The Online Journal of the Art of Magic
Ethics of Close-Up Magic:
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Once the spectator has agreed to the performance, many of the usual rules governing relationships between strangers vanish. As magicians, we can ask spectators to perform actions which would otherwise be considered odd. We can ask people to open and close their hands, shut their eyes, check their pockets, utter mysterious incantations, or even stand on one leg. This is because the spectator trusts the magician to abide by certain rules. But what are these unspoken rules?
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In the scenario above, the magician has clearly violated the rule of relevance. The spectator followed the instructions trusting that they would be pertinent to the trick. Now, the relevance need only be a perceived relevance. As magicians, we often pretend that our acts are relevant although they serve merely to distract or entertain the spectators. We regularly ask questions not out of genuine interest for the answers but to control the gaze of the spectators. The rule, then, should be: act in ways perceived relevant to the effect.
2. Act reasonably
The concept of the reasonable is fuzzy. Most of the world's tyrants and despots believe they are 'reasonable'. Many substandard magicians believe they are of a 'reasonable' standard. So what does 'reasonable' mean for the ethical magician?
In my view, a magician who acts reasonably does not:
a) inflict physical pain on the spectator. Although there may be very rare instances where the magician may (pretend to) inflict pain on himself, I can think of no situation when inflicting pain on the spectator is justified.
b) traumatize the spectator psychologically. This is also subject to interpretation. I have hesitated over whether to perform Jim Pace's The Web, an effect whose very purpose is to frighten the spectator by secretly placing a fake (but hideously realistic!) spider on his hand. My policy is not to perform it on anyone whom I do not know very well. The reason is that the disadvantages (which include the worry that the trick may cause offence to the spectator, the minuscule but real chance of a heart attack or stress-induced medical complication on fragile persons, the psychological harm to the spectator and myself in case of adverse reactions, the damage to my reputation and those of magicians generally) outweigh the potential advantages. My philosophy is to enjoy magic with the spectator, not in conflict with him. Deliberately scaring the spectator usually goes against this philosophy. Similarly, the magician should not:
c) humiliate or embarrass the spectator. The relationship between a magician and a spectator is not an equal one. After all, the reason why trust is necessary is because the spectator does not know what is about to happen. Many spectators do not know what is expected of them. It is a novel, uncertain situation. I always try to instil a sense of camaraderie with the spectator. I also avoid spectators whose manner or silence suggest a reluctance to participate, especially in larger groups. Needless to say, there is a fine line between harmless comedy and humiliation and determining one from the other is a matter of judgement.
d) act disproportionately. This refers to balancing the burdens and benefits of the effect on the spectator. For example, a magician's demand on the spectator's time should be roughly proportional to the strength of the effect. Mostly, this rule instructs magicians to use their common sense! This evening, I secretly placed a coin in one of dozens of freshly-baked cookies. When asked to perform by the baker, I picked two cookies seemingly at random, asked her to choose one and placed it aside from the rest of the cookies. I then took a coin, made it vanish and asked her to tear open the selected cookie, wherein she found the coin. The spectator did not mind the destruction of a cookie. The damage was proportional to the strength of the effect. A magician who destroys an expensive watch to reveal a card, however, is most probably not acting proportionately.
3. Be entertaining!
When it comes down to it, the primary reason why people trust magicians is that they believe this a necessary part of the entertainment. No trust, no magic. Magicians should therefore possess an adequate level of proficiency before performing to strangers. Dreary, mediocre magicians damage the general trust in magicians to entertain. Disenchanted spectators are more likely to decline a magician's future offer to perform. The spectator may no longer trust magicians to entertain him. In the film Meet the Parents, Robert de Niro's character talks of the 'circle of trust' that binds his close family together. Magicians and spectators also have this circle: magicians trust spectators, who trust magicians, who trust each other. We are all, on reflection, members of the magic circle!
The rules listed above (and there may be more) highlight an oft-neglected fact: as magicians, we hold various responsibilities towards our trusting spectators. We must act in ways perceived to be relevant to the effect, within the bounds of reason and in an entertaining manner. Those requirements are far from demanding (at least compared to those binding other relationships, such as the doctor/patient or husband/wife relationship!) and they do allow for much freedom and spontaneity. Yet they must not be overlooked. We owe this to our spectators, to ourselves as ethical magicians, and to our fellow magicians who rely, unknowingly perhaps, on our conduct to pursue their passion.
Daniel K. Sokol
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