Where Are We Going?

I think of magic as moving in three directions, and they all include the dissolution of “traditional” magic. I see this dissolution as a good thing because to me the idea of performing a "magic show" always seemed kind of silly, as "magic" is not a strong enough through-line to constitute a full show or artistic work. When you see a piece of theater there is an overarching plot. When you see an art exhibit there is a unifying idea. But a lot of magic shows are basically just "I have a series of impossible things that I want to show you," and that is not in and of itself enough of a through-line to hold a show together.

Basically, magic is a tool. It allows us to bend and change and shake and play with other people's realities in all sorts of interesting ways. Doing a show whose through-line is just "magic" is like saying "I'm going to shake up your reality just because I can." It can be fun, but it lacks (literally) a purpose. On top of that, things seen inside a theater and formal performance often lack a resonance with people's realities outside of that theater, so the shake-up isn't that deep or long lasting.

Instead, magic must be put in service to other ideas. Instead of saying “this is a magic show," I want to see an art exhibit that uses elements of magic philosophy and method to heighten the experience and make its impact on the viewer's reality more potent. I want a theater piece that uses magic methods to accentuate the fact that a character is supposed to feel surreal or unconnected to our common rules of life. Maybe the best way to represent that is that they literally float off the stage, and if so magic-as-a-tool is ready to step in and provide that extra layer of experience. Now instead of a levitation just being a “wow how is he doing that” moment, it is in service to the creation of a character. This blending of magic into other artistic form is the first direction I see magic as going. We have already seen examples of this with things like Teller's production of The Tempest, and with magic's long relationship with film special effects.


The second direction that I see is a move towards is a more authentically social experience of magic. By this I do not mean social media. We have all had the experience of hanging out with some friends, maybe in a park or at somebody's garage or backyard, and someone has a guitar or other instrument with them. They never stand up and say "I will now perform for you. This is my rendition of Free Bird." Instead, as the conversation passes, they start strumming a few chords, maybe they hum a little. Somebody notices and maybe they hum along. Maybe someone else recognizes the song and says that they enjoy it or sings one of the lyrics, and before you know it everyone is sort of taking part in the music; it's not just that the person with the guitar is performing it's that everyone is experiencing music, and experiencing musicality, together. That's what I'm talking about. That represents to me a much stronger way of experiencing magic in a casual setting. As opposed to standing up and saying "I will now present Houdini's coin miracle" (or more likely “Hey, pick a card…”), you casually sit and flip a quarter as you chat with your friends. Eventually, during a lull in the conversation you flip it high and call heads, and when it lands you're right. You flip it high again and point to your friend. They call tails. When it lands they too are correct, and so on until the experience has unfolded. Instead of presenting this as a performance, it's an organic outgrowth of the social interaction. This allows the participant to be more authentically invested since they never get the feeling or have the understanding that they're being "tricked", but instead that they're taking part in a fun strange moment. Additionally, like with the music, they aren’t just watching, they are taking part, not as a spectator, but as a participant. This is more possible now than ever given the greater number of people who practice magic and the greater availability of magic material.

The last direction I see magic moving is to fill something of a social void. This is going to take some explaining, so bear with me. People think of spiritualism as having died in the 1930s or 40s with World War II, the growth of science, and the postwar boom, maybe with a minor resurgence in the New Age movement. But I think they fail to understand the extent to which some level of unsatisfied belief still exists in the American population. This connects with a general decline in the religiosity of the American population and an increase in the percentage of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Basically what we have is a growing body of people who believe, but don't know what to believe. Currently the people filling that void are either the remains of established religion, with all its attendant flaws, or charlatans and con artists who are willing to use that belief to make a quick buck and not because they actually have any authentic interest or understanding of it. I think magic is uniquely positioned to step into that space. A lot of magicians I know will have resistance to this because they see magic as long having filled the role of debunking false mediums and hucksters. While that's certainly true, and should continue to be true, in the modern world, or more realistically the postmodern world, magic can step into a new role where it provides more meaningful spiritual experiences that are open about their artifice. Basically, you can be honest about the fact that there is artifice involved without devaluing the experience and the meaning that it gives, not just in an entertainment setting, but in a spiritual one as well. This is fundamentally a post-modern view, and must be handled extremely carefully to ensure that it does not inspire or support belief in untrue things, while still providing meaning, but I think that this is possible. The connection between magic and spirituality is old and strong, from tribal shaman using sleight of hand in healing ceremonies to mediums using billet work to contact the dead. The difference is that one allows a nuanced understanding of the fact that artifice is involved while the other decries those who claim their powers are anything less than 100% genuine.* Magic can help create a new, more honest avenue to reality-altering spiritual experiences.

These three directions, the application of magic to other art forms, the more authentic  social experience of magic, and the use of magic to provide honest spiritual experiences, all point to the fact that, at its root, magic is about bending and shaping people's realities, and that for a long time magic has been directly applied with that as its only goal. Now it is more fully coming into the understanding that magic can be put into service of larger goals than just entertainment, such as art and spirituality.


*For more on this idea, read Michael Taussig’s essay “Faith, Viscerality, and Skepticism: another theory of magic,” which is an excellent entry into the body of anthropological work on magic, both historical and spiritual, in history.

Four Suits