Matters of Definition; or, Why Definitions Matter

Let’s talk for a minute about this petition in support of Congressional Resolution 642, and why it’s a good thing.  The petition asks for Congress to declare magic – stage magic, that is – an art form.  That’s all.  (And if dance – which also requires a high level of skill, and takes years of practice to learn, and is performed for the benefit of an audience – is an art form, then stage magic certainly is, too.) The resolution doesn’t ask the government for money, or for special laws; it only asks for a definition.

What difference, one may ask, will an official government definition make?  It means protection, for one thing:  Everybody who works in a creative or performing field knows that “art” gets more respect, and gets cut more slack, than “entertainment” does if it happens to upset the powerful or well-connected – or just the easily-offended – people of this world.   It also means preservation: It’s a lot easier to find sponsorship and funding and archival resources for the history of an art form than for ephemeral entertainment.  (We pause here to weep for lost Dr. Who episodes, and early movies where the only surviving film stock was destroyed for the sake of retrieving the silver nitrate, and the countless comic book collections thrown away in the spring-cleaning trash.)  And it can mean promotion, especially in the form of funding:  If stage magic is an officially-designated art form, then it becomes a lot easier for magicians to apply for grants and similar programs that will allow them to develop and refine their art, and to pass it along to another generation.

Which brings me to another, related matter of definition (or, strictly speaking, orthography).  I used to get vaguely irritated by the use of the alternate spelling “magick”, as used by Wiccans and other pagans to refer to an aspect of their spiritual practices, mostly because the sorting-box in my brain kept putting it into the same container as “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe” and other faux-forsoothery.

But over time, I’ve come around to an appreciation for the alternate spelling.  If its use can keep stage magicians from being denounced as tools of Satan by the sort of people who think that Satan has nothing better to do than seduce people into iniquity with a linking-rings routine, and keep practitioners of Wicca from being asked to pull rabbits out of hats or do card tricks . . . then I say it’s a good distinction, and we should keep it around.

5 thoughts on “Matters of Definition; or, Why Definitions Matter

  1. The alternate spelling of magic is allegedly a product of Aleister Crowley; the addition of the ‘k’ changes the numerological value to something he considered more appropriate.

    Of course, he was a rampant self-publicist, so might have Oscar-Wilded an existing trend.

    1. That sounds a lot like Crowley — both the numerological angle and the possibility of appropriating an existing trend and sticking his name on it. The early-twentieth-century occultists were a close-knit and contentious lot.

  2. That’s a very pretty three-ring routine you’ve found. (As you know, a big part of my ring routine is three rings.)

    Another very pretty routine is here: It too starts as a three-ring routine, before moving up to four, then six.

    The history of the Chinese linking rings is almost as complex as the linking-and-unlinking that a skilled performer can accomplish.

    Introduced in America by actual Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo, it was stolen and introduced in Europe by William “Billy” Robinson when (in a shocking act of cultural appropriation and identity theft) he copied Ching’s act scene by scene, costume by costume, and trick by trick and went on the London stage as “Chung Ling Soo.” After Robinson’s death (when the bullet-catching trick went horribly wrong) the trick was nearly forgotten, until Walter B. Gibson reintroduced it in America and popularized it among magicians as a nearly-perfect trick (which, given that it relies on a combination of mechanical prowess, sleight-of-hand, and optical illusion it may well be).

    Gibson is perhaps better known to the non-magicians as the author (under the name Maxwell Grant) of novels and radio plays about the mysterious Shadow who, long ago in the Orient, learned the power to cloud mens’ minds.

  3. Reblogged this on Madhouse Manor and commented:
    “‘Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me….”

    If you know a six-year-old, buy them a Ball Vase. It’s the classic path into this art, and the classic age to get started if you’re going to do this professionally…..

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