Magic is not an artform.
The following essay was originally published in Volume 1 of The Neat Review. You can purchase a copies of The Neat Review at ultraneat.org and in select bookshops around the world.
Hit the black circle in the bottom right corner to read this essay in dark mode. Hit the super-script numbers to read the footnotes while you're reading the essay.
If you have any questions, comments or ideas relating to this essay, please do email them to me. I'd love to hear them.
In the following few pages I briefly explore some philosophical ideas about magic and art, with a focus on the question of whether magic is an artform. I present some simple thought experiments to help dig deeper into the question of what an artform is, and later explore the aesthetic theory of Schopenhauer and how that relates to the question. Towards the end, I conduct a simple survey inspired by the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, which aims to bring us closer to an answer. I do not claim to provide a definitive answer, but I hope that the ideas discussed are interesting to read. I welcome all criticisms, challenges and further thoughts.
The question I want to begin with is: Is magic an artform? Many write about it as if it is an artform. Or rather, I should say many magicians write about magic it as if it definitely is. For most magicians, there’s no question of whether magic is an artform.
For example, the late Charles Reynolds, an illusion inventor and the creative partner of Doug Henning, writes that “Magic is the theatrical art of creating the illusion of impossibility in an entertaining way.” In his essay On a Definition of Magic, he writes further that “[g]ood magic, like all art, is a celebration.” Jamy Ian Swiss, the magic critic and essayist, writes in Hacked to Death, an essay on originality, that “[m]agic is primarily an interpretative art.”This essay by Ian Swiss and the essay by Charles Reynolds are both republished in Magic in Mind, a compilation of “essential essays for magicians” by Joshua Jay; it is available for free as a PDF and contains full sources for the above quotations. Eugene Burger, a magician and lecturer in comparative philosophy and religion, has even written an entire book called Mastering the Art of Magic.Mastering the Art of Magic is actually formed of seven small booklets that were originally published in the 1980s. It is clear that, amongst magicians, the default stance is that magic is an artform.
However, I think this claim needs investigation and justification.
One way to answer the question would be to find out what makes something an artform, and then see if magic fits that definition. If it does, then it would be right to call magic an artform. But this approach requires us to first provide an answer to the question: what does it mean for something to be an artform? Or, more tersely put: what is art?
For this approach, we would have to come up with a finite set of conditions or requirements that allows us to label something as being an artform. Each condition would need to be individually necessary for the definition, and they jointly would need to be sufficient. We could then see if magic fulfils those conditions.
But finding an answer to the question “what is art?” is not an easy task. Philosophers have been trying to find an answer for centuries. In what follows I try to find some of these conditions and see where magic fits in. I draw from a mix of aesthetic theories, Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that examines questions relating to art. Some questions explored by aesthetics are: why do humans find some things beautiful and not others? Is art definable? Is a portrait successful if it resembles the sitter? If a poet is aiming to convey feelings of sadness, wouldn’t it be better if she had told us she was sad? (These questions are taken from the aesthetics finals paper sat by philosophy undergraduates at the University of Oxford.) personal conversations, thought experiments and more.
What is art? In The Meaning of Art, Herbert Read writes that “…all artists have the … the desire to please; and art is most simply and most usually defined as an attempt to create pleasing forms.”Read, H. (2017). The Meaning of Art. London: Faber & Faber, p.8.
This statement seems to make the most sense when we consider forms of visual art, such as painting, sculpture, or photography, as these all have easily definable forms or structures. It also seems to make sense when considering music. But, when considering arts based around performance, such as dance and (potentially) magic, it becomes more of a grey area.
Sure, some dance styles create pleasing visual forms, like ballet, but what about tap, where there is also a focus on the auditory? What about performance arts that have no visual component? Surely listening to a jazz record or a hip hop track counts as art? And then even more puzzling: stand-up comedy? And: magic?
In a conversation I had with Andi Gladwin about art and magic, he remarked that “magic is art in the hands of an artist.” So perhaps no art is inherently art. What if, for art to be art, it has to be made by an artist? And that artist has to create the art with some intentional purpose to affect others?
This brings to mind Duchamp’s concept of a readymade. A readymade is an ordinary object that has been manufactured normally alongside many other identical objects (hence the name ‘readymade’), but is designated by an artist to be a piece of art. The quintessential example of a readymade is Duchamp’s Fountain. The original Fountain, which has now been lost, was a standard urinal, that had been designated by the artist as being a work of art.Read more about it on the Tate website. So Duchamp clearly thinks of art as being something that requires an intentional purpose from the artist.
But what about the following? In 2016, two teenagers, Kevin Nguyen and TJ Khayatan, left a pair of glasses on the floor at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They did it as a prank, to ‘lure’ in visitors. And it worked – TJ tweeted out photos of people stopping to look at the glasses.His photos were accompanied with the caption “LMAO WE PUT GLASSES ON THE FLOOR AT AN ART GALLERY AND...”. From here, retrieved 5th February 2019. The Guardian article about it sardonically reports that “[t]he work seemed to hit a chord with the public, striking in its simplicity, yet – probably – a challenging commentary on the limits of individual perception.”From here, retrieved 5th February 2019.
Do we want to consider this as a work of art? It does fit the definition of something made by an individual (or group of individuals) with the intent to affect others – but the teenagers intended it to be a prank, to trick others into it thinking it was art, rather than intending it to be art.
Here’s another idea to consider. Say someone accidentally drops a glass in some tucked-away corner of the Tate or MoMA. The glass smashes on impact, leaving a pile of broken glass in that corner, and the person who dropped it has no recollection of it dropping and smashing (nor do they hold any responsibility for the health and safety hazard they’ve created). Later on, people come by, and start to admire it. They discuss the pile of glass with each other, and take photos of it, and start appreciating it as art. I’m designing this thought experimentA thought experiment is a tool that philosophers use to investigate answers to philosophical questions by logically thinking through the consequences of some set of premises or event. so that the person has no connection to the (potential) artwork at any point; neither beforehand, nor during its creation, nor afterwards. The pile of glass is something that is being appreciated by others, but without an artist to have created it, can we count it as art?One might argue that natural beauty exists in the world which can be appreciated aesthetically, i.e., that there does exist art without an artist. Consider the Grand Canyon, the Iguazú Falls, and the Milky Way as seen on a cool, clear night. However, many philosophers who have presented aesthetic arguments about the natural world do believe in a creator. And, specifically, a Creator with a capital C. They usually differentiate these as works that are ‘sublime’ rather than ‘beautiful.’
Maybe it only counts as art when considered along with the context of being physically located in a modern art museum. After all, my thought experiment requires the pile of broken glass to be in the corner of an art museum. If you saw a pile of broken glass on the street you wouldn’t consider it to be art. Maybe in order for it to be art, it requires some context – not necessarily an artist who labels the art as art, but just something that labels the art as art. Maybe the content of the art alone is not enough for our pile of broken glass to be called art.
But surely some great works of art are beautiful without any context?
Another thought experiment: consider a person stripped of their social conditioning. The person is still a human being and has been brought up around other human beings, but they have no ideas about how our specific society works.I say this because I think it’s unfair to have a thought experiment based around a human raised in total isolation; such a person may not really count as a person. Perhaps the thought experiment works better with an alien from a civilisation of equal intelligence to ours, but entirely different? Or a person from an uncontacted tribe? (Also, if you’re interested in the limits of thought experiments more generally, check out the Stanford Encyclopaedia entry on them here.. Surely they would still find the Venus de Milo beautiful? What about the ceiling of the Sistine chapel? And Rodin’s Thinker? And what about Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon? John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? And – what of Teller’s performance of Shadows?
Magicians like the idea of magic having an effect on people. Jamy Ian Swiss writes in his essay Why Magic Sucks that magic has failed to reach artistic standing because it treats fooling peoples as its end, but instead the fooling is just the means to an end. One of the ends he suggests is moving the audience to “achieve a lasting impact.”Swiss, J.I. (2017.) Shattering Illusions, first published in 2002. New York: Vanishing Inc., p.6.
In Metamagic: An Introduction, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho defines art as the pursuit of truth. He writes that “[w]hile Science and Engineering are most certainly characterized by a ruthless pursuit outwards, Art is characterized by an equally ruthless pursuit inwards.”DeSouza-Coelho, S. (2013). Metamagic: The Meaning of Art. (n.p.), p.8. A consequence of this is that art has the power to affect people on a deeply personal level; it is for this reason that he categorises magic as an artform.This argument forms the chapter entitled Art and the Nature Of Magic. DeSouza-Coelho argues by interpreting Paul Harris’ Art of Astonishment trilogy through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. Ibid., pp.51-65. He goes on in later chapters to analyse why magic as an artform has fallen from grace in society, diagnosing the reason to be that magic has a fundamentally different structure to other artforms. He advocates performance that adopts his new structure. This book is great and my short summary here doesn’t do it justice; I highly recommend picking up a copy if you’re interested in finding out more.
However, magicians thinking that their magic has some profound impact on people, or that it conveys some deep and important message, can be dangerous. This of course is where faith healers and fraudulent psychics arise from.Robert West, one half of the duo Morgan and West, has a particularly disappointing story about an arrogant magician performing for a disabled person. See this thread. I’m sure that some magicians can and do impact their audiences in a meaningful and lasting way. But many magicians also just do card tricks. For sure, magic tricks cause enjoyment from a fleeting sense of wonder. But they don’t necessarily have some greater impact just because they are deceiving.
Artists practising (other?) artforms are less susceptible to this descent into narcissism, as most artforms don’t centre around deceiving people, whereas magic does.
But does magic centre around deceiving people? I’m sure many magicians would say that the best magic isn’t about deceiving people (this is the main point of Ian Swiss’s essay Why Magic Sucks); the emphasis instead should lie with giving people an experience of something or communicating some sort of idea, or just something greater than deception. But fundamental to magic is the experience of something impossible, and hand-in-hand with retaining that impossibility comes secrecy. While other artforms have secrets, the secrecy in magic is up-close and immediate to the spectator.
Here are three more ways how magic differs from most artforms.
When listening to music, watching a film, reading a book, or looking at a painting, there is always the record player, the cinema screen, the pages, or the canvas, in between you and what you experience. When watching a magic trick in person, there is no intermediary; you directly experience and encounter whatever it is the magician is performing. This make what you experience considerably more visceral.
Secondly, many artforms don’t necessitate the immediate presence of the artist. Morisot and Monet aren’t physically with us when we see their art in galleries; Austen and Woolf speak to us through the page but aren’t actually there, narrating the words into our heads. With performance arts it’s different, though. Music performed live needs a musician there, but it’s trivial to close your eyes, blocking out the musician and focussing only on the music.The avant-garde musician John Cage experiments with something similar in his track 4’33. Music not performed live in essence has no musician. But some other types of performance arts, the ones that are in more of a grey area, do require the artist there. You can’t watch a ballet without the ballet dancers, nor hear a stand-up comedian tell jokes without the stand-up comedian. Can you witness a magic trick without a magician?To be fair, my favourite magic trick doesn’t have a magician present. But then again, it’s less of a magic trick and more of a miracle. Read about it here.
Thirdly, with most artforms, the more you know about them, the more enjoyment you get. Understanding the context in which Monet painted, and the effort that goes into every single brushstroke of Monet’s water lilies, means that you appreciate it so much more. My girlfriend’s dad loves opera music and knows a ton about it; while I enjoy the music, his enjoyment is much greater because he understands the context. But with magic, if you’re a spectator, the less you know about the specific details of the trick and the sleights involved, the more you enjoy it. Moreover, the more general knowledge you have about the world, the more your enjoyment of a good magic trick is. As Teller says, “the smarter the audience is, the more they naturally enjoy magic. The more you know about gravity, the more amazing a good levitation is.”Taken from Teller’s interview with the Smithsonian Magazine, retrieved 5th February 2019.
When speaking about this with my friend Joseph Myers, he said that “[magic is] an act that requires interpretation, [meaning that] the very essence of magic [is that it is something that] relies on its performance.” With other artforms, say painting or poetry, it’s possible for the artist to paint badly or write badly, which results in a piece of art that can be judged as being bad. This is the same with magic: a magician who palms a coin badly has performed a piece of ‘bad magic.’ In this way we can argue that a magic trick is a token of art just how a painting or a poem is.
Joe went on to explain that he thinks this is the clue to what an artform is: with magic, it doesn’t make sense to talk about a perfect performance of a trick, just as with painting and poetry there’s no such thing as an objectively perfect painting or poem.This last clause can perhaps be challenged by reference to a world of Perfect Forms / Ideas, but I think it’s fair to say that most philosophers would agree that there is no objective standard of perfection that exists, especially if limited to considering existence within our worldly realm. To read more about this check out Plato’s Republic where he discusses “the idea of the good”. Every performance of magic, just like any piece of art, is more than something that can be subjectively evaluated and judged – it is something that requires interpretation by virtue of what it is.
This brings to mind a literary theory called reader-response theory. Reader-response theory started to emerge in the 1960s, and treats the reader of a literary work as a significant and active agent, instead of just a passive person. The meaning of the text is reliant upon the reader, i.e., the reader is the one who is responsible for the text’s meaning, as it is their interpretation that creates the text’s meaning / allows the meaning to be found. Reader-response theory treats literature as being like a performance art, and is the first literary theory that places more importance on the reader than the text. Magic is of course a performance art that is like this; often the enjoyment and perspective of the spectator is prioritised.Alex Hansford warns of the danger of doing this in his book Mainspring (2016); he writes of the importance of performing magic that you yourself enjoy.
Sōseki was a Japanese author who lived during the Meiji era, when Japanese society became more and more Westernised. I mention him because in Kusamakura when talking about art he often focusses on the nature of the artist. Sōseki writes that an artist is one who is “...released from the world's illusory sufferings; [they are] able to come and go at ease in a realm of transcendent purity; to destroy the binding fetters of self-interest and desire.”Sōseki, N. (2008). Kusamakura. Translated by McKinney, originally published 1906. London: Penguin Books, p4. So while an artist does exist an interact with the material world, they come and go between our world and a higher transcendent realm. Their art allows them to overcome the everyday suffering and pain of the material world. As Kafka says, “[books] must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”Translated from a letter sent to Oskar Pollak in 1904.Sōseki’s writing is reminiscent of a lot of various 18th century aesthetic theories; in particular, Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view of the world and an artist’s existence within it.
Schopenhauer was a German philosopher who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries and wrote during the decline of German idealism. German idealism was a philosophical tradition that grew out of Kant’s philosophy of transcendental idealism. Kant argues that all objects that humans cognise are appearances rather than things in themselves. German idealism more radically suggests that there are no things in themselves; all that can exist are objects of our consciousness. (This makes it a type of absolute idealism rather than Kant’s transcendental idealism).I wrote a blogpost about why Kant’s philosophy is so important in the history of philosophy, which aims to be accessible for those who are new to philosophy. You can read it here.
Schopenhauer proposes in his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, that the world we experience has two aspects, representation and Will.The World as Will and Representation is formed of two volumes. The first came out in 1819 and the second in 1844. The German title is Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, which used to be rendered in English as The World as Will and Idea. Like Kant, he argues that all of the objects that we cognise are mere appearances or representations, but unlike Kant, he disagrees that there are physical objects that lie beneath each appearance to ground them. Instead, objects all have the same underlying aspect: a subjective side that animates everything. Schopenhauer calls this the Will.Different scholars argue differently about what Schopenhauer means by ‘will.’ Some choose to capitalise it as Will when referring to a global Will, in order to differentiate it from a personal willing that exists inside each human. Others disagree that Schopenhauer means to identify the will with the Kantian idea of thing-in-itself (notably Magee in is 1997 article, Misunderstanding Schopenhauer). He draws on a lot of ideas from Plato and from the Upanishads (an ancient Indian text).
A consequence of this is that, according to Schopenhauer, life is suffering. The will is constantly pulling us in different directions, endlessly striving for us to fulfil a limitless number of desires. If we don’t try to fulfil those desires, we are confined to a life of boredom, and if we do engage, we can only gain fleeting pleasure, followed by endless suffering. However, Schopenhauer’s pessimistic outlook has two modes of salvation. One way is via an ascetic renunciation of all worldly goods, i.e., moving to a forest, becoming a hermit, and seeing through the veil of maya. The other way is through aesthetic appreciation: seeing and appreciating the richness of the world around us.
Human consciousness came from the will to live, so it is constantly in the service of the will. This means that in our normal mode of being, we always take an egocentric approach to the world; things are always perceived in relation to us as the centre of the world. In contrast, the aesthetic mode of being removes the ego. We cease to place ourselves in a spatio-temporal world; we forget our individuality and exist as a ‘pure knowing subject’ that is a ‘clear mirror of the object. It’s as if the object of our appreciation exists without a subject to appreciate it. Schopenhauer writes that “…no longer able to separate the intuited from the intuition as the two have become one.”Schopenhauer, A. (2010). The World as Will and Representation. Volume I, Book III, §34. Initially published 1819. Edited and translated by J. Norman, A. Welchman, & C. Janaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.201.
So, while Sōseki writes about an artist (qua the creator of a piece of art) as being the person who is able to attain this freedom from suffering, Schopenhauer opens this up to anyone who is a viewer of art and is thus able to reach this mode of aesthetic appreciation.
Schopenhauer also ranks different artforms, placing music as the highest form of art, as it gets us direct access to the will / is the most immediate way of removing the ego, and architecture as the lowest form of art. (We’ll use this idea of a hierarchy of artforms momentarily.) Unsurprisingly magic doesn’t feature in his list — but what do you think? Does seeing a really good magic trick chip away at our sense of self and transform you into a state of aesthetic appreciation, removing all boundaries between the aesthetic object (the magic trick) and the person appreciating it (the spectator?)
Wittgenstein was a philosopher of language. His early writings focussed on systematising all of language into a predictable logical system. Later, he realised this was an impossible task, and his writings turned towards the limits of language. His writing didn’t propose theories using syllogistic reasoning, i.e., he doesn’t make arguments by putting forward a list of premises and deductively drawing conclusions. His approach is more radical: he argues that we must “must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.Wittgenstein, L. (1972). Philosophical Investigations I, 304. Translation by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Part of his theory is that words aren’t defined by what they refer to.Here I mean part of a theory that has been ascribed to the later Wittgenstein, rather than one that he proposes and defends, because arguable Wittgenstein doesn’t really propose any theories. A word doesn’t mean something because it stands for a thought in our head. Instead, words are defined by their use. For example, the word ‘chair’ doesn’t get its meaning because it refers to a mental image or thought of a generic chair object that lives in our head. Verbal descriptions can only move us from one verbal expression to another. If the meaning of the word ‘chair’ was the content chair in our heads, we would still have to go further to define what chair is. Instead, Wittgenstein argues that the word ‘chair’ gets its meaning because we use ‘chair’ to talk about chairs, e.g. when pointing to one or asking for one or in any other interaction with another member of our language-speaking society that involves a chair. Wittgenstein thus advocates a “radical break with the idea that language … always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts.”Ibid.
Moreover, a word isn’t enough to convey meaning! A word has no intrinsic content. Consider pointing to a pencil and saying ‘this is Tove.’The Tove example comes from Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, a set of notes based on his lectures at Cambridge and compiled by his students. What does that mean? We could be trying to say any number of things, such as this is a pencil, this is cylindrical, this is made of wood, this is red, and so on. What Wittgenstein shows by this is that there is no fundamental relationship between things and the names of things.
I promise that all this is relevant to the topic at hand. We are asking whether magic is an artform. Wittgenstein argues that a word’s meaning is its use, so why not answer the question of whether magic is an artform by looking at how the word ‘magic’ is used?
I opened with examples which showed that a lot of magicians do consider magic to be an artform, but I think we should discount magicians here. Us magicians spend far too long thinking about magic, so much so that our everyday use of the word ‘magic’ is distorted. We can no longer accurately play the part of a member of our language speaking society, at least not when it comes to the topic of magic.
So, the question becomes: what do non-magicians think? Do they think that magic is an artform?
I ran a simple experiment to find out. I wrote a survey asking people to rate different potential types of art between one and four. A rating of one meant ‘definitely not an artform,’ and a rating of four meant ‘definitely is an artform.’ Two and three were leaning either way. You can see the survey here: paavanmagic.com/survey.
As a disclaimer, this survey is not scientifically or methodologically valid, and the results of it shouldn’t be used for anything further than them being of interest here.
The idea for this survey came from Schopenhauer’s hierarchy in the fine arts, as mentioned above. Schopenhauer ranks various types of art based upon a hierarchical ladder of the Platonic Ideas of those art forms. The survey included a big mix of things; rap music, watercolour painting, landscape gardening, dish washing (meant as a red herring) and, of course, magic. I distributed the survey by asking friends to share it on Facebook (I feared that if I shared it directly, my friends would know it was linked to something to do with magic).
The results were that 78.3% of the people who answered the survey said that magic was a 3. In contrast, 98.6% said painting was a 4. So, by virtue of this method, magic is in a grey area: it’s neither an artform nor is it not an artform. But it’s certainly leaning towards being one.
Some bonus questions for you. If magic is an artform, at what point does it become an artform? Compare it with a drawing: at what point does a drawing become art? Surely a single line on a paper isn’t art? What if the line was drawn by da Vinci himself, would that make it art? His famous Vitruvian Man sketch must count as art, but was there a point in between the first line drawn and the ‘finished’ sketch where it became art?This is the Sorites paradox, originally formulated about heaps of sand.
But perhaps there is a clear turning point where the old master’s sketch becomes a piece art, if, as discussed above, art is defined by the interpreter or viewer? It could be the point where a causal onlooker, peeking over the artist’s shoulder, starts to feel something.
Does the same translate to magic? Is there a point where a combination of sleights becomes magic? If I’m sitting at a coffee shop (probably with Alex), and I’m trying to nail a double lift or a cull, is there a point where that one sleight I’m doing becomes art?
Magic needs to be performed. Individual props and sleights are just tools that have to be combined and performed into a routine, just as individual notes and chords have to be combined for a piece of music, or individual dance steps have to be performed in time to music for a dance performance. If magic is going to be an artform, then surely it’s closest to being one when it is well-practiced and performed well.
Does any of this matter?
When I told Alex that I was writing about magic being (or not being) an artform, his first reaction was that it was a cringey question. He rightly reasoned that both magic and art are things that aren’t very well understood, and exploring the two together often just creates something doubly not well understood. Moreover, questioning whether magic is an artform is something only magicians think about. In Alex’s words, “the jury is out until laypeople start asking the question.”
As we saw from above, when we asked laypeople the question, they lean towards magic being an artform.
But is it even worth getting laypeople to ask the question?
When we perform magic, most of us don’t consider whether magic is an artform. Most magicians focus solely on whether or not the spectator is enjoying what they see. So why is it useful to question whether magic is an artform? Do theoretical questions like this benefit our practice and performance?
Thank you for reading this essay. I guess it’s not really an essay, just a collection of thoughts. I haven’t got any grand conclusions here for you but hopefully you found it interesting to read. If you have any comments or ideas relating to the above, please do email them to me. If you’re interested on reading more about this topic, I have a book coming out, on magic, art, experience and reality. You can subscribe to receive a one-off email when it’s released at magicdoesntexist.com.A huge thanks to everyone who discussed aspects of the above with me and pointed me in new directions, including but not limited to Joe, Rosie, Alex, Maj, Peter, Mahmoud, Manuel, Roger, Matt, Joey and Wee Dave.