A little while back, Ted and I ran into a friend, a consummate and quite excellent magician, Steven Blencoe. Some of the nice things about Steve are that he loves what he does, is very experienced and knowledgeable about it, and is more than happy to regale us with both stories and ‘illusions’. His specialty is close-up magic, and he can make things appear, disappear, reappear and…well, you get the idea.
We had a long talk about how the internet and places like youtube are hurting the world of stage magic. He told us that when he was a kid, he apprenticed with a stage magician for many years, someone who would watch him, correct him, teach him, and guide him (sound familiar?) He says that nowadays, a person can see a magic trick, go onto the internet and either watch how it’s done on youtube, or buy a DVD or the whole illusion on any number of non-discriminating websites. He shook his head, and lamented that you could not learn magic this way, that it takes time to perfect an illusion, and that he has seen, all too often, a person buying a trick and performing it later that day, and badly.
That conversation came back to me a few days later when, synchronistically, I saw an article saying exactly that same thing. Written by Santiago Wills, it tells of his experiences growing up in Colombia and going to the magic shops there, and how the internet is killing that whole aspect of the art. But these two paragraphs especially caught my eye:
“Magic has always depended on the control of information…When I was young, you had to hang around a magic shop, and learn to ask, and ask politely. You would approach a guy and he would tell you, ‘Well, show me what you are working on, kid,’ and you’d show him. And then he might say, ‘Let me help you out with that,’ or ‘Let me show you something different than what you asked.’
“The biggest problem with DVD and YouTube exposure is that it has damaged the skill of learning through asking, and it has created the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that all knowledge and all wisdom is available to buy,” he said. “And there’s so much difference between those two acts, because asking involves a human experience, while buying is just sitting in your coach and passively absorbing countless secrets that you think constitute magic.”
Books, for millennia and, very recently, DVDs are a part of the learning process, the acquisition of knowledge. They supplement first-hand experience, offer an opportunity to learn from teachers you could not otherwise visit or study from, widen a practitioner’s appreciation, even give a student his or her own time to contemplate ideas and—in the case of both martial arts and magic—movement.
But there is no replacement for the feel of fingertips as they pluck that gold coin from behind your left ear.