Magic is important. It has inspired the imagination of science to find a way to bring illusion into reality, it’s served as light entertainment for the masses and it has even prevented war.
At the same time magic can seem trivial and on the bottom rung of the arts latter. There are many versions of the kind of demonstrations that might be performed. Many of those demonstrations aren’t magic and yet we call them as such.
There are many tricks in magic that I feel are demonstrations of skill but not demonstrations of magic. Memorizing a deck of cards at rapid speed, solving a rubik’s cube quickly, and even reading someone’s psychological tells to learn which hand is hiding an object are not magic effects. These are impressive stunts. A poker deal demonstration isn’t magic, it’s a demonstration of a particular skill of cheating. There’s nothing wrong with these kinds of demonstrations ( some can be quite entertaining and impressive) but they aren’t magic. I’d argue that most modern mentalism and the way it’s presented also isn’t magic. It plays as a demonstration of an apparent skill.
Generally we classify all of the above under the umbrella term of “magic” and yet very little of it seems to be. Magic used to be one step ahead of the general public when it came to technology and what is possible. The futurist and writer, Arthur C Clark’s third law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’d argue that that’s only sort of true. It certainly depends on the technology and if technology is sensed to be present behind an effect by a savvy audience. If it is suspected the effect certainly no longer magical. There is no an explanation even if the audience is completely aware of how that explanation works. it’s simply techology. Granted we sometimes only conceptually understand how technology works but we understand that technology isn’t magic and therefore accept it as the realm of possible. Therefore, I believe it’s possible for conjuring tricks to be mistaken as technology. I also believe that technology is much more rarely mistaken as genuine magic.
Magic is the impossible. It’s the stuff that we know intuitively isn’t possible. Here’s the thing: different people have different knowledge bases and beliefs. So the first step to performing what feels like magic is to know your audience. If you understand your audience, it’s of course easier to manipulate their perception of reality. A person who believes and has a strong foundational belief in witchcraft, for instance, will be more apt to believe in having the intuitive power to sense the black cards from the red when presented with the Paul Curry classic card trick “Out of This World.” Similarly, a person who has a foundational belief in certain religions might attribute the results of such a card trick to be due to the power of the devil.
More savvy audiences will not attribute supernatural or magical causes to such a card trick and may choose the explanation of psychological suggestion or good intuition (especially if the performer chose to throw in one or two red herrings that support such ideas). Others still might simply chalk it all up to some very sneaky sleight of hand on the performer’s part.
Do any of those results communicate magic? It depends how we define and accept magic as a concept. This brings up an entire different issue: the issue of responsibility to creating false beliefs. Magicians are often the door keepers to reality and truth. I personally believe that by encouraging the belief in the impossible we encourage false beliefs in life and that can have serious negative consequences on how a person makes important personal choices. A small lie can certainly lend credibility to bigger more important lies. Please make no mistake; I have no issue lying for the cause of creating an entertaining magic trick (My first book focused on the idea that a lie can be the underlying principle to create a magical effect with very little other forms of trickery). I do take issue with leading folks into false realities and leaving them there to swim on their own.
With magic it might be argued that most people don’t believe that we can really make objects vanish, float, or even transport from one place to another. Surely there are some that might still believe such miracles are possible and are actual result of the supernatural. Very few people in this modern age hold this belief in that possibility. Much more plausible beliefs are that we (as performers and apparent experts in our field) can reliably read body language or that we can tap into a psychic intuition. Those concepts can feel very real to certain people even if reading body language to the kind of success most mentalist demonstrate is unreliable at best and intuition is often muddied with or own confirmation bias. I take a bold approach and state the following to my audiences, not at the top of my show but after I have their complete attention after a convincing effect or two. Here’s the message I’m currently communicating to my audience:
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw my first magic. I grew up watching people read minds both through psychic and psychological techniques on television and magicians making large objects levitate only to vanish moments later. I read every book I could get my hands on on the subject of magic hoping to learn how I could do these things. I was devastated to find out, after countless years of study, that absolutely none of it was real. Every single one of those people were simply demonstrating a well crafted conjuring trick; a magic trick. I was certainly swept away in the power of those demonstrations and my own imagination. I can only imagine how you’re feeling right now, experience magic. I’d give almost anything to have that feeling again. I’d like to spend the rest of the evening giving that to you.”
Mentalism and magic tricks can be magical, but only if we first prove that what we’re doing is impossible. As magicians and mentalist, why aren’t we playing more often in the impossible? It’s time to stop hiding behind the game of pretend and start doing great magic again.
*Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin’s iconic Light and Heavy chest was a powerful piece of magic. So powerful in fact that it prevented a war between France and French Algeria by creating the belief that France had a wizard on their side that could sap the strength from the strongest man of anyone who threatened them.
This essay first appeared in a set of lecture notes titled Contour and were available at the John Luka’s Motor City Close up Convention.