As a magician and sleight-of-hand artist, I've been wrestling with the thorny and slippery notion of Art for a long time. A recent "magical project" rekindled my attention about this ongoing quest. Here follow my latest musings on this domain.
What is Art?
Art can be seen as the lifeblood running through the veins of human history. From prelinguistic cave dweller to postmodern city dweller, art stands as a witness to the evolution of every culture, reflecting and participating in our views of reality, consciousness, and the cosmos. Art existed long before the word "art" itself existed; for most of history there were no museums, no galleries, no concert halls, and no special class of people to be known as "artists." As human societies developed and evolved, so did the category of art — which now includes a boundless constellation of forms, languages, media, materials, technologies, and aesthetic theories. As a result, the contemporary discourse on art is a fascinating and intricate spectacle. Many players — creators, critics, curators, merchants, collectors — interact within a matrix of sociological, cultural, political, and economic forces. The interplay of unpredictable factors generates the perceived value of artists, as well as the price of their work, and ultimately what ends up being labelled as art. The art industry produces an unstoppable stream of innovative ideas and artifacts, never-seen-before contaminations, and all sorts of category-defying "artwork." On the inevitable flip side are all kinds of aberrant deviations and plainly Barnumesque stunts. Today, everyone is welcome to decide for themselves what is what, and consume any piece of the cake of their liking.
The twentieth century decisively established that art doesn't have to be "beautiful" and beauty need not be part of the definition of art. But this liberating separation made things trickier and fuzzier. To score an easy point: there was a time when the staggering perfection of a Canova sculpture, or the epic breadth of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, actually left people in awe. There was no question that these creations of undisputed skill and technical mastery, vibrating with spirit and glowing splendor, deserved to be called art. Nowadays, many people hobnobbing in an art gallery, in front of the latest hyped "installation," are either unaffected, or reiterate some version of the snarky, naive comment: "What the heck is this! Seriously? Is this 'art'? Oh well, I could have done it myself!" This common response signals a certain kind of estrangement from art, as it's become an incomprehensible and self-referential game, where vapid provocations and tired stunts trump authentic aesthetic creations. Or perhaps the very category of art is broken and useless, having gone through an irreversible mutation, leaving it an empty shell of what it used to be. In a world gone bananas — cut loose on a sea of postmodern irony and indifference — is there a way to "reconnect" with the spirit of art, to satisfy our craving for aesthetic rapture?
Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice
In his incisive essay Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice ,author and critic J.F. Martel goes back to the basics:
Art is the name we have given to humanity's most primal response to the mystery of existence. It was in the face of mystery that dance, music, poetry, and painting were born.
From my perspective, this is a full-on invitation to return to the ancient shamanic roots of art, reconnecting with its numinous, spiritual, ineffable, and transcendent dimensions.
True beauty is not pretty. It is a tear in the façade of the everyday, a sudden revelation of the forces seething beneath the surface of things.
Yes, there's more to art than beauty. From the blissful and sublime to the ugly, weird, obscene, horrific and disturbing, true art taps into the whole palette of the human experience. It affects us viscerally, amplifies our feelings, expands our sense of Self and others, has the potential to transform us, punching a hole in the veil that separates us from the glowing heart of things.
Here is Martel's simple test to "assess" Art. Just as we don't need to be a chef to appreciate the food we're eating, we can rely on the immediacy of our senses, using astonishment as our compass:
Astonishment is the litmus test of art, the sign by which we know we have been magicked out of practical and utilitarian enterprises to confront the bottomless dream of life in sensible form. Art astonishes and is born of astonishment. (…). To be astonished is to be caught unawares by the revelation of realities denied or repressed in the everyday. Astonishment has an intellectual as well as an emotional component—in it, the brain and the heart come together. The astonishment evoked by great artistic works puts them square in our sights.
From this perspective, then, anyone who intentionally creates something that alters people's mind, hacking their signal, leading them into a space of astonishment, is an artist. To my ears, all of this echoes the perfect equation between art and magic, set forth by of Alan Moore:
I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form, is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness."
Yes, I do believe that art is magic.
During my recent week-long residency performing at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, I had the pleasure of collaborating with the Los Angeles-based street artist WRDSMTH. In the spirit of the above musings, sharing a common appreciation for the power of words, as well as for the poetic, impermanent nature of graffiti art, we co-created a "piece" that was incorporated into my live magical performance. Through the juxtaposition of our tools-of-the-trade, we shaped a statement that was cheekily intended to reveal a "secret" (or a "trick?") to its viewers. We unleashed this "thought-form" into the urban landscape, hiding it in plain sight, written in big letters on a utility box, at the busy crossing of La Brea Ave and Hollywood Blvd in Hollywood. Spelling out this hypersigil has been a playful and rewarding magickal operation. Its radiating vibration are still rippling out. It looked like this: