When I was writing about video games for a living, there was one question that plagued literally every publication I worked at: “Are video games art?”
The question was as pointless as it was pervasive. Discussions on the topic would go round in circles for weeks. Feelings would be hurt. Very few people in the gaming sphere had done the necessary reading to add anything but emotional hot takes to the discussion. Besides, the community wasn’t really talking about the taxonomy of creative work. That was never the the real issue. When people talked about games and art, they were talking about the social, political, and fiscal ramifications of the Art (capital A) label, or trying to signal their own position on the great scoreboard of culture by either denying or confirming the medium’s art status. Or both. Running through every answer was a vein of raw insecurity: What you thought about games as an art form said more about your relationship with art in general than it did about games. It was awful.
Magic is further along the bumpy road of artistic acceptance, partially because it’s older and exists under the protective umbrella of theater, so dismissing it as a valid form of art doesn’t grant a critic any degree of intellectual prestige. Yet, magicians and those orbiting around the magic industry are still spinning their wheels in the mud of what is essentially the same question, one-step-removed: “Is magic major art?”
Major art, in this context, is the kind of stuff that’d come up in a Google search for art: Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, theater, film, and literature (though those last two are oft-debated). Minor art refers to what you might think of as subdivisions of those disciplines: Tapestry, jewelry-making, fashion, comics, photography, etc. The terms aren’t supposed to denote quality or intellectual worth, but it’s rare that anyone invoking them actually believes that.
The question is explored in some detail in this interesting piece by French magician, Norbert Ferré. I was surprised by how many of his points, though well-researched and well-argued, I’d heard before in discussions about video games, hence the indulgent intro to this article. His eventual conclusion is elegantly put:
…we must conclude that decidedly… magic is perhaps a minor art… but it’s an art practiced by major artists.
My own position is somewhat less nuanced: I don’t really care.
My argument isn’t that Ferré is wrong, per se, but more that the concept of major and minor art is so nebulous and so overtly political that the idea of it being a meaningful objective distinction is ridiculous. Even ignoring the issues of class, gender, and race inherent in any kind of system used to classify “tiers” of art, comparing magic to other forms of art, or other mediums, is just as much of a waste of time as it is for video games, because:
There are compelling arguments that magic is one of the oldest performance arts in history. Even if you stick very strictly to the modern definition of magic, you’re still talking about at least two thousand years of sleight-of-hand and illusions. Yet, compared to other art forms, even the most dedicated magic historians have relatively little to show for and from all those collective years of deception.
There’s a few reasons for this. For one, there was like 500 years where anything more complicated than a cup and balls routine would get you burned at the stake – that likely put a bit of a dampener on the industry. The largest problem is the nature of magic and the magicians themselves. Up until fairly recently, magicians were secretive as a matter of course, even long after they’d retired from performing. That’s had a devastating effect on the longevity of their work. You could go to a theater today and see something not entirely dissimilar from what Willy Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote/stole Othello, largely because he was trying to promote his work as well as himself. He wanted his scripts out there, with his name attached of course. He wasn’t hiding them in hollowed out trees or safes buried in his basement. That need for secrecy, combined with the truly obsessive amount of practice needed to perform high-level magic and the dangers involved in doing so, is a recipe for amazing acts dying with their performers.
Even when magicians do pass on their work, that artistic lineage is obscured. Magic enthusiasts might know the origin of a trick, but conveying that to the audience in a way that doesn’t betray the nature of the trick is difficult. As Paul Harris persuasively argued, “The act of highlighting magic as an art form is done through informing the public that there’s a lineage.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed that very few of the world’s best film critics are successful directors. Through study a critic can come to understand what qualities make a film good or bad, even if they have no mastery of the form themselves. While film is deceptive in the same way all art is deceptive (spoiler: Anthony Hopkins has never actually eaten anyone), a layperson can come to understand that deception, the intent behind it, and comment on the quality of its execution or the suitability of its use.
Magic, on the other hand, is specifically designed to draw attention to the presence of that deception while hiding the methodology behind it. Paradoxically, a magician is at the very peak of his prowess when he appears to be doing nothing at all. The ultimate expression of the magic as a performance art is something no one notices. Imagine if the most highly regarded piece of literature was a blank page or the best musician was someone pretending to be a CD player. Imagine that was what every writer or composer was aiming for. How well do you think their work would be regarded outside of their own discipline? People need to be able to perhaps not grasp but at least vaguely comprehend the difficulty involved in producing art. Magicians hide that difficulty on purpose.
“Where’s our Citizen Kane,” or, “this is our Citizen Kane,” are such oft-repeated cliches in the gaming sphere that the mere mention of the movie is a now joke unto itself. What people actually mean when they refer to Citizen Kane in that manner is a piece of work so huge, so influential, so unquestionably “good,” that it instantly raises both itself and its medium to high art.
To me, that betrays a lack of understanding of what Citizen Kane actually accomplished. The movie didn’t elevate film to art, it established the criteria by which a film’s artistry could be measured on its own terms rather than as a more convenient offshoot of theater. Has there really not yet been a magician or performer so ground-breaking that they’ve become a kind of universal yardstick for the quality of a magic performance? Robert-Houdin seems the obvious choice for popularizing and standardizing the very idea of “parlour” magic, but you can make sound arguments for Houdini, Copperfield, or even more modern magicians like David Blaine.
Perhaps instead of of hoping for some kind of art meteor to fly out of the blue and change everything overnight, we’d be better served by following the example of Cahiers du Cinéma, a French film magazine that, in the mid 50’s, began reevaluating what were then considered “trashy” Hollywood movies. This reevaluation led to greater recognition for directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, and Jean Cocteau, set the standard for modern film criticism, and was largely responsible for the creation of the “New Wave” of French Cinema. Yesterday’s trash became today’s culture.
And finally, even if we were to decide unanimously that magic is major or minor art, that status is far from secure. I present you with this quotation from an article published in the 1950’s by Paul Oskar Kristeller.
There were important periods in cultural history when the novel, instrumental music, or canvas painting did not exist or have any importance. On the other hand, the sonnet and the epic poem, stained glass and mosaic, fresco painting and book illumination, vase painting and tapestry, bas relief and pottery have all been “major” arts at various times and in a way they no longer are now. Gardening has lost its standing as a fine art since the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the moving picture is a good example of how new techniques may lead to modes of artistic expression for which the aestheticians of the eighteenth and nineteenth century had no place in their systems. The branches of the arts all have their rise and decline, and even their birth and death.
I found this quotation in an article about whether or not film is a major or minor art. Literally everybody is doing this dance.
As I said earlier, it’s a question driven by insecurity, by a desire to see one’s passion not just as something that brings joy, but as something that is culturally relevant and spiritually fulfilling. We want what we do to be important, and we look for validation in comparisons to other art forms. Yet, the importance of those art forms is not intrinsic, it’s a product of the culture that recognizes them.
And there you have my, perhaps a little bit flippant, answer to a complex question. To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with considering magic’s status in the world of art, but I think the discussion is far more interesting than the answer. What do you think? Is magic a major art? Does it matter? Be sure to let us know in the comments.