Fooling Garwulf
"Shoot to Kill" and Ethics in Magic

Robert B. Marks | 21 Jul 2015 15:00
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Cup and balls

And this brings me to ethics.

Even though its methods rely on deception, magic is an ethical performance art. If anything, it clings to ethics for dear life, appearing to flirt with the unethical without actually crossing the line. Deception is the tool for creating the effect, but it is the effect that is the desired end result, not deceiving the audience. The problem facing magicians is often figuring out what those ethics are, or should be.

When the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society for American Magicians published a joint ethics statement, they included a number of points such as respect for magicians and their creations, respect for intellectual property rights, and respect for any livestock used. Although there is also a statement that magic should be presented to the audience in an ethical manner, this is not expanded into an explicit requirement of respect for the audience, but instead described in terms of magicians not spoiling the acts of other magicians. While most, if not all, books on performance theory condemn audience abuse, there are still a number of performers who use their audience as props in an insulting or abusive manner.

In his 1969 book Magic and Showmanship, Henning Nelms summarized general magical ethics as follows: "A conjurer is allowed to lie about his methods but not to leave his audience with the belief that he really possesses supernatural powers." If there is one ethical rule modern magicians follow, it is this - however, it was not always this way.

Although magic has been around for millennia, its legitimacy as a performance art is far younger. In the ancient world, there was no shortage of priests who used the same principles and techniques as magicians to provide their deity's miracles upon command, their actions given legitimacy by divine purpose - but they were not magicians. Instead, the "ancestor" of the modern magician was probably the busking conjurer in the village square, claiming all the supernatural ability of the priests with none of their legitimacy.

The earliest European depiction of a magician does not paint him in a positive light: he performs the cups and balls to amaze a small crowd, in the process providing the distraction for a cutpurse to do his work. The performance style of these conjurers was to claim true magical powers, dressing as wizards and invoking the diabolic and the demonic - the audience would be amazed, but the risk of being robbed during the performance was a real one indeed.

It was Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) who probably did the most to turn magic into a legitimate art form, discarding the wizard's robes and pretense of supernatural powers for modern evening wear, a more accurate perception of sleight of hand, and bringing magic out of the fairground and into the drawing room and theatre. Once this step was taken, the general distaste for claims of true magical power was born as well. Perhaps this is not surprising - to make the transition to legitimate performance art, magic had to become ethical.

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