The Importance of Artistic Principles for Magicians

Chapter 15 - The Importance of Artistic Principles

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Having now covered the range we had mapped out for this section of our book, we shall end with a few remarks upon the real importance of our subject. It is to be feared that the majority of readers will largely fail to grasp the true significance of much that we have said. Not that we attach supreme value to our own contributions to general knowledge, but that portions of the subject itself will probably be regarded as of little consequence in practice. The aspect in which we have viewed the matter is by no means novel in connection with art in general. In relation to magic, however, our point of view is so unusual that many people are sure to think we have been trying to put forward ideas which are entirely novel, and at times somewhat eccentric.

We beg to assure those who have formed any such opinions that they are entirely mistaken in their conclusions. What we have said about Art in Magic has its foundation in what has long been said and accepted in connection with other arts. The views we have expressed have their analogues in the views long since adopted by exponents of other arts, and endorsed by the highest authorities upon art of every kind. Thus, we have not attempted the creation of new principles or new standards, but have merely adapted to the art of magic those principles and standards already common to art in general.

In order to bring magic into line with other arts the first step, obviously, must be to associate with it those principles and traditions whereby other arts are governed. In so doing, there is no question of bringing magic under the control of artificial and needless conventions. The accepted ideas of artistic rectitude have not been prescribed by illogical tyranny. They are conceptions evolved, in the course of ages, through the mental activity of many able men, to whom experience gave wisdom in their respective generations. If we wish to prove the claim of magic to rank upon an equality with other arts, we must first of all establish its relation to recognized artistic principles and ideals, both in theory and in practice.

In this respect, the greatest danger to be feared consists, not in the possible opposition of young magicians seeking a royal road to success, but in the antagonism of those who have already fought their way to the front rank and, by virtue of their innate sense of artistry, have become successful exponents of magic. This latter class represents the greatest potential stumbling-block to be dreaded by those who realize the proper course to pursue. The reason is that men who, by rule of thumb, have learned something of artistic presentation are the least likely to appreciate the value of systematic knowledge. So long as they are able to stumble successfully along the paths of art, without knowing exactly where they want to go until they get there, they cannot understand why any other method should be preferable. In the light of their own practical experience, they can eventually reach a position somewhere in the vicinity of their proper destination, and with that they are content. That is what they regard as artistic procedure. It never occurs to them that, by systematizing the knowledge they possess, they could learn how to avoid the uncertainty they feel at every step they take, and how to go straight to their destination instead of having to grope their way along devious sidetracks.

As to those who have not the aid of long experience to rely upon, there can be no doubt of the value to them of definite principles whereby their proper course may be decided, thus securing freedom from many disasters which would otherwise be inevitable. Since they have to learn their business somehow, they may as well, learn it properly. It is quite as easy to learn in either way, and the proper way will save them a lot of trouble in the end. If, in addition to the how of their business (as represented by "tips," "wheezes," "sleights," and "fakes"), they will also learn the why (as revealed by a knowledge of artistic principles), they will find great advantage therein, increasing constantly with experience gained.

Hence, to those magicians who are still in the early stages of their careers, we earnestly suggest the advisability of giving due attention to the aspect in which we have presented to their view the art they profess to esteem-which they profess to regard as something higher than a mere source of profit. We do not ask them to take anything for granted. The blind acceptance of any doctrine whatever is a thing we would advise them to avoid at all times, as a most pernicious fault. We only ask them to think for themselves, and to think seriously. It was the late Professor Huxley, we believe, who said that "irrationally held truths are more harmful than reasoned errors." Anyhow, that fact and the necessity for bringing reason to bear upon ignorance and indifference are the essential points we have tried to illustrate.

To those magicians who have already achieved success and established a claim to artistic merit, we would say that what we have written is no new thing intended to supplant the knowledge they possess, or to oppose the experience they have gained. If they will only efface from their minds all prejudice and bias, they will surely find that we have simply put into definite shape and order the considerations upon which their experience has been founded, and from which their knowledge has been derived.

To all magicians alike, we would say that unless and until they study their art upon lines such as we have endeavored to indicate, any real elevation in the status of magic must be impracticable. Due recognition of the artistic claims of magic and magicians can only be brought about by proving that those who practise magic are something more than common jugglers, on the one hand, or common mechanical tinkers, on the other hand. Illusionists, prestidigitators, and general practitioners alike, must give proof of their artistic qualifications. This they can only do by realizing that magic is essentially an intellectual pursuit, and treating it as a true art-not merely as an embodiment of more or less intelligent skill.

We do not claim to have said the last word upon this subject, nor to have set down infallible precepts throughout the entire course of our inquiry. We are well aware that innumerable details of more or less importance have been left untouched, and we have probably expressed some views, upon minor points, which may be more or less open to question. Yet, with regard to general principles, we are fairly confident of having kept within the bounds of reasonable accuracy. Our immediate aim has been to induce magicians to think, by giving them something worth thinking about. We are well aware that there exists no class of men whose work receives more earnest thought than that of the average magician. What we suggest is that, although magicians are studious and energetic men, they too often fail to think artistically. They are too liable to regard their profession as a branch of "show business," rather than a branch of true art. In this section we have tried to help them in correcting that failing, by pointing out the lines along which their ideas must run if, by virtue of their calling, they expect to rank as artists. Being public entertainers, they have open to them the path which leads to artistic repute of no mean order. If they do not choose to follow that path, they cannot expect to attain a high position in the world of art. Not only so, every magician who turns his back upon the road to artistic merit helps to degrade the status of the entire magical profession, and to create obstacles to the advancement of magic itself.

Although, in our endeavor to correct certain errors, we may have fallen here and there into. errors of another kind, we feel no compunction on that score. No man is infallible, and only one man is supposed to be so. Even he could scarcely be expected to make no mistakes in dealing with questions concerning any form of art. The Pope himself could not hope to settle such questions right off the reel. If we have succeeded in providing food for discussion, and in persuading some of our fellows to think about and discuss the points we have raised, that is all we can reasonably hope to have achieved. We have simply done our best to carry out work which somebody was bound to undertake, because the necessity had become imperative. Our future responsibility in the matter will be confined to aiding whatever efforts others may make in correcting or amplifying the views we have stated. We are confident that, as time goes on, the importance of this particular aspect of magical theory will become increasingly evident, at any rate to those who give the subject their honest and unbiased attention.


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