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The great and ancient art of magic’s true milieu is live, live anywhere you can get it. But at this point, what magic isn’t on the glitzy stage—many Las Vegas magicians have year-round contracts at venues there—is on television. The wonder of presentation is slightly deadened by the medium’s own sleight-of-hand capacities, but TV’s potential function as the magician’s assistant hasn’t stopped the deluge. There must be a demand for the stuff, though who the fans are is anybody’s guess. With the sheer mass of product, magic’s depiction grows increasingly bizarre and deviates further from its original purpose, strength, and form.

The most interesting of recent magic-oriented series was the second installment of Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed, hosted by Mitch Pileggi, who must have figured that if he looked humiliated and refused to move his lips when speaking he wasn’t really participating in the loser gig. That special had a decidedly odd tone: The narration was along the lines of, “It looks miraculous, but we all know it’s just a bunch of crap.” But it didn’t get really weird until the masked “Unknown Magician”—a famous working performer, we were told—tried to demonstrate the Linking Rings, and a piss-poorer prestidigitator I have not seen in all my magic-watching days. If the mask hid the hired second-rater’s face, the costume did a less successful camouflage job: Hey, Masked Magician, you palm cards like a girl!

It is to weep. Magic was once the realm of priests and alchemists, then of great showmen who were stage idols, then of great showmen who were near-irrelevancies. Now, it’s the terrain of the fat kid, the loner, the science-fiction geek clever enough to understand that he won’t get laid by knowing all the moons of Centus Auricula according to the Sphere Warrior series.

Theirs is a realm almost exclusively male, but magic always has been. Adelaide Hermann and Melinda, First Bimbo of Magic, are historical and modern anomalies, respectively, their existence providing only novelty. Magic is always looking for a new twist, a way to make the trick look trickier, and having a female in control onstage is merely one of those ways. And anyway, those fat kids and sci-fi consumers aren’t hoping to seduce fellow outsiders—chicks who do tricks are girl geeks as well as something akin to circus freaks. There’s no way to be “one of the guys” in magic.

Then again, passably performing the Cups and Balls won’t bring the cheerleaders flocking, either. Somewhere between its perception as amusing-but-irrelevant and the province of losers, magic the difficult and venerable art form died. First the TV-bound audience killed it, then the performers did.

How magic as a performance art died is not as interesting as the coup de grâce inflicted by its practitioners. Art changes and progresses—that’s civilization’s way—and for centuries magic participated shoulder-to-shoulder in the culture outside it. It absorbed and transformed priorities, attitudes, technologies, fashions, and fascinations to serve the realm of performance and to keep the public happy, whether that public was in a music hall, a society dame’s séance parlor, the hippodrome, a monarch’s court, or a church. (the harness or platform that flew angels in among the worshipers 400 years ago is the same one that levitates the “hypnotized” girl.)

But if the Industrial Revolution exploded magic’s possibilities, the late 20th century has imploded them. Our technologies have begun to develop inward, as it were, to be directed toward the central thought processes of computers and the human imagination. Now that every movie studio has its own digital lab, it doesn’t take a Terminator 2 or The Abyss to wow the masses with that liquidlike morphing effect, which still hasn’t got a handle on solidity. (cute as the film’s principals were, nothing in Toy Story ever looked as if it were quite touching a surface.) And magicians, who stop at nothing for a good effect, know that the computer-generated effects aren’t good enough; people recognize them for what they are, and using them would be, in the perverse logic of the theater, cheating. (It’s cheating in movies, too, half the time, but let that pass.)

What’s beautiful about magic is its sweat-of-the-brow machinations, the clever gaffs and considerable dexterity required to enact seemingly effortless deceptions. Everything else is showmanship. In the ’70s, when solid, old stage magic was suffering at the hands of the more compelling self-induced mind games of psychedelia and social revolution, it took the rainbow-suspendered Broadway showmanship of rabbity post-hippie magician Doug Henning to resurrect it, even if only for a brief period. Henning was a figure of fun to the audiences who nevertheless flocked to his popular Broadway act, but magicians were flabbergasted—magic was onstage again, the biggest American stage of all, and Henning was a damn good magician.

But it didn’t matter what magicians recognized—the very point is that they know what’s going on when we don’t—because the public makes the final decision. In spite of Henning’s success, he was the Mork of magic, a longhaired crafts-fair imp, this close to dreaded mimehood. “It’th an ill-OO-zhion,” he would lisp magisterially after a particularly cunning exploit; thus, the first driblets of social rejection and repugnant honesty were introduced into the art of magic. Like ink drops in a well, they swirl around there still, muddying the waters of good clean mystification.

If there is truly an evil force at work in the realm of magic, it is surely personified by David Copperfield. After Henning’s last-gasp upgrading, magic got lazy, and Copperfield found superstardom by trying strenuously and with mixed results to turn the old rules on their heads. The new rules were as follows: 1.) It doesn’t matter how minor or obvious the trick is, or how badly you bungle it, so long as you swirl around a lot and look mysterious while performing it. 2.) Magicians are…no, I am—a chick magnet. 3.) Mirrors, mirrors, mirrors.

While old-time sleight-of-hand greats left out in the cold by television’s ambiguous relationship to realism refined and reinvented their art in the dark and to no acclaim, magic went Vegas and got so big it’s no wonder you can’t see the damn elephant Copperfield vanishes. Precedent-setters like Dai Vernon died mostly unmourned, except by author and sleight-of-hand genius Ricky Jay, who had to embark on a public career of his own in order to tangentially keep such names alive. What Max Malini was lauded by kings for doing, Vernon would re-create and improve upon to win the admiration of his peers (who didn’t have any money, either) or perhaps simply as an exercise in art for art’s sake. Copperfield, who hasn’t a shred of respect for his profession’s history but knows a cornered market when he sees it, bought up the largest and most precious historical magic archive in the world despite Jay’s frantic efforts to rescue it; he keeps the collection in his Vegas home behind the snarky and undoubtedly closer to his heart “Lingerie Museum.”

The exponential increase in unnecessary forms of misdirection—mutant tigers, chorus lines of sexy assistants, leather stage gear, titillating sadism, all that ominous swirling—has made magic ridiculous even as it has revitalized the form’s earning power. Siegfried and Roy, the Pendragons, Melinda, and unaccountable pinup Lance Burton do a little magic—each act has a version of Houdini’s Metamorphosis (the Pendragons’ being the fastest), and Burton even works with doves and wands despite the ranks of showgirls in crotch-to-toe-baring Marie Antoinette costumes flanking him—but mostly they just entertain. Which is fine. Magic is and should be entertaining; it may now be too much to ask that it be anything more.

For magic to exploit all its possibilities, it must return to being something less than what the smoke-bomb stage productions present. No famous magicians have brought the art back down to the level of close-in, innovative trickery, with the exception of card-sharp Jay and Penn & Teller, and even the latter get plenty of mileage out of Houdini’s Water-Torture Cell, which nearly killed Teller one night on David Letterman, and the Davenport Cabinet, which they performed this year in an elaborate tribute to the greatest magician of the 20th century on the anniversary of his death, Halloween night. (Stone in the shoe: Still glowing from making Teller laugh at a book-signing earlier in the day, I was crushed, childishly, upon realizing that P&T are so lazy they name all their shills “Dan.” And I’ve only seen them live twice.) But Ricky Jay is the equivalent of the Victorian society lady’s spiritualist protégé, performing brilliant sleight of hand at close quarters for the skeptical urbanite loaded or connected enough to get a coveted ticket to his show. As for Penn & Teller, people unfamiliar with their act call them comedians, as if the ability to perform great magic in a simple and direct manner and to entertain an audience are distinct arts.

It is perhaps an inevitable conclusion in the centuries-long development of magic that the audience seeks merely to be entertained but not to be fooled—it now has UFOs and government conspiracies to dream on. But belief in aliens and worldwide cover-ups serves a function distinct from that of magic; it isn’t so much that our beliefs have switched focuses but that belief itself has taken a different form. Magic is infinitely possible—anything can happen—and the result is always surprise. A weary, cynical world needs a new place for its faith to leap to, which is why the random delights of the stage have given way to a yearning for order and plan, however oppressive.

Conspiracists have a touching faith in the systematic nature of their government; it’s not just a bunch of overpaid fat cats elected through our indifference or gullibility, but a sinister cabal of masterminds who know exactly what they’re doing. (Magicians, of course, know what they’re doing, too, but their methods are out of our control, their goals no longer universal.)

Magic is a fragile, volatile thing, understandably unfashionable when one considers how anti-religious is it without being particularly scientific—the thrill of discovery is not a component. A culture in millennial crisis wants answers that will justify its interest in the questions. Conspiracy is a declaration that the believer has not been fooled. Magic’s “answers”—those duct-taped, jury-rigged, man-behind-the-curtain machinations—are homey and unglamorous; the existence of a forklift or a stacked deck makes a mockery of our yearning to believe.—Arion Berger