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Ethics of Close-Up Magic
by Daniel K. Sokol
In Stephen Leacock's
short story 'The Conjurer's Revenge', the magician,
tired of the vocal and repeated accusations of an audience member that the
vanished object is "up his sleeve!", decides to borrow the heckler's
and gleefully smashes it underfoot. Although provoked, the magician clearly
violated the implicit trust between magician and spectator. This story,
coupled with my experience as a restaurant and hospital magician, have led
me to ponder on the ethics of close-up magic. What ethical issues arise
the magician-spectator relationship?
Unless the patient
is unconscious or mentally confused, a doctor is required
to gain consent before performing a medical procedure. The main idea behind
this obligation is that consent ensures that the patient genuinely wants
treatment or procedure. By providing information about the procedure and
offering the option to say no, the doctor is respecting the patient's
ability to make decisions about his body and his life.
Now, the stakes are
obviously lower in the domain of magic but they are not
so low as to remove the need for consent. People should have to opportunity
not to have magic imposed upon them! Not everyone agrees with this. Some
magicians approach tables and immediately embark on a routine. No matter
how technically proficient, an undesired magicians is a bad magician.
context where guests may not have come to see magic (e.g. in a restaurant,
social function or hospital), it is wrong to assume that everyone would
to see magic. Some, alas, do not. For this reason, the ethical magician
should always ask permission before performing effects for specific
I generally introduce
myself as the house magician, ask if they would like
to see some magic for a few minutes, say that it is totally painless and
need not cost a thing, and explicitly add "if you don't want to,
I can make
myself vanish almost instantly!". In my view, that is all that consent
magic requires: presentation, rough idea of how long the performance will
take, an indication of cost (if appropriate), and an opportunity to decline
the offer. It takes only a few seconds.
To relax the spectators,
I usually mention the cost-free nature of the
performance. This often puts them at ease. Remember that most laypersons
have no idea about what a restaurant magician does. Furthermore, they
no idea whether the magician standing before them is brilliant or awful.
Those who travel abroad will know the unpleasant feeling of not knowing
whether or not to tip a taxi driver/hotel porter/guide/musician, etc.
spectators will experience the same feeling when approached by a magician.
Addressing the issue of tipping at the outset will eliminate - or at least
reduce - this worry.
Most people are excited
at the prospect of seeing close-up magic performed
at their table, but a few do decline the offer. It is mainly for the latter
that consent is important. Without it, the magician will have violated
their freedom to eat or converse undisturbed. Although they will not
mention it, magic lovers and magic phobics alike will be grateful to have
been asked; it is an obvious sign of respect and they, in turn, will be
likely to respect the magician and his art.