The Artist as Magician By: Tavis L. Baker

“Surely,” said Arthur, “with your foreknowledge and magic you can

avert your own destiny?”

“That is not so,” Merlin replied.

-Le Morte D’Artur, by Thomas Mallory


I’m going to make a bold statement: the artist is basically a type

of magician. That is to say that they are a conjurer of tricks,

essentially, a charlatan, perfects a routine for the express purpose so

as to inspire both amazement and wonder in the audience, whether it

be a single viewer, or an audience of 10,000. In fact, there is an old

joke attributed to the French illusionist and inventor, Robert Houdin:

“A Magician is an Actor playing the part of a Magician.” This is a pithy

way of saying, that the performers art, the writer’s, the directors,

etc.; is intended to be essentially invisible. The audience pays their

fee, they view the show, and are thereby granted the right to pass

judgement based on the degree of finesse or raw spectacle with which

the trick is performed. The audience does not need to see, and often

does not care, what it is that goes on behind the curtain, because it is

not their realm. They are not concerned with the process.

But of course there is a process. The Artist cares about the

process, because the process is where the real work happens. It is the

crucible wherein creation occurs, without the results of which, the

world would be a tedious place indeed, and possibly, not really worth

sticking around for. No one ever passed away with the words “I wish

I’d had less wonder in my life” on their lips. To that end, the Magician

must perfect their legerdemain, the dancer must train their body to

respond on command, the writer must sit down at their desk and

type, and the painter must articulate the blending of their paints and

the dynamics of their perspectives. And from where might one learn

this sort of high arcana? How might the uninitiated strain and

contort themselves toward enlightenment in whatever craft it is that

they feel called to do?

A good mentor helps. In fact, it is difficult to underestimate the

value of having a knowledgeable and caring other in your corner; a

partner, from whom the seed of knowledge may be gleaned, and to

whom one may allow themselves the vulnerability to fail before.

There are few greater teachers than Failure. For there to be an

Arthur, there must be a Merlin, right?

The archetype of the Magician is an old one; Merlin being about

as good an example as there can be. They are the teacher, the Master,

the one who guides and shelters the hero as they prepare themselves

to become the hero of their own story. They have the desire to

nurture and instruct, rather than merely to proselytise or chastise;

something which is all too rare. This is an important point, because

all art is imitation in one way or another. There are dark heroes, and

the role of mentor has the power to decide the outcome of an entire

life. As Shylock says in the Merchant of Venice:

“The villainy you teach me, I will execute, but I will better the

instruction.”

The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene i

Heavy stuff. How much better then, had he been taught

kindness? This is of course, one of Shakespeare’s lessons to us, which

he communicates with decided bravado, mentoring us through the

centuries with his art. He did it by sitting down, practicing, and likely

a bit of well-intentioned imitation.

It is pointless to feel shame at this notion that we are all mimetic

imitators to some degree or another; it is the nature of human beings

to self-reflect and to imitate that which we find pleasing or useful. We

are natural mimics. It is our ability to do so that largely separates us

from the other animals who otherwise live and die in much the same

way as we do. We envy birds their wings, fish their fins, and lions

their teeth; so we mimic and so springs forth from our imaginings the

airplane, the ship, and the spear. The Art which we labor in creating

is more or less a successful aping of our inward reflection; the story of

ourselves and the expression of our inner evolution, based upon the

works of the collective in their legions, and projected through the

prism of the individual’s works, either for good or ill. The old tonguein-

cheek wisdom is: ‘Steal like an artist.’ Drum roll, rimshot.

The other side of the coin may be summed up in the dry joke:

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!” But

where? The gymnast needs a gymnasium, the painter a studio, the

actor a stage, the magician an orrery/cavern/tower. There is art to be

found in the proper hammering of a nail, but a carpenter is only as

good as the tools they have at their disposal. All of this, so that the

practitioner may perfect their craft (and there *is* craftsmanship

involved, regardless of whatever ungraspable phantasm “genius” is),

that they may amaze, stupefy, or inspire others with their work; that

those who have benefitted from it, might go on to create their own

wonders to share with others. It is a virtuous circle, if it is cultivated,

nurtured and allowed to be passed on.

Enter the notion of ‘the Sacred Space’: one which I will address

further next time. It is the Fortress of Solitude, the Sanctum

Sanctorum, the Dark Side of the Moon, where the Artist may define

themselves as such. It is the place where one finds out how and why it

is that they do what they do. It is often fraught with peril, though the

reward for danger is wonder, and perhaps, if one is diligent,

something of peace.

I leave you with this quote from Romanian philosopher Emil

Cioran:

“If you go on living, you do so only through your capacity for

objectification, your ability to free yourself, in writing [filmmaking, dance,

etc.], from the infinite strain. Creativity is a temporary salvation from the

claws of death.” -E.M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair