(Master Payne has been skillfully entertaining audiences in and around the Pacific Northwest with his
award winning magic show for over 35 years. In this provocative article, he calls for a more realistic
assessment of the art of magic – and magicians.)
A common belief, popularized by many books on the history of magic, contends that the modern magician
is descended from the Temple Priests and Holy Men of old. This myth states that magicians were once
advisers to Kings, consultants to Emperors, and held in awe for their secret and arcane knowledge.
Unfortunately, it’s not true. While our ancestors may have employed some of the same subterfuges as their
priestly brethren, they didn’t occupy the same position in society.
To demonstrate, imagine a market square in an ancient city. On one side is a temple to which people flock
to see a miraculous crying statue that the temple priests have on display. On the other side, a small crowd
gathers around the table of a cup and ball worker. Both events are using deception to draw an audience.
Yet only one of them is seen as a matter of consequence. I’ll let you decide for yourself which one occupies
the higher rank in society. Hint: The one seen as most important isn’t using cups.
Because the Temple Priests are seen as having real powers, people take them much more seriously. As a
result, people call on them for matters of great import. The Temple Priests are invited to the better
parities, get the higher fees, and of course, are taken very seriously.
The cup and ball guy, while getting invited to the same parties, is only there as the entertainment,
probably isn’t getting paid that much, and certainly isn’t asked for his advice.
Things haven’t changed.
Even today, folk who claim to possess psychic powers hold a much higher station in the social hierarchy
than does the stage magician. Remember a few years ago when a famous magician started dating
an equally famous super model? The media with mild derision viewed this joyful union while the tabloid
press made many snide comments. Would these same pelagic responses have been aired if said model
had hooked up with the leading psychic reader or spoon bender of the day? I think not.
The modern magician just isn’t taken seriously. Thus the reason I think that the faux family tree of
magic is still being popularized today. It’s not the less than stellar research, failure to reassess the source
material, or the lack of understanding of the definition of the term magic in the past. It’s because we
wish to partake of that old canard
Fame through association. The mistaken belief that if we are descended from powerful and influential
people, then we ourselves will be seen as being powerful and influential as well. Therefore, we don’t
really have to work at changing anything. We can just ride on those ancestral coattails while maintaining
the comfy status quo.
Magic has some serious self-esteem issues.
We look back to the Golden Age of magic when magicians were superstars who performed in palatial
theatres before packed houses of adoring fans and ask ourselves “what went wrong?” We wonder why
the title of Magician no longer commands respect, yet at the same time try to avoid being labeled by the
moniker. Back in the Eighties, Jay Sankey felt the word Magician was held in such low regard that it should
be replaced by the term “Material Fictionist.” Today, one finds “magician” being replaced on business
cards by “entertainer.” Yet a rose by any other name can still be twisted out of a napkin.
Magic isn’t going to garner more respect simply by renaming it or giving it a false lineage.
It’s going to take hard work and effort.
However, I think we are already regaining ground. It’s doubtful that magic will ever again reach the status
it held in the late Nineteenth Century. But in the last few years, we’ve made enormous strides. Magicians
are already held in much higher regard than they were in the middle of the last century. For most people,
it’s hard these days to imagine Las Vegas without its spectacular magic shows. Fifty years ago, they were
a rarity. Magic books used to be just collections of tricks, little more than a cookbook for conjuring. But
these days, you are more than likely to find as much of the text devoted to the writer’s philosophy on the
performance of magic as there is to the tricks themselves. Even DVD’s will give the whys and wherefores
along side the instruction.
Still much remains to be done.
We need to stop glad handing one another and abandon the “I won’t tell you that you suck if you don’t
tell me that I suck” meme that is the mantra of far too many a magic club. It’s ironic that in a discipline
where deception is cherished that honesty really needs to become our best policy. We need to stop
lying to others by telling them “That looks great!” More importantly, we need to stop lying to
ourselves by telling ourselves “That looks great!” The first step to becoming a better magician is to
recognize that you’re in need of improvement. As Buddha said, “Change comes from within.”
No one can make you better until you decide you need to be.
Who knows, if enough of us start down this road of self evaluation and learn to fairly critique others as
well as ourselves, maybe someday when someone finds out that you are a magician they will ask
“What portends do the stars hold for me?” instead of “Do you make balloon animals?”