On the State of Magic Today

When I first discovered the world of magic, the David Blaine era was in full swing. Magic had finally broken out of the dusty old drawing room and was back with the people on the street as it had been long ago. Magicians were becoming ‘jongleurs‘ yet again. What is a jongleur? Well before the days of Jean Eugene Robert Houdin and Dr Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser (I really hope you aren’t reading this aloud)- during which time conjurers enjoyed relative elitism, as specialists and artists/inventors of illusion- the jongleur (or French ‘juggler’) was a certain breed of vagabonds barely distinguishable from those to be found at the circus. They would dazzle audiences much like modern day street performers, but until recently one variety of these jongleurs– those who performed sleight of hand- became somewhat less common with the revolution of Isaac Fawkes. Fawkes had decided, instead of actually going to meet his public on their own terms, he would erect a tent and ask his public to come to him, and what’s more, he was a specialist: he was a conjurer through and through. Soon, he became the most wealthy of his peers, and many of them began following in his footsteps. This left a hole, and jugglers became gradually separated from conjurers over the years.

By the 19th century, there was an aristocratic air in much of European magic. Some conjurers even became celebrities. They now had a name and with it a reputation, in the public eye. These were the days when tailcoats were worn unironically on stage. Unfortunately, until even the mid 20th century, magic in America was still not seen as such an elevated art form as it was on the Continent. There were a handful of exceptional performers, such as Houdini (stage-name in honor of Robert Houdin, aforementioned), but no one really cared for magical culture in and of itself. [And yes, Houdini was a magician, specifically an illusionist, as much as he was also an escape artist. I know many people deny that he had anything to do with magic, for various reasons, but this is just plain nonsense.] That all changed when a man called Dai Vernon came on the scene. By the way, don’t worry about pronunciation, if indeed you are reading this aloud: whenever asked how to pronounce his name, ‘is it day or die?’ Vernon would often reply with ‘e-ther or i-ther.’ Vernon set out on the task of turning American magic into something grand, and intriguing, something that you could aspire to actually make a career out of, and not just if you were the best of the best or had several syllables in your name preceded by ‘Dr’. I shall subsequently without a hint of irony call Vernon by the title his contemporaries gave him in honor of his contributions and vast knowledge of the craft: ‘the Professor’.

Dai_Vernon_1894-1992
Dai Vernon – The Professor

The Professor’s project has continued to this day, but while the goal is the same, the approach has become very varied, to say the least. Specifically, in card magic, which I shall talk about briefly in this post, whole cultural movements have sprung up over the years. When a book, The Expert at the Card Table, leaked inside information from the world of the card shark, sleight of hand was elevated to a new standard. On the one hand, was the revolution in Europe (and Fawkes’s Britain) of conjuring as an art. On the other hand came, in America, the revolution of sleight of hand as a craft. The Professor’s main contribution, on the global scale, was really to merge the two. Those (of which I am one) who are part of the direct pedagogical lineage of the Professor, try to embody this marriage in their performances. But so do many who are outside of this lineage, and unfortunately, I feel there is an element of misguidedness about much of it. While David Blaine is certainly a brilliant sleight of hand artist, as well as simply a brilliant artist, what with his character and performances, his wish to bring magic back to the streets where it originated (like some rappers these days), has lead to many of his peers missing the point entirely of this effort (cough-Dynamo-cough). They are only after bigger and more expensive illusions. They’ve taken the old adage ‘the world is a stage’ a bit too literally I think. Bigger is not always better, and camera tricks (movie magic) are not magic. In my opinion, if we want magic to be given respect, such as is given painting or music, we need magicians who respect it. We have far too many who want to use it to prove that they are special or have superpowers or whatever. We need real passion, a drive to, as Michael Vincent has said, leave magic better off than we found it. I’ve seen what magic can be, and this gives me hope.

I brought up card magic a little earlier. What is it about the pasteboard deck, this little prop, that is so emblematic of magic and magicians? Well, there’s the esoteric side, of course, the 4 suits representing the 4 seasons, and other such numerology, but the real reason is much more practical: cards are small and easy to carry in one’s pocket, but they are also versatile and filled with infinite potential for creativity. There are also many properties of cards, like their individual physical dimensions, flexibility, and even destructibility that allow for the kinds of subtle sleight of hand which is possible at the highest level. But then- and perhaps numerology does serve a purpose after all- cards have deep mathematical properties which allow even the most inexperienced newbie to dazzle and amaze, along with the cunning mentalist. And to top all this off, cards are cheap. No other prop has this kind of value for money, other than possibly money itself, for magic.

I believe you can actually write an entire history of modern magic just by examining the myriad ways in which cards have been used- from Dr. Hofzinser to Daniel Madison- and how they, to a large extent, embody the philosophy of deception adopted by the different schools of witchcraft and wizardry. In fact, I may one day do this very thing. Here though, I want to simply allude to the general ideas people subscribe to and explain why I am decidedly opposed to some of them. Today, any schmuck can go out into the street, call up someone’s attention, take out some cards and amaze them with a couple of torn and restored card tricks and a not-so-ambitious-card routine – all while the deck receives half a dozen signatures and a dozen irreversible crimps, making it virtually unusable thereafter. This attitude to cards, that they are just disposable objects, is actually what I think is the problem with most magic today. It does not call for respect, because the magician him/herself does not respect magic. It calls instead for hits on YouTube, and it is, not entirely by coincidence, that these are the types who readily reveal secrets on the internet for free. They did not have to work for any of this, their attitude is ‘practice schmactice, as long as I get hits’ [reference]. The problem is that such a street performance is worth a dime a dozen, about as disposable as cards to be honest. Because of the lack of respect for the performance, the audience, and the atmosphere of magic (these types usually just want to freak people out or pick up chicks), their audience does not respect them. Does anyone really respect Chriss Angel, apart from 13-year-olds who think he’s edgy? Or those other idiots on YouTube (and I’m thinking of one in particular as I write this) who try to emulate him, teaching 13-year-olds how to produce rolled up cards from cigarette packs? Nope. Interesting to note, we now additionally have the cardistry phenomenon, which is quite literally card juggling. We’ve gone full circle it seems.

On the other hand, there is what has now become known as “classical magic”. Michael Vincent is the most accomplished proponent of this style. The feel of the style is that of cleanness and precision. The few magicians in the world who are skilled in this form practice for years, hours and hours a day (I should know). The main point is minimal movement; a reduction in excess; the beauty of simplicity. The deck of cards is no longer treated as disposable pieces of paper, but a highly tuned instrument, like a grand piano with 52 keys. Not present is the gimmicky/cheap feel of the prop an in the hands of a street or YouTube magician, instead, they are granted a certain integrity. Also, whereas street/YouTube magicians tend to handle the cards way too much, fiddling, fumbling, shuffling and twirling them (and I am not exaggerating) the classical magician abstains from all but the most refined and purposeful movement. The state of the deck must be clear to the spectator at all times. This is important. It must seem as if the magician does nothing at all but the most natural and unsuspecting cuts, shuffles, spreads or adjustments. Otherwise, the cards should be placed flat on the table, in full view of everyone. Sleight of hand should be a refined skill. There should be no chance for suspicion.

There is, however, one more school which I think deserves a mention. This is that of Daniel Madison. He believes that the techniques of deception have artistic merit in and of themselves. There are others, such as Derren Brown, who sometimes like to give away the secrets of their tricks, but Madison is the card man. He has decided that sleight of hand is itself an art, not just a tool from which the art of magic emerges. Because of the fact that magicians are seemingly more fascinated in magic than a lot of spectators, having an understanding both of what is behind the scenes and on the stage (similar to how the biggest film buffs are often themselves filmmakers) it is fitting that Madison should allow his spectators in on the secrets of the craft. A huge upsurge in people’s interest in film has occurred recently with the rise of the internet. The deconstruction and analysis of the film, yes, does surely break the illusion- but only for the purposes of allowing one to appreciate more how that illusion was created, and to understand it at a deeper level. This is the beauty of what Madison is doing with card magic, and it is certainly a lot of fun to watch. How does this conflict with my views? Well, not as much as the YouTuber who shares secrets for free (most of which are not theirs to share) and passes on their shoddy advice to the next generation. Why? Well because for one Madison is actually highly skilled, and two, Madison is not teaching you anything. He is just showing you the trick from the wrong angle. If you want to learn what he does, you’ll have to pay handsomely and buy his book. [The paywall is important because you should learn properly and from a professional. People who don’t ask for money do not do so for one very simple reason: they are not qualified or experienced enough to teach you properly, were they to ask for money, they would simply be laughed at by real professionals. There are other ethical reasons why the intellectual property of a magician should not just be flaunted on the internet by some random person, but since what Madison is doing technically does violate these ethics, in a way, discussing this here would only confuse things.] Yes, Madison is technically a ‘YouTube magician’, but he uses the platform for performance purposes only. He is a performance artist and a very good one at that. His videos are works of art and deception is his theme.

It is tempting to go back to the days of the jongleur, but in the modern world, this easily becomes a corrupted effort. My hope is that we can instead do something original, elevate the craft and the art of magic, give it the respect it deserves- and maybe one day, we can do the Professor proud.

2 Comments

  1. When I was 13 or so a neighbor took me and 2 of my pals to a magic show, It was done by HS kids from Tottenville HS. They did 12-15 tricks, and took questions at the end. I debunked all of their tricks, and the lead magician then called me onstage and did a trick I could not explain. I don’t recall what it was, 40 years on, but it always bugged me that I could not get that last trick explained. Anyway, despite the magician claiming victory in one of over a dozen tricks, I told the crowd that there was an explanation and just because I did not know it then did not mean it was real. Ah, the days of yore.

    1. People call magic the ‘art of deception,’ but then isn’t all art an illusion of sorts? The point is to immerse the viewer in the experience, that is what truly great artists do. There should not be this tension where the spectator is noticing every little move and trying to figure out how it’s done. Just like a great novel, it shouldn’t be so apparent that it was plotted out from A to B. If you can reverse engineer a magic trick, it means the plot is very obviously contrived, and/or poorly executed.

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