Magic is a performing art that entertains an audience by creating illusions of seemingly impossible or supernatural feats, using purely natural means. These feats are called magic tricks, effects or illusions.
An artist who performs illusions is called a magician. Some performers may also be referred to by names reflecting the type of magical effects they present, such as prestidigitators, conjurors, illusionists, mentalists, escape artists, and ventriloquists.
A group of magicians is referred to as a misdirection of magicians. This is according to Charles Harrington Elster's book There's a Word for it, published by Scribner.
From 1756 to 1781, Jacob Philadelphia performed feats of magic, sometimes under the guise of scientific exhibitions, throughout Europe and in Russia. Modern entertainment magic owes much of its origins to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), originally a clockmaker, who opened a magic theatre in Paris in the 1840s. His speciality was the construction of mechanical automata which appeared to move and act as if they were alive. The British performer J N Maskelyne and his partner Cooke established their own theatre, the Egyptian Hall in London's Piccadilly, in 1873. They presented stage magic, exploiting the potential of the stage for hidden mechanisms and assistants, and the control it offers over the audience's point of view. The escapologist and magician Harry Houdini (real name Ehrich Weiss, 1874 - 1926), took his stage name from Robert-Houdin and developed a range of stage magic tricks, many of them based on escapology (though that word was not used until after Houdini's death). The son of a Hungarian rabbi, Houdini was genuinely highly skilled in techniques such as lockpicking and escaping straitjackets, but also made full use of the whole range of conjuring techniques, including fake equipment and collusion with individuals in the audience. Houdini's showbusiness savvy was as great as his performing skill. There is a Houdini Museum dedicated to him in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In addition to expanding the range of magic hardware, showmanship and deceptive technique, these performers established the modern relationship between the performer and the audience.
In this relationship, there is an unspoken agreement between the performer and the audience about what is going on. Unlike in the past, almost no performers today actually claim to possess supernatural powers. There is a debate amongst people who perform mentalism as to whether or not to perform their style of magic as if they have real power or if they can simulate this power.
It is generally understood by most people that the effects in the performance are accomplished through sleight of hand (also called prestidigitation or léger de main), misdirection, deception, collusion with a member of the audience, apparatus with secret mechanisms, mirrors, and other trickery (hence the illusions are commonly referred to as "tricks"). The performer seeks to present an effect so clever and skillful that the audience cannot believe their eyes, and cannot think of the explanation. The sense of bafflement is part of the entertainment. In turn, the audience play a role in which they agree to be entertained by something they know to be a deception. Houdini also gained the trust of his audiences by using his knowledge of illusions to debunk charlatans, a tradition continued by magicians such as James Randi, Arthur Ellison, P. C. Sorcar, and Penn and Teller.
Magic has come and gone in fashion. For instance, the magic show for much of the 20th century was marginalized in North America as largely children's entertainment. A revival started with Doug Henning, who reestablished the magic show as a form of mass entertainment with his distinctive look that rejected the old stereotypes and his exuberant sense of showmanship that became popular on both stage and numerous television specials.
Today, the art is enjoying a vogue, driven by a number of highly successful performers such as David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, Barry and Stuart, Criss Angel, Dorothy Dietrich, Greg Frewin and many other stage and TV performers. David Blaine is sometimes included in this category, though his major performances have been more a combination of Houdini-style escape tricks and physical endurance displays than the illusion magic performed by others. The mid-twentieth century saw magic transform in many different aspects. Some performers preferred to renovate the craft on stage (such as The Mentalizer Show in Times Square which mixed themes of spirituality and kabbalah with the art of magic). Others successfully made the transition to TV, which opens up new opportunities for deceptions, and brings the performer to huge audiences. Most TV magicians are shown performing before a live audience, who provide the remote viewer with a reassurance that the illusions are not obtained with post production visual effects.
Many of the basic principles of magic are comparatively old. There is an expression, "it's all done with smoke and mirrors", used to explain something baffling, but contrary to popular belief, effects are seldom achieved using mirrors today, due to the amount of work needed to install it and difficulties in transport. For example, the famous Pepper's Ghost, a stage illusion first used in 19th century London, required a specially built theatre. Modern performers have vanished objects as large as the Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty, and the Space Shuttle, using other kinds of optical deceptions.
There is much discussion among magicians as to how a given effect is to be categorized, and disagreement as to what categories actually exist -- for instance, some magicians consider "penetrations" to be a separate category, while others consider penetrations a form of restoration or teleportation. It is generally agreed that there are very few different types of effect. There has been disagreement between some magicians (such as Dariel Fitzkee, Harlan Tarbell, S.H. Sharpe) as to how many different types of illusion there are. Some of these are listed below.
Many magical routines use combinations of effects. For example, in the famous 'cups and balls' a magician may use vanishes, productions, penetrations, teleportations and transformations all as part of the one presentation.
Membership in professional magicians' organizations often requires a solemn commitment to the "Magician's Oath" never to reveal the secrets of magic to non-magicians.
Once sworn to The Oath, one is considered a magician, and is expected to live up to this promise. A magician who reveals a secret, either purposely or through insufficient practice, may typically find oneself without any magicians willing to teach one any more secrets.
However, it is considered permissible to reveal secrets to individuals who are determined to learn magic and become magicians. It is typically a sequential process of increasingly valuable and lesser known secrets. The secrets of almost all magical effects are available to the public through numerous books and magazines devoted to magic, available from the specialized magic trade. There are also web sites which offer videos, DVDs and instructional materials. In this sense, there are very few classical illusions left unrevealed, however this does not appear to have diminished the appeal of performances. In addition, magic is a living art, and new illusions are devised with surprising regularity. Sometimes a 'new' illusion will be built on an illusion that is old enough to have become unfamiliar.
Some magicians have taken the controversial position that revealing the methods used in certain works of magic can enhance the appreciation of the audience for cleverness of magic. Penn and Teller frequently perform tricks using transparent props to reveal how it is done, for example, although they almost always include additional unexplained effects at the end that are made even more astonishing by the revealing props being used. Val Valentino, as "The Masked Magician," revealed a number of secrets in a series of four Fox Network TV specials.
Often what seems to be a revelation of a magical secret is merely another form of misdirection. For instance, a magician may explain to an audience member that the linking rings "have a hole in them" and hand the volunteer two unlinked rings, which the volunteer finds to have become linked as soon as he handles them. At this point the magician may shove his arm through the ring ('the hole in the ring'), proclaiming: "See? Once you know that every ring has a hole, it's easy!"
Nowadays, magicians can join magic clubs. Here magicians, both seasoned and novitiate, can work together and help one another for mutual improvement, to learn new techniques, to discuss all aspects of magic, to perform for each other — sharing advice, encouragement and criticism. Before a magician can join one of these clubs, they usually have to perform an audition. The purpose is to show to the membership that they are a magician and not just someone off the street wanting to discover magical secrets.
The world's largest magic organization is the International Brotherhood of Magicians; it publishes a monthly journal, The Linking Ring. The oldest organization is the Society of American Magicians, of which Houdini was a member. In London, England, there is The Magic Circle which houses the largest magic library in Europe. Also PSYCRETS - The British Society of Mystery Entertainers, which caters specifically to mentalists, bizarrists, storytellers, readers, spiritualist performers, and other mystery entertainers. The Magic Castle in Hollywood is home to the Academy of Magical Arts.
Fraudulent psychics or mediums have long capitalised on the popular belief in ESP and other paranormal phenomena for financial gain. Controversy still surrounds the hugely successful 1970s illusionist Uri Geller and his ability to bend spoons, for instance. During the height of the vogue for Spiritualism and the wave of popularity for séances from the 1840s to the 1920s, many fraudulent mediums used conjuring methods to perform illusions such as table-knocking, slate-writing, and telekinetic effects. The great escapologist and illusionist Harry Houdini devoted much of his time to exposing such fraudulent operators. Magicians James Randi, Penn & Teller, and Criss Angel are involved in similar debunking today. Randi has, for example, shown how people have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous faith healers who, using simple sleight-of-hand, remove chicken-giblet "tumors" from the patient's abdomen. More recently, British magicians Barry and Stuart used some of the Biblical accounts of miracles as inspiration for the tricks they presented in two TV specials.
Con men and grifters often use techniques of conjuring for fraudulent goals. Cheating at card games is an obvious example. Other scams continue to defraud the innocent, despite having been exposed and debunked. The card trick known as "Find the Lady" or "Three-card Monte" is an old favourite of street hustlers, who lure the victim into betting on what seems like an easy and obvious win. Another example is the shell game, in which a pea is hidden under one of three walnut shells, then shuffled around the table (or sidewalk) so slowly as to make the pea's position seemingly obvious. Although these are well-known as frauds, people are still fooled enough to lose money on them.
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