Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lowest Common Denominator

It occurs to me, after a bit of sleep and further reflection, that what I was really talking about last night was the lowest common denominator.  It seems that all too many performers try to make their craft appeal to the lowest common denominator in any given audience, and I think that's wrong.  I think that's why so few actually hit "art."

Magician are too afraid to inject a bit of literature or philosophy into their act, for fear of alienating those in their audience who don't read, or may not "get it."  Balloon artists content themselves to work for children, twisting cute little animals instead of balloon sculpture like those shown here.

There's nothing wrong with working for children, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to be accessible to the masses.  But consider aiming at a higher target.  Don't be elitist, but a reference to Shakespeare during a magic trick will enhance the experience for those who do get it, and will simply be overlooked or forgotten by those who don't.  You can aim high and create art without sacrificing audience appeal.  I think that's a worthy mindset to consider.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Searching for Art

It's after midnight once again and I'm sitting in a cold dark room with nothing but my computer, my thoughts, and a fresh pack of cigarettes to keep me company.  A dangerous situation because it often leads me to start thinking about strange little bits of philosophy.  In this case, I got to thinking about art.  What is it that makes something artful?

Traditionally, art was a term used to describe anything done with great skill or mastery.  But during the Romantic period, this definition changed (I think for the better), and art began to be viewed as a human pursuit equal to but separate from religion and science.  I would, of course, argue that religion should be disposed of and that art and science should take their places as the two leading instruments or expressions of human knowledge and experience, but that's neither here nor there.  The important part is that art is created in order to provoke thought or emotion.

This is separate and distinct from any number of skillful acts that I think do not deserve to be called "art."  Eugene Burger, one of magic's leading philosophers, makes a distinction between "stunt" and "magic," in that, though a stunt may be impressive, it doesn't point to anything beyond itself.  It simply is what it is.  There's nothing wrong with stunts, but they are not art.  Art should point beyond itself to something more profound.

In an episode of the comedy show Family Guy, a teacher instructs his class to remember the proper performance hierarchy: legitimate theatre, musical theatre, stand-up, ventriloquism, magic, mime.

It's an old prejudice, and is unfair to any number of performers.  But why is it still so commonly held?  Because the lower one falls on that hierarchy, the less likely one is to be working toward something artistic.  Entertaining, sure.  But art?  Sadly, all too rare.

Within the first few pages of the first volume of The Art of Astonishment, Paul Harris describes the reactions he received when he told people he was working on a book about magic.  I can certainly relate to his experiences.  One thought he was talking about children's magic.  It's another old prejudice that says magic is only for children.  Another insisted that he knew some card tricks.  It was only when Harris, instead of using the word "magic," said that he was working on a book about the moment of astonishment, that he was able to generate what seemed to be legitimate interest in what he was doing.

Roger Ebert, the noted film critic, recently wrote that video games can never be art.  In that case, he was more wrong that the video game industry deserved, but is it really any surprise?  It's somewhat understandable that an older man without gaming experience will lack understanding of the artful qualities of a video game, but it is also true that game designers could make more of an effort to truly create art, instead of just a fun game.  Some do, and I admire them greatly.

I was recently reading through the pages of a forum for magicians, looking to learn and share my limited knowledge as I was able, when I came across a section devoted to those who "table hop," or stroll at parties.  I don't particularly like the term "table hopper," as it immediately conjures images of a performer, little better than a beggar, going from table to table soliciting tips, rather than attempting to create an artful and memorable performance.  In all too many cases, the term seems to apply.  For the few exceptions, it is useful only in that it (somewhat) accurately describes the performing venue.  Within the pages of this forum, one finds many balloon twisters--performers who make balloon animals for children.

A repeated topic of conversation is the poor treatment of these performers by parents who feel cheated when the performers have to "cut the line" in order to get home or to their next gig on time.

Let me make myself clear.  If you want to perform for children, more power to you.  But in any consideration of "performance hierarchy," whatever your prejudice may be, can you think of anyone lower than a balloon twister?  I can't, and I think that's a shame.  Sure, they're not traditionally artistic, as painting can be.  But why should these performers confine themselves to the hell of working for overprivileged children, instead of creating art?  I've seen what a masterful balloon twister can create when not working for six-year-old yuppies-in-training, and it's quite impressive.  Sometimes, it even reaches a level of--dare I say it?--art!

Likewise, magic shouldn't be just for children, but should be used to create thoughtful or emotional experiences for audiences.  All forms of performance art should be thought of first and foremost as ART.

Am I a voice in the wilderness?  Whatever your skill, whatever your talent, whatever your interests...stop wasting your time with meaningless stunts or simple unartistic creations for children.  Start working on making your performance REAL ART.  Then, and only then, will a wider variety of performance arts become readily acceptable.

I've performed stunts.  But I don't want to be a performing monkey anymore.  I'm not going to do stunts.  I'm going to create art.  And I hope you will to.