Street Magic?

In a post yesterday I expressed my rather low opinion of the argument that magic’s not an art and in passing also mentioned my equally low opinion for the argument that what David Blaine and his copyists do is not street magic. I want to return to that last for a moment for a closer look.

The main argument against Blaine style magic not being called street magic, from what I can piece together, is that calling it street magic takes away from performers like Jeff Sheridan, street performers who were plying their trade long before the term street magic came into vogue.

Now, to the people for whom such distinctions matter, serious students of magic, I can’t imagine there’s any confusion about the differences between Blaine and Sherridan. As for the rest, new students of magic and the general public, the first group will certainly be made aware of the differences, should their interest continue, while the general public is likely to never give a damn. That might sound harsh, but do you think the general public has any real grasp of who Vernon was, Charlie Miller, Max Malini, and on and on? Unless magic undergoes some unimaginable renaissance in which the general public develops a deep and abiding interest in the history of the art, there will continue to be scores of legendary conjurers whose shoulders we stand on who will never get the public acclaim we feel they deserve. That’s just the way it is, and no amount of belly aching is ever going to change it.

As a matter of fact, all such belly aching is likely to do is reinforce the negative stereotype that magicians are strange, anal people who fret over their secrets and complain that they don’t get any respect.

Look at it another way. Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll, right? I think most folks would go along with that statement. But Presley didn’t invent rock and roll. There were people who came before him, many who’ve never gotten the credit they deserve, at least in the public arena. What those people were doing probably wasn’t exactly mirrored by Elvis. There were those who derided what Elvis was doing as but a phony imitation of the original sound. But Elvis gave a face to a new kind of music – he was able to establish the concept in the public mind.

The truth is that David Blaine has done more for the public perception of close-up magic than any performer in history. Close-up magicians are working today because Blaine popularized what we do. It seems to me that he deserves the title of street magician, even if his kind of magic doesn’t fill the earlier criteria, if for no other reason than that.

I have to wonder if things were different if the argument would exist at all. What if it hadn’t been David Blaine who did a special called Street Magic, but a more traditional performer – a guy in a cheap Tux doing sponge bunnies or something. Would the old guard be so upset then?

Considering that most of the people doing the bitching seem to be the older guys, you have to wonder.

Could it be that the real problem is that Blaine represents something they fear? Something called change?

I’ve written before that that which does not change stagnates…and dies. The very nature of life is change. If magic doesn’t change, and continue to change, it dies. That doesn’t mean that we ignore those who came before. It does mean that while respecting and remembering our predecessors we also embrace that which is new and different, because it just might be our art’s salvation.

Growing up I remember very well the old guard’s initial reaction to Doug Henning. Henning came along and shook up magic at a time when it seemed to be on its last legs – he revitalized the art, made it popular again. Yet some acted as if he were the devil incarnate, as if no good could ever come from what at the time was such a shocking break with tradition. Of course they were wrong. And history repeats itself.

So there you have it, my feelings about what Blaine does being called street magic. I’m sure there will be those who agree and many who disagree. C’est la vie. See you again soon.

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