There’s a certain type of fiscal conservative unique to the United States that takes great issue with public spending on the arts, and indeed, seems to believe that every government dollar that isn’t spent on road maintenance or predator drones may as well have been shovelled into a great pit and set ablaze.
The latest target of this faux-concern for the taxpayer’s dime is the Circus Center in San Francisco (of course it’s in San Francisco) which claims to be the only school for the Circus arts in the US. The Centre has racked up roughly $175,000 in government funding since the turn of the century. That’s the best part of ten grand a year, the latest instalment of which was in the form of a $10,000 NEA grant in 2017. The money helped fund The Clown Conservatory, “24-week program, taught by master clowns, circus artists, and circus historians.” The course costs a steep $6,000, and includes classes and workshops on slapstick, physical comedy, mime, musicality, props, and other avenues of professional buffoonery .
This wasteful government spending has attracted the ire one Craig Eyermann, a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and creator of MyGovCost.org: Government Cost Calculator. To be fair to Eyermann, his concern about wasteful policies and governmental overreach seems non-partisan, but his particular disdain for what he amusingly dubs “clown college,” seems particularly wrong-headed.
Eyremann’s core argument against the grant, which he implies is the strangest thing the government spends money on (it isn’t), is that people just don’t like clowns any more, to wit:
Aside from providing this core program of training for America’s next generation of political leaders, the Clown Conservatory represents taxpayer dollars being wastefully directed to sustain something that the public really doesn’t want. Because if it did, there would be a growing international job market for clowns fed by growing public demand, and there simply isn’t. The evidence for that can be found in the stagnant membership numbers of the World Clown Association, which has consistently counted some 2,400 people in its ranks since 2004.
This would be a compelling point, if the point of arts spending was to produce marketable entertainment products. There’s already a source of funding for popular entertainment, it’s called the free market. Arts grants are literally designed to allow art and culture that might not be financially viable to continue to exist. Indeed, that clowning is a dying art is the exact reason why the government should maybe spend the occasional $10k on keeping it alive. You might not respect clowns or clowning as a performance art, but there’s a long, rich history to it, a history worth preserving. As Circus Center executive director, Barry Kendall, put it when asked why American taxpayers should fund a school for clowns:
Paying taxes is a deeply patriotic act and supporting the preservation and advancement of American culture is one of the patriotic uses of those dollars,” said Kendall. “Circus Center is proud of the unique contributions that our professional clown training program makes to the cultural life of our nation, and we are delighted that Clown Conservatory was recognized through the NEA’s competitive application process.
For your edification, I crunched a few numbers and came to the conclusion that for the price of one predator drone, clown college could produce 4,200 clowns, enough to fill the nation’s clown stockpiles for decades to come. That’s a joke, obviously, and I know I’ve been banging this drum pretty hard throughout this article, but when your country spends well over half its federal budget on defense and that number is likely to go up in the next few years, quibbling about a few clowns in San Francisco being able to have extra soy milk in their lattes seems nothing short of petty.
Ultimately, The Circus Center will always be an easy target for anti arts-spending rants. It’s weird, it’s niche, it’s difficult for the public to relate to, and it lends itself to obvious jokes about politicians graduating from the clown program. In fact, Eyermann liked that joke so much he made it twice. And that’s why we need Clown college, my friends, because any clown worth his oversized shoes will tell you that humour comes in threes.
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.
As it has with most performance arts, the internet has completely changed the rules when it comes to magic. While many younger magicians have embraced a radically transformed version of the art that plays well on YouTube, many older magicians with a more traditional view of the industry are struggling to stay afloat.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in India, where a rich history of live magic is being threatened by performers quitting the industry in droves. A report in GulfNews featured interviews with a number of sadly retired magicians, many of whom blame the internet, or their lack of a response to it, for the premature ending of their magic careers.
“When people began shifting to the electronic media, I did not take the transformation seriously,” said Prakash Pant, a former magician now working as a real estate broker. “Not adapting to change soon led to facing awkward moments during the shows. Before I realised what harm my obstinacy would do, the shows stopped coming.”
Krishan Gopal is no longer a magician, but has turned his reputation for magic performances to his advantage. He now provides consultation for psychosomatic ailments and depression.
“Magic is a fine art that requires immense practice,” he explained, “but even in the age of technological advancement, some people continue to think that a magician is a tantric (occultist) and approach me for solutions for all kinds of weird problems.”
Even successful performers like Op Sharma and Op Sharma Junior have felt the internet’s impact on their business.
“There is so much information and entertainment available on the Internet that people tend to spend a lot of time online and they are left with little time to step out of the confines of their house to enjoy live shows,” Op Sharma Jr. told local media.
But the issue is not just a matter of magicians being unable to pull people away from their computer screens. Op Sharma and son also think the Indian government’s lack of spending on the arts is also contributing to the declining interest in magic.
“In foreign countries, governments come forth to encourage talent and support the artistes,” they said. “In several cities of India, we have to perform at cinema halls or at other places because there are no government auditoriums, which points to the fact that cultural activities are not being promoted.”