lot of unusual spiritual/religious ideas. And for him magic was a way of reminding people how magical the universe is.
It is all pseudo-intellectual nonsense, and no magician takes it seriously.
It is just that it is much easier to wax philosophical about magic. Than it is to try and do something new and interesting in magic.
Penn & Teller are one of the few to do that. And it is interesting that they perform "meta" magic. If something is inherently uninteresting and without value. The only way to make it interesting is to examine and critique it from the outside. So that your commentary on that object gives it value rather than extracting any value from the object itself.
A urinal is not art. But the way Marcel Duchamps appropriated it made it into art.
The other approach to magic that has surfaced recently is the one advocated by Andy over at The Jerx
Andy approaches magic by turning it on his head. His idea is rather like Alfred Hitchcock talking about the McGuffin:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkyUxfSOKbI
He realised that most magic books approach magic from the point of view of professional magicians. And as such they overlook the massive freedom an amateur magician has when performing for a friend. If you want to spend 6 months setting up a magic trick. Or have a trick that takes place over a number of days - there is nothing stopping you as an amateur magician. Issues surrounding what is "practical" are of no concern.
As such - we can use magic tricks as permission slips to [censored] with people in any way we want. It is a strange social permission that magicians have access to that most people do not. Essentially magicians have the power to perform practical jokes on people where the goal is fooling them rather than humiliating them. That allows for a wide range of social power if the magician realises it and makes use of it. And it is something that Andy is exploring in his work.http://www.thejerx.com/blog/2015/6/24/the-purpose-of-magic-in-the-early-21st-century
When do people get a chance to do something special for somebody else? They can prepare a surprise birthday party. Or they can try and pull off an ambitious marriage proposal. And that is kinda' it... If I want to take you on an adventure that ends in a surprise - it is hard to do so unless it is under the guise of a romantic gesture. As such - you are limited in who you can perform these ambitious gestures to.
Magicians on the other hand have a role in the culture where they can engage with people in order to pull off something unique, unusual and surprising. All under the guise of performing a magic trick.
Since a spectator is fooled by a magic trick - she has no idea how or why it worked. So if you tell her to meet you in the middle of New York during Manhatten-henge
, in order to try something weird - you can use the wider context of what is happening to provide extra depth and meaning to your trick.http://www.thejerx.com/blog/2017/8/17/sky-imps
Andy's goal with magic is to try and provide special analogue experiences in a digital age. We live in an age now where people send each other graphics of pints of beer on Facebook rather than actually meet up for a celebratory birthday drink. People are lazy and the digital tools of communication we have mean people put less and less effort into their social interactions with each other.
As such - using magic in a way to create compelling surprises and unique memories is a goal that is truly worthy and useful thanks to the digital world we are now living in.
Quick side note. I haven't seen this movie yet. But there is a French film called Amelie
which explores similar ideas. In which a French woman secretly surprises strangers in unusual ways to solve problems they are facing. All under the cloak of anonymity.
I really like this approach to magic that Andy advocates. One problem with magic is that some magicians use it as an form of ego validation. They want to impress people and receive acclaim. However - this is not something that is of any interest to those of us in magic who end up exploring other ideas. It is not hard to fool people. And getting validation from it is the same as getting an ego boost in beating a 6 year old in an arm wrestle.
With Andy's approach to magic - you are orchestrating unusual performances. In which the presentation gives all the credit to somebody or something else. Ironically - the spectator realises the presentation is mostly nonsense and will give you credit for it. But it removes the ego validation from the performance and that makes it much less awkward for the performer and the spectator.
Looking to impress somebody is a very needy thing to do. And that is something that puts off a lot of intelligent and secure people in magic. As such magic tends to be performed mainly by those who are less intelligent and less secure as personalities. Which is why magic has such a poor reputation in the artistic world.
So back to the Nate Staniforth book. It is a clever way to publish a book. Since it sells a compelling story that laypeople will lap up. And it gives magic a meaning that is fake but believable. It is the magic equivalent of the divorced woman writing EAT. PRAY. LOVE.
It fits very well with where we are as a culture in 2018. But it offers nothing of real value to the thinking magician.