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.
In almost every aspect of the entertainment industry, there are clearly-defined laws in place to protect intellectual property. You won’t see an up-and-coming musician with a library of YouTube videos performing a previously-recorded song and passing it off as their own on a talk show; it just doesn’t happen. And yet, in the realm of magic, these occurrences are not only embedded into the medium’s history; it’s something big-name, high-profile acts deal with regularly to this day.
In the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter that successful illusions can take years to create, cost as much as a high-end car, and take a team of engineers to execute, because magic isn’t art, legally speaking. Many magicians don’t create their own illusions, instead purchasing them, often with exclusivity deals attached. Despite the clear monetary value, United States copyright laws state that you can’t copyright an idea, just the specific performance of that idea. Where does the idea end and performance begin? That’s where things get muddy.
Even David Copperfield, perhaps the most successful illusionist of all time, can’t stop amateur magicians from copying his tricks. Speaking with GeniiOnline about his own fight to protect his magic, he said, “I used to fly in my show and there was a guy in France who copied it. The background, the costume, the music, everything.” Other times, he’s seen people performing tricks he engineered on TV, only to be told by network execs that “everybody does that stuff.”
Though modern technology makes it easy to upload and share tricks with the world, this certainly isn’t a new problem; magicians have been stealing each other’s tricks for centuries. Copperfield, who owns a Vegas museum that houses the world’s largest collection of magic memorabilia, is well-versed in its history, and cited several examples of old-school thievery. Early 20th-century magician Horace Goldin spent years protecting the concept for which he was most famous—sawing a woman in half—but even the origins of that illusion have been questioned. Going back to the 1800s, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin saw many of his creations, including ethereal levitation, stolen and sold off to competitors.
“At the time in Europe, you had to travel to the city” to see a magic act, Copperfield pointed out. In the days before Wi-Fi, high-def smartphone cameras, and YouTube, it took a significant amount of effort just to see another performer’s show, let alone reverse engineer it. It still happened, as history can attest, but it wasn’t as simple as rewatching a clip over and over while Googling tutorials. “Here with the internet, it’s instant. You can screengrab videos you see on TV and measure the prop and rebuild it and watch the performance and see what the music is and literally copy and lift it.”
Part of the problem with trying to protect tricks, he says, is deciding whether or not it’s worth the effort to even fight. Copperfield isn’t one to let others steal his hard work, but it’s not a straightforward battle. “I sued him in France and won, and he had to pay me every single time he did it,” he said of the knockoff flyer. In America, that’s still an option, but fighting takes a significant investment of time and money—time and money that should be spent coming up with new illusions, not protecting old ones. If magic were legally declared an art form, protecting one’s illusions would be less of a headache.
It’s not just about calling something “art” for the sake of it; it’s what that status represents. Legally, it would come with the kind of protections granted to most other forms of entertainment, which gives artists a clear path forward in cases of theft and more easily penalizes perpetrators. And there’s no doubt that Copperfield is an entertainer; he’s got dozens of Emmy nominations, 11 Guinness World Records, and even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He’s also by far the highest-earning magician in the world, having made over $61 million in 2017 alone (double what second-place act Penn & Teller netted). If it’s a struggle for someone of his fame and resources to protect his act, what hope does an up-and-coming illusionist have?
As if the awards and titles aren’t enough, Copperfield’s name is now attached to a different kind of title: Resolution 642, which aims to “recognize magic as a rare and valuable art form and national treasure.” Introduced in 2016 and sponsored by Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, Resolution 642 cites Copperfield alongside Harry Houdini as one of the most successful magicians of the last 200 years, and states that he “has impacted every aspect of the global entertainment industry” and “through his magic, inspires great positive change in the lives of Americans.” On top of legally declaring magic an art form, H.Res 642 “supports efforts to make certain that magic is preserved, understood, and promulgated”—in other words, protected from would-be illusionists looking to cash in on someone else’s efforts.
“Eventually we’ll get this bill passed in Congress… the congressmen and congresswomen are working with me on this, to help legitimize and protect [magic] from a legal standpoint so that we’ll have the designation of a true art form, like jazz and music, which have more clear protections,” Copperfield said. At the moment, the resolution appears to be on hold, awaiting a less tumultuous political climate; as he puts it, “I think it’s best to wait till the time is right and then go in there when people are more relaxed and less stressed.”
He knows that H.Res 642 won’t be an instant solution, but he thinks it will go a long way towards protecting himself and other magicians. “It’s not just about the money, it’s about time and work… [the audience] doesn’t know the amount of trial and error it takes.”
In the meantime, Copperfield is always working on new material, trying to look forward rather than back. “Years ago it bothered me a lot more… I spent seven years working on one illusion and people are copying it. So I focused on this resort I have in the Bahamas, I focused my energy on that, rather than creating new magic… for a while it really changed my path.” In moving forward, Copperfield has focused on illusions with “a complexity that’s hard to duplicate,” using ideas like aliens, dinosaurs, and time travel, things that you won’t find in any classic magic book. “For me, the only solution I have is to kind of outrun myself and try to get over the frustration, to keep moving forward and going to new areas.” Currently, that means performing several nights a week in Las Vegas to rave reviews, showing the world that, law or no law, magic thieves can’t keep him down.
Escapology is meant to be thrilling rather than unnerving, but an installation piece called EVASION by Dr. Michele Barker and Professor Anna Munster of the University of New South Wales does exactly that.
The piece shows edited clips of the usually funny magician and escape artist Ben Murphy in the middle of performing Harry Houdini’s famous straight jacket escape. Out of order, at different speeds and with no broader time-frame to contextualize them, the movements Murphy uses to escape the jacket look painful and spastic. By the time he gets the looped arms of the jacket over his head, it’s all gone a bit Silent Hill, and while the spooky horror movie music playing in the background is a little bit over the top, it certainly makes for a good effect.
The object in the opening seconds of the video is actually a customized praxinoscope that sat outside the space in which Evasion was installed back in 2014.
You can see a second, two-panel iteration of EVASION that shows Murphy’s full escape from the jacket here.
Fooling people isn’t just the purview of magicians. As long as there are people willing to part with large sums of money, there will be thieves, con artists, and forgers willing to take advantage of them. Art forgeries in particular are a great way to make a ton of cash—as long as you don’t get caught. Frustrated painters and expert copycats pop up every now and then to rock the art world to its core, often making millions of dollars on illicit reproductions of great historical works before being found out. These are some of the most successful counterfeiters in art history.
Yep, that Michelangelo—the guy who sculpted the statue of David and painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was very likely also a con-man. It was common for artists during the Renaissance to copy the work of classic painters in order to practice their brush strokes, but some art historians believe that when Michelangelo was first starting out, he passed them off as classics and sold them to rich people for a huge profit.
Antiquities often sold for up to ten times more than modern works during his time, and Michelangelo simply didn’t make enough original art to account for his sizeable fortune at such a young age. Many historians believe that he would borrow old drawings, copy them, then use smoke to age them and sell them—even to the point that some believe there are “ancient” paintings hiding out in Greek or Roman museums that should actually be attributed to Michelangelo instead.
There’s even a story of Michelangelo trying to pull a fast one on an Italian cardinal by forging a sculpture of a cherub and burying it in a garden to make it look older than it was. Michelangelo was found out, but the cardinal was so impressed that he not only allowed Michelangelo to keep his cut for creating the fake, but even invited the budding artist to come to Rome to work on his art—a move that would end up jump-starting his career and making him into the artists whose work has become synonymous with the Renaissance.
There aren’t a lot of concrete facts that we know about Elmyr de Hory’s life, mostly because de Hory relied on deception to ply his trade. He only gave detailed accounts of his life in a biography called Fake, written by Clifford Irving—a writer who would go on to fabricate a biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes a few years later. Many of the details de Hory gives in Fake are either fudged or lacking sufficient evidence to back them up.
What we do know about de Hory is that he was an artist who had an incredible ability to copy other people’s paintings, often making more money on his forged Picassos than his own original works. He traveled around the globe, creating hundreds of forgeries and selling his work to dealers and wealthy people looking to increase their clout with some well-priced art. One mark was a Texas oil baron named Algur H. Meadows, who became incensed when he learned that 56 paintings—nearly his whole collection that he spent $2 million to acquire—were all phony.
De Hory grew tired of forging paintings and tried his hand at making his own again, but was never able to replicate the same kind of success he could with his fakes. In 1976, he learned that Spain was planning to extradite him to France on forgery charges and took his own life. His legacy lives on, however, in the fantastic documentary F for Fake, directed by cinematic master and known charlatan Orson Welles.
Henricus Antonius van Meegeren was born in 1889 to a middle-class family in Deventer, Netherlands. In his 20s, he tried to make an honest go of painting, attending an art academy and putting his work up for sale, a few of which became quite popular at the time. Critically, however, his paintings were seen as having “every virtue except originality”. In response to these reviews, he wrote a series of scathing takedowns in art journals (the 1920s equivalent of angrily replying to online comments), and then set out to prove them all wrong by creating the ultimate forgery.
He practiced by copying the works of several great Dutch painters, eventually landing on Johannes Vermeer as the subject of his greatest counterfeits. He painted The Supper at Emmaus in 1936, got it verified as an official Vermeer work, and sold it to the Rembrandt Society for the modern equivalent of nearly $5.5 million.
His biggest con, though, was fooling Nazi general Hermann Göring with a forgery of Christ with the Adulteress for the modern equivalent of $7 million. After World War 2, van Meegeren was discovered to be the source of the painting’s sale, and would have been tried for treason (as selling Dutch cultural history to the Nazis would have been considered collaboration and a war crime), but he copped to forging the painting and was sentenced to one year in prison instead. He never served out his term, though—as the trial was wrapping up, he suffered a series of heart attacks and died in 1947. All told, van Meegeren’s forgeries had earned him over $60 million in today’s currency. Not too shabby for an “unoriginal” painter.
Wolfgang Beltracchi, along with his wife Helene, are two of the most successful forgers of the 21st century, making millions off of illicitly sold paintings. Beltracchi (born Wolfgang Fischer, eventually taking his wife’s last name when they married in 1993) began forging paintings when he was 14, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that his forgeries began to make him some serious money. After marrying his wife, the two would operate as a team—Wolfgang creating the forgeries, and Helene selling them to art dealers and collectors.
Wolfgang’s claim to fame was essentially creating new paintings that would fit inside a classic artist’s oeuvre, mimicking style and even signature down to minute details. His work was so good that he even fooled painter Max Ernst’s widow with one of his forgeries. What eventually busted him was the paint; he’d used titanium white in a forgery of Heinrich Campendonk, a style of paint that wasn’t available in 1914, the year the painting was supposed to have been created. In 2011, Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison for forging 14 works that sold for $45 million, though he claims to have faked “about 50” different artists. His wife was similarly sentenced for being an accomplice and the two were ordered to pay back millions as compensation for their theft.
Lucky for the two of them, people have been just as interested in his own personal works as they had been for his forgeries. A gallery full of Beltracchi originals opened shortly after his release from prison and the pieces in it sold for millions.
Knoedler & Co. was one of the oldest art galleries in the United States, founded in 1846 in New York City, and host to some of the greatest classic and contemporary works in the world. Unfortunately, all of that fell apart after a scandal in the early 2000s obliterated its reputation and forced its closure.
In 1994, Ann Freedman became the gallery’s director, and met with a woman named Glafira Rosales—a woman who had no prior connections to the art world. Rosales was somehow able to obtain priceless abstract paintings from Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and many more. Her story was that they were obtained from a secretive and reclusive collector with homes in Switzerland and Mexico, but in actuality, the whole operation was a counterfeit ring run by, Rosales, her boyfriend Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, his brother Jesus, and a chinese forger named Pei-Shen Quian, who created the forgeries in his garage in Queens. Quian was paid a few thousand dollars for each fake; Rosales then sold them to the Knoedler Gallery for millions.
From 1994 up until 2008, the Knoedler Gallery sold or consigned 40 forged paintings, totalling over $80 million. Once details of the gallery’s numerous fakes came to light, the fallout grew exponentially. Knoedler was subpoenaed in 2009; Freedman stepped down shortly after. Freedman maintained that the works were real up until 2013, when Rosales admitted to the ring and pled guilty to a litany of charges. The Diaz brothers were arrested in Spain after fleeing the US; Quian fled to China and has so far avoided extradition. The Knoedler Gallery shut down in 2011, supposedly for financial reasons unrelated to the forgeries, but in 2016, details came to light that the gallery would not have turned a profit for the last 17 years of its existence if not for the forgeries.
Since the closure, numerous collectors have successfully sued the gallery or settled out of court over the sale of these counterfeit paintings. Considering we’re still hearing new information nearly a decade after allegations began, there’s a good chance we’ll continue to find out just how deep this conspiracy ran in the years to come.
Magicians in India are making a push for the government to recognize magic as an art form. The Association of Illusionists and Magicians is hosting a convention on December 15 to discuss how they can mobilize more interest and support for their work. Atul Patil, president of AIM, spoke to The Hindu about the group’s goals.
“We have collectively decided to protect and popularise this art. This convention will seek to find ways not only to boost this art, but also to work for the welfare of illusionists and magicians across the world,” he told the publication. “There are two quick ways to make magicians popular again: accord magic the status of an art form, and reduce entertainment tax on shows.”
More than 250 magicians are expected to attend. The convention will also have magic shows and performances that are open to the general public, in addition to lectures on magic.
Any performer who undertakes an escape stunt is making a calculated risk. Sometimes, the challenges they set themselves might be a little outside their physical abilities. Sometimes, an act will fail. Belgian performance artist Mikes Poppe had to call off his stunt trying to free himself from a chain buried in a massive block of marble. Poppe spent 19 days trying to escape before being cut out by a safety team.
Even though he wasn’t able to pull off the stunt, Poppe is still keeping a positive attitude about the trick.
“This block is symbolic of history – the history of art which I am trying to free myself from,” he said. “I discovered that this is not possible – to free yourself from the history of art.”
Maybe that’s just a poetic spin on failure, but it’s still a good one.