The Three Degrees in Art

Chapter 2 - The Three Degrees in Art

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Here we come into contact with a difficulty which has taxed the powers of many great minds to the utmost. Before we can talk sensibly about "Art" of any kind, we must first define the true meaning of that term. We must decide what, in our opinion, art really is. Fortunately in this instance, we are not in danger of encountering the obstacle that so many able intellects have failed to overcome. We are not called upon to define the meaning of art in the abstract. We have only to define what is meant by "Art in Magic." To that end, we may evoke the aid of both authority and common sense.

It was, we believe, Robert-Houdin who said that a conjurer is in reality "an actor playing the part of a magician." There is only one fault in that statement. He should have said "a great conjurer." Because, as we all know, there are many conjurers who only play the part of some other conjurer. That, however, is a matter with which we shall deal forcibly later on. For the present, we shall accept the broad principle expressed in Robert-Houdin's definition of a conjurer. That definition may not be--and is not--accurate in relation to what a conjurer always is; but, beyond doubt, it is accurate in the sense of defining what a conjurer always should be. A real modern magician, then, is essentially an actor. He must be so, or as the sole alternative he must be a duffer. Both authority and common sense unite in compelling us to that conclusion. To all intents and purposes, the real art of the magician is identical with that of the actor. The magician's methods, of course, are widely different from those of the actor; but, whatever difference there may be in method, the principles involved are identical in both cases.

From the time of Aristotle to the present date, the consensus of authorities has decided that all art is based upon imitation. Most of the authorities have "flown off the handle," in trying to decide what constitutes art in the abstract; but all agree that the basis of art is imitation-either the imitation of something that actually exists, or of something that might exist in circumstances imagined by the artist. With this knowledge in our possession and fortified by the exercise of our own judgment, we realize the fact that a display of skill given by a magical performer should imitate, and thus convey to the spectators, the impression of effects produced by supernormal powers. Herein, we may justly say that we stand upon sure ground and here we may rest, so far as primary considerations are concerned. We have no need to be led out of our depth by trying to define that will-o'-the wisp, "abstract art."

Now, artistic judgment may, to a great extent, be gained by study and experience. Similarly, physical adaptation may be developed by early and systematic training. And the acquisition of either of those essentials may be considerably facilitated by means of accurate knowledge. Such knowledge may be either theoretical or practical; but of the, two the theoretical must, in the long run, prove to be the more valuable. It necessarily conducts the student to the bedrock of his subject; whereas the study of practical details only leads to a knowledge of isolated facts. By means of the latter form of study, the student may learn what to do in order to produce certain effects. But, however much attention he may devote to the acquisition of that detailed knowledge, he will never ascertain there from the reasons which underlie the processes he employs. He will only learn the "how" of his work; the "why" will remain obscure. In short, he will never really understand his business. Everything he does will be done blindly. Every new departure he endeavors to make must be subject to conclusions arrived at by means of "trial and error." Any little variation upon his usual practice will represent a subject of extreme doubt. He can only think that what he proposes to do will produce the result he desires. He can never know what he is doing, because he does not understand why the things he does are successful.

On the other hand, the man who has gained a knowledge of the broad principles which constitute the foundation of the art side of magic must necessarily possess a great advantage, in such circumstances. He knows the reason why each effect he has already produced has been successful. He can follow the manner in which each of his previous devices has operated, in influencing the minds of spectators. Similarly, from his knowledge of basic principles, he will be able to deduce the proper manner of presentation and the probable effect of any new conception. The same principles which govern what he has already done also govern what he is about to do. Therefore, being acquainted with the "why" of the matter, he is not afflicted by doubts concerning the "how." Putting the whole thing in a nutshell, it simply comes to this-the man not only knows his business; he also understands it. He knows the technique, and understands the art. As to the great value--and the commercial value--of the understanding, we think, there can exist no possible doubt.

As already stated, there is a kind of art which imitates things imagined by the artist. There is another kind of art which imitates things that actually exist. There is also a third kind-that which imitates neither things imagined by the imitator, nor things that exist; but merely imitates the imitations of others. These three varieties may, respectively, be described as High Art, Normal Art, and False Art.

We now turn our attention to the systematic discussion of the three phases of art thus defined, and endeavor to arrive at sound conclusions thereon in relation to the Art in Magic.

The subject of false art in magic, when rationally investigated, presents no difficulties, in the way of either doubt or obscurity. In magic, as elsewhere, false art is the art which imitates art. It is an imitation of an imitation. An illustration of this may be given by means of a familiar analogy in connection with painting. Pictures painted by the great masters are frequently reproduced by students and by professional copyists. Many of the copies thus executed are,. in all practical respects, facsimiles of the original pictures from which they were copied. Yet nobody, in his sober senses, could possibly regard those copies, however faithful they may be, as works of true art. We have all seen copies of invaluable masterpieces offered for sale. We have all noted the insignificant price at which such copies are sold. We have all been struck by the small value of the copies as compared with their originals, the latter being very often so precious that money could not buy them. The reason for this discrepancy is obvious. The originals are works of high art. The copies are works of false art; except, of course, that they have the merit of honesty. They are admittedly nothing more than copies.

As in painting, so also in magic. To produce a magical effect of original conception is a work of high art. It imitates the exercise of magical powers, by means and in a manner conceived by the artist who produced it. To reproduce a magical effect, exactly as already conceived and executed by an artist in magic, is false art. It merely imitates the original imitation; and, in actual value, is just as worthless as a painting copied from another painting. Any weakling may be taught how to do that kind of thing; and, having learned his lesson, may earn an income equivalent to the value of a weakling's work.

Yet, in spite of the truth of the foregoing statements, many of those who practice magic, either as a means of livelihood or as an intellectual recreation, appear to be entirely ignorant of the very existence of facts such as those we have reviewed. In all probability, those men would feel highly offended were any doubt cast upon their claim to be regarded as artists. Yet, in all they do, they prove themselves to be mere mechanics. They can do just what somebody else has already done-and they can do nothing more. Such men are not artists. They cannot be; since, in all their works, the only kind of art displayed is the false art, which is an imitation of real art.

The class of man above indicated represents a type that must be very familiar to all. The methods adopted by such men are of common knowledge. Suppose, for instance, Mr. Artist produces a novel and successful effect. No sooner has he done so than Mr. Copyist becomes on the alert, and forthwith proceeds to haunt the place wherein Mr. Artist's performances are given. By means of persistent observation, aided perhaps by accident, by means of purchase from some other imitator, or, it may be, by means of bribery and corruption, Mr. Copyist eventually acquires the knowledge and equipment requisite for the reproduction of the novel effect. That end having been attained, one might think that Mr. Copyist would need to gain nothing, more at Mr. Artist's expense. Generally, however, that is far from being the case. Although he has become possessed of the technical requirements connected with the effect he seeks to reproduce, Mr. Copyist even, then is not content to take off his coat and do a little meritorious work. Having got what he wanted in order A to reproduce the effect, he might surely be expected to, infuse some spice of originality into his reproduction. But, no! He will not trouble himself even to that slight extent. He does not mind expending his time in gathering the crumbs that fall from another's table; but he has a rooted objection to ex ending energy in making his own bread. So he continues to attend Mr. Artist's performances until, in the course of time, he has learned by heart every word Mr. Artist says, every inflection of Mr. Artist's voice, and every movement and gesture Mr. Artist makes. Then, and then only, is Mr. Copyist pre pared to set to work on his own account. And when his reproduction is exhibited, what is it? Generally speaking, it is but a pale reflection of the original work of art. At the best, it is merely slavish imitation; and, as such, has no artistic value.

On several occasions, we have made an experiment which is always interesting. That experiment has been tried upon copyists, clinging to the skirts of various arts, including magic. It consists in saying to Mr. Copyist, at the conclusion of his performance, "I had only to close my eyes, and I could almost have believed it was Mr. Artist who was performing." Thereupon, Mr. Copyist has, invariably, assumed an expression of smug satisfaction, and has given thanks for the great compliment (?) paid him! If he could only have realized what was passing in the mind of the person to whom his thanks were addressed -but, there! his mental caliber, of course, forbids any such exercise of intelligence. Yet, one cannot help coveting the blissful ignorance and the sublime impudence which enable such a man to pose as an artist. The possession of an intellect so obtuse, and a hide so pachydermatous, must confer upon the possessor a degree of self-satisfaction unknown to men of real ability.

Some may possibly think we have been too severe upon Mr. Copyist. It must be remembered, however, that no useful purpose can be served by mincing matters, when endeavoring to uphold any just cause. If magic is to be raised to its proper level among the fine arts, one must not withhold the statement of any truth, however disagreeable it may be, that may help to drive home the essential points which distinguish real Art in Magic from the false art so often met with in the practice of magic.

Leaving for the present the subject of False Art, we shall proceed to the more agreeable considerations connected with True Art in Magic. Of this, as we have already seen, there are two kinds-Normal Art and High Art. Those definitions, of course, do not represent qualities that are capable of hard-and-fast classification. In the nature of things, that is impossible. The range of art, from its highest grade to its lowest, includes every possible degree of merit. Except in general terms, one cannot say that, within such and such limits, Normal Art is contained and, beyond those limits, we have on the one hand High Art, and on the other False Art. There is an almost imperceptible gradation throughout the entire scale, between each particular degree and those adjoining it. One can only generalize, when dealing with the principles of any form of art; and, speaking broadly, say that High Art is situated near to the top of the scale, Normal Art near the middle, and False Art near the lower end. It is the normal or average degree-approximating to the central position of the scale-that next claims our attention.

When discussing False Art in Magic, we had no difficulty in providing a definition of its nature. When we say that False Art is the art which imitates art, we are merely stating a truism, and one that is applicable to all arts alike. But when we proceed to define Normal Art in Magic, we find the task somewhat more difficult. In painting, for example, it is easy enough and accurate enough to say that Normal Art is the art which imitates nature. We can all understand that the normal artist, in painting, is he who transfers to his canvas a transcript of what he himself has seen in nature. In nature, however, there is no magic, because the very essence of magic is that it apparently sets the laws of nature at defiance. "Natural Magic" is really a contradiction in terms. It may mean almost anything, according to the sense in which it is used. Therefore, apart from art of some kind, magic has no existence. Hence, the point is, how can the normal artist in magic reproduce the normal effects associated with magic, without at once a becoming a false artist-one who imitates art? It is a very pretty question, involving an interesting problem. The answer to that question, and the solution of that problem, cannot fail to provide a valuable mental exercise for all magicians who respect their profession and value their art.

At first glance, it may appear that, at this stage of our investigation, we have encountered a difficulty of considerable magnitude; or possibly an insurmountable obstacle. A very little reflection, how ever, will show that such is by no means the case. The difficulty is more apparent than real. The principles which govern the normal practice of other arts will be found, absolutely, of equal validity in the Art in Magic. This may readily be demonstrated by amplifying the analogy, already employed, between magic and painting.

In painting, the normal artist makes a picture, representing some thing or a combination of many things, that will reproduce the effect of actually looking upon the work of nature. He does not create anything; he merely imitates things, which already exist, on canvas. The things he paints resemble, more or less, things which others have painted. As a rule, such resemblances, in normal art, are inevitable. The important point, however, is that the things he paints do not imitate paintings made by others. The various things which enter into the composition of his picture are the common property of every artist. Everyone is at liberty to combine those details, in any manner he may think fit, to produce whatever effect he chooses. But, so soon as any painter copies a particular combination, or a particular treatment of such details, as represented in the work of another, so soon will his work be reduced to the level of false art. Now, in view of these self-evident facts, the difficulty of defining the nature of Normal Art in Magic becomes reduced to very small dimensions. In fact, one can scarcely say that any difficulty exists.

Just as the average painter has at hand innumerable details of subject and technique, all of which are common property, so has the average magician a wide selection of materials which, in common with all his fellow-artists, he is at liberty to use. just as the painter uses familiar methods and stock subjects for the production of his pictures, so does the magician use methods and subjects which have a similar relation to his own special art. In either case, the chief characteristic which distinguishes Normal Art from False Art consists in the fact that the former relies upon personal ability, while the latter sponges upon the ability of others. That is perfectly clear.

There need be no hesitation in giving a definition of what constitutes Normal Art in Magic. Obviously, it is the art which employs familiar means to produce its own especial results. Normal Art of every kind, when reduced to its true basis, consists in that and nothing more. Certain subjects and certain methods are common property. The normal artist utilizes those subjects and methods, without copying anyone else. That is to say, the difference between the essentially false and the essentially true, in any art, lies in the respective absence or presence of original effort. One may be a true artist without possessing creative genius. Individual skill in adaptation will suffice. But no true artist can ever be made from material contained in a mere copyist. On the other hand, however, a normal artist may only too readily degenerate into a copyist, unless he is careful to keep in view the duty he owes both to his art and to himself.

Upon such points, the man who, even in a very minor degree, possesses the true artistic temperament, cannot help feeling and speaking strongly. He who seeks to acquire or to retain the social position assigned to an artist, can never lose sight of the maxim "Noblesse oblige."' He is perforce compelled to avoid many practices which, if employed in commerce, would be perfectly justifiable. He who employs the tradesman's methods must be content to remain a tradesman. His ultimate aim consists in the making of money; a thing with which art has no concern. It is true that, in art, even more profit may often be made than in trade; but whatever profit may incidentally accrue to the artist, his ultimate aim is far higher than matters relating to finance. He has, of course, every reason for studying his own interests. Nobody can blame him for that; nor, indeed, can do otherwise than approve his prudence. But, at all times, the interests of his art are paramount. Should there arise an occasion when an artist finds self-interest opposed to the interests of art, he must be prepared to sacrifice profit upon the altar of duty. If he cannot do that, he is no true artist. Let him, then, come down from his pedestal, and take his place among workaday humanity. In doing so, he will suffer no disgrace; but, on the contrary, he will deserve honor. By ridding himself of an unwarrantable assumption of artistic merit, he will be absolved from the guilt of false-pretense.

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