Magic As Art

It’s not about the puzzle; it’s about the experience.

by Mitch Williams
Mitch Williams
Mitch Williams is a world-class contemporary magical performing artist and lecturer with credits in six countries on three continents. Photo by Craig Stocks

Magic as an art form? Really? When we think of various types of art, magic doesn't generally spring immediately to mind—if at all! Magicians are often seen as con men, hustlers, deceivers… but generally not as artists, at least not in any conventional sense. So when I say I’ve spent most of my adult life promoting magic as an art form—both to the public as well as to my fellow magicians—I've done so with an awareness of the cultural resistance to this idea. Of course, there are good reasons why magicians are often seen as deceptive tricksters.

A Multi-Sensory Experience
Magic is commonly judged as good or bad mainly on whether we can “figure out how it’s done.” But this perspective reduces magic to a puzzle to be solved, with the magician as antagonist, trying to obfuscate and prevent us from solving the puzzle—someone whose aim is to “trick” us through deception and subterfuge. (Not that there's anything wrong with puzzles; they can be fun in their own right!) We magicians have frequently reinforced this perspective by making magic all about the challenge.

From my perspective, however, magic as a performing art is something much more. It’s not about the puzzle; it’s about the experience. When something happens that’s completely inexplicable, incomprehensible and mystifying—an experience of pure wonder—it can touch us on deeper levels than the mere intellectual stimulation of a puzzle. 

This is what magic can be at its best: an opportunity to lose ourselves in a profound and often inspiring experience of wonder. But for this to happen, it’s necessary to move the primary focus from “how it’s done” to the experience of what I call the “magical moment.” The magician becomes a guide who collaborates with the audience to elicit magical moments of wonder and awe.

My approach is to place the emphasis on acting and performance skills, not just the magic techniques, thus making performance magic a multi-sensory experience. The character I portray is someone who gets just as caught up in the wonder of the moment as the audience. He understands the power of his magical abilities and can capitalize on them—but he's often just as surprised and amazed by the way they manifest as anyone else.

For me, the joy of performing is to make the magic blend so seamlessly into the greater narrative—the storyline, conversation or scenario in which I find myself, along with the audience—that we all suspend our disbelief and become caught up in what then becomes a genuine magical experience. I’ll leave it to others to judge how successful I am at this, but that is my intent.

Mitch Williams
The character I portray is someone who gets just as caught up in the wonder of the moment as the audience.

Affecting the Imagination
Recently I was performing close-up magic for a married couple in a restaurant. We had fun getting caught up in the magic, and they seemed quite impressed. After I’d finished, the husband asked me, “Does it ever bother you that what you do is so dishonest and unscrupulous?”

His wife, who apparently felt he was being rude, began to admonish him, but I said, “No, no, it’s totally okay. What do you mean?” I was really interested to get his take.

He said, “Well, magic is based on deceiving people—on cheating and tricking them.”

I thought for a moment. “Actually, I don’t want to be deceptive,” I responded. “I want to be convincing. We’ve been working together to create a genuine experience of magic. The fact that it takes place in our imagination doesn’t make the experience any less real.”

He relaxed and nodded thoughtfully, apparently accepting my reply. His wife sat for a moment, looking at me intensely, and then said, “That’s a really good answer!”

We evaluate most art forms on how they affect us—on what experience they evoke. If your main response while watching a science fiction movie is to try to figure out how the special effects were done, something has gone seriously wrong in the storytelling! Instead, we should be caught up in the experience. Might I suggest evaluating magic in the same way? 

In my mind, whether or not you can ascertain “how I did it” is somewhat irrelevant, so long as we've had an experience—of wonder, of joy, or even just a lot of fun!

Wherever they come from, I hope you have many truly magical moments today. PM

Mitch Williams is an award-winning magician, sleight-of-hand artist and inspirational speaker who creates customized, magic-themed entertainment and speaking programs for corporate, public and private events. He has presented seminars for magicians throughout the country and is the author of A Call to Magic: The Artful Science of Transforming Self and World. Visit mitchwilliamsmagic.com to learn more

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