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Socrates

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"The task of the magician is to startle our senses and free us from outmoded ways of thinking." - David Abram

A fitting quote to begin.

Does magic itself suffer from an outmoded way of thinking about itself?  By magic I am of course referring to the showbiz/magic-trick industry.  In a recent post I mentioned how during my travels I've seen numerous signed cards stuck to many different ceilings.  In one show I had a person's card disappear from the deck, the immediate response from somebody watching was:

"It'll be in his wallet" - unfortunately for him this is an idea I've never practiced, or performed [crazy]

Multiple coins are still appearing to jump from hand to hand.  The only interesting presentation I've come across for this is 'Imagination Coins' by Garrett Thomas.  Aces are still being placed in T-formations, other cards are still as ambitious as ever.  Dariel Fitzkee makes a great point about the classics in his book Magic By Misdirection:

"It becomes a classic because it fits the average style and the average abilities" - Magic By Misdirection page 5

In mentalism many people are still doing the same old stuff... in essence mentalism is basically a guessing game - you think of something and I'll guess what it is, or if it involves Zener cards it becomes more like a superior game of SNAP [rofl] 

It seems funny to me that many magicians cannot seem to break the outmoded ways of thinking about how magic is performed.  We often do the same tricks and work the same venues.  If you want to do close-up you approach a restaurant, and begin to hop from table-to-table.  Or go to a private event and mingle, or stroll amongst the crowds. 

Incidentally Eric Mead has a neat idea for private events in his book 'The Tangled Web'... with a little thinking this could be expanded to create a new approach altogether and of course increase your fees exponentially.

So this post is to see what you think.  

Schools teach us to follow instructions, turn to the books and authority figures in order to learn. It seems this is exactly what we do within the magic community, and then just follow suit. 

Many of the things I've done in my life have basically been self-taught... if you learn too much of what others have done, you may tend to take the same direction as everybody else" - Jim Henson
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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #2 
I appreciate this thought-provoking question. One thing that jumped out at me is the quote from Jim Henson. In a recent thread I suggested that one should have a variety of mentors, each with a different expertise. That way you don't end up a copy but an amalgam of all together.

I will offer one rebuttal to the similarity of effects and our propensity to repeat the classics. While you have seen 100 cards stuck to ceilings I bet if you poll 100 random people you won't find more than one that has seen it. So the harvest is still plenty.

The other thing that comes to mind is creativity and the lack thereof. I remember when I competed in magic competitions there was a category called originality and a number 1 through 5. Most of the acts I competed against were not very original and if I'm honest, mine wasn't either. What I did feel good about though was the flow of my act and how I worked hard to transition from one effect to the next. For that I generally got high scores.

I think there are people blessed with creative minds and their work always stands out. Most, as you point out, sort of follow the pack. That is true in art, true in music, pretty much any art. Many are content with simply being competent and if they don't completely expose the trick they are satisfied. I've seen it, a lot.

Gonna let this simmer and see what others think. As usual, Soc, you bring great questions out for consideration. We're going to miss you but I trust the journey will be fruitful!
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Senor Fabuloso

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Reply with quote  #3 
Soc

Not all magicians/mentalism are doing the same old/same old. In fact many of us perform our magic/mentalism with purpose. So what is standard among most, wouldn't find itself into our programs.

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RayJ

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Socrates said "many" not all. He is quite aware that there are outliers. His points are generally valid. The question is how do we encourage change within our own magic and the community. One way is to be our own harshest critics. Then use what we know and believe to influence others. We don't need to become creativity police but maybe we can offer insights to performers as to how they might add to their performances.

When I was mentoring the other day I asked my student why he would vanish a coin from his LH and then immediately produce it in his RH. He thought before answering but that is the way he learned it. That was the reason. We then talked about time misdirection and the "too perfect theory" and how it applied. I said people aren't stupid, their suspicion is going to be on the RH and in your performance you just confirm it. The coin either needs to completely vanish, appear back in the left after it is shown completely empty or at least pulled from your elbow, knee or something. Some would have watched and just said "good job" but that isn't conducive to progress.
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Senor Fabuloso

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Reply with quote  #5 
I would say his points are not only "generally valid" but VALID period.
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Mike Powers

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Reply with quote  #6 
"The task of the magician is to startle our senses and free us from outmoded ways of thinking." - David Abram


This quote is from a great book by Abram titled "The Spell of the Sensuous." The first chapter is titled "The Ecology of Magic." Very cool read.

Abram is a philosopher but also a sleight of hand magician. He traveled the world to hang out with local shamans. 

Abram's approach to philosophy is known as "Phenomenology." He's in the tradition of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 

Mike


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Mike Powers

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Reply with quote  #7 
Regarding stagnation in magic, I'd point at the incredible number of very innovative young people - Shin Lim comes to mind as do a number of young Asian magicians who are kicking ass at FISM. Many of the acts on P&T have been very innovative. I think that we're in a "golden age" of magic right now. Creativity in all the arts is off the charts. I'm in awe of what these young folks are doing.

Mike
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Anthony Vinson

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“People are people…” Depeche Mode


Human cognitive biases are powerful things. Turns out our brains are more in control of our actions – as well as our likes and dislikes - than we realized. A 2014 study of popular music determined, among other findings, that, “Listening habits are strongly influenced by two opposing aspects, the desire for variety and the demand for uniformity…” If applied to magic, and there’s no reason no to do so, it follows that the similarity in effects, method, and presentation are aspects of the concept of regression to the mean. Magic, like music, movies, or almost any other human artistic endeavor, eventually finds its level based on desires and expectations of both performers and audiences.

An audience attending a magic show – or movie or concert or play - will have certain expectations. If those expectations are not met, they will leave disappointed and unfulfilled. Now and again, a novel act will come along, successfully changing the dynamic, but leaving the audience satisfied. Or not.  

This does not mean that everyone must perform the same tricks the same way. It means that it is our responsibility as entertainers to meet or exceed our audience’s expectations. How we do that depends on a variety of factors. It’s those factors, and how we choose to address them, that often differentiate between a great performance, an adequate performance, and a lousy performance.

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Anthony Vinson

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Reply with quote  #9 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Senor Fabuloso
I would say his points are not only "generally valid" but VALID period.


And yet you are the one who initially pointed out their generality...

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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #10 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Anthony Vinson

“People are people…” Depeche Mode


Human cognitive biases are powerful things. Turns out our brains are more in control of our actions – as well as our likes and dislikes - than we realized. A 2014 study of popular music determined, among other findings, that, “Listening habits are strongly influenced by two opposing aspects, the desire for variety and the demand for uniformity…” If applied to magic, and there’s no reason no to do so, it follows that the similarity in effects, method, and presentation are aspects of the concept of regression to the mean. Magic, like music, movies, or almost any other human artistic endeavor, eventually finds its level based on desires and expectations of both performers and audiences.

An audience attending a magic show – or movie or concert or play - will have certain expectations. If those expectations are not met, they will leave disappointed and unfulfilled. Now and again, a novel act will come along, successfully changing the dynamic, but leaving the audience satisfied. Or not.  

This does not mean that everyone must perform the same tricks the same way. It means that it is our responsibility as entertainers to meet or exceed our audience’s expectations. How we do that depends on a variety of factors. It’s those factors, and how we choose to address them, that often differentiate between a great performance, an adequate performance, and a lousy performance.

Av    



AV, you reminded me of something. Eric Clapton came to town a few years ago and performed blues music. Even though it was advertised as such, many came expecting his rock classics. They left disappointed. It was their own fault in this case. But the principle is the same.
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Anthony Vinson

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Reply with quote  #11 
Quote:
Originally Posted by RayJ


AV, you reminded me of something. Eric Clapton came to town a few years ago and performed blues music. Even though it was advertised as such, many came expecting his rock classics. They left disappointed. It was their own fault in this case. But the principle is the same.


Exactly. Great example. In a couple of weeks I'll be seeing Peter Frampton. While he will probably play many of the old favorites, if he does not, many in the audience will be upset.  

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Bill Guinee

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Reply with quote  #12 
I once had a discussion with Eugene Burger about the sponge balls. He hated them, was bored with them, and knew that everyone did them. But, they kept coming back into his close up routines (although he abandoned them on more than one occasion), because they just killed the audience. I think the reason that there are so many cards on the ceiling is that the vast majority of audiences have never seen anything like that and they find it truly astonishing.

So, the question becomes "who are we doing the magic for?" Now I know that sounds rhetorical, and like the answer is obviously that we should be doing what will most please our audiences. But, I am not so sure. If we are to take seriously the concept of magic as an art, then we must think about how many artists did work that was not what would most please the audience, but that which would most express their creativity. Even though Van Gogh was broke, he did not start painting sad clowns.

And I think that is what my discussion with Burger was all about. I think he was struggling between his sense of artistry and creativity on the one hand and his role as an entertainer on the other. 

Personally, I haven't yet made up my mind about this one.
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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #13 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Guinee
I once had a discussion with Eugene Burger about the sponge balls. He hated them, was bored with them, and knew that everyone did them. But, they kept coming back into his close up routines (although he abandoned them on more than one occasion), because they just killed the audience. I think the reason that there are so many cards on the ceiling is that the vast majority of audiences have never seen anything like that and they find it truly astonishing.

So, the question becomes "who are we doing the magic for?" Now I know that sounds rhetorical, and like the answer is obviously that we should be doing what will most please our audiences. But, I am not so sure. If we are to take seriously the concept of magic as an art, then we must think about how many artists did work that was not what would most please the audience, but that which would most express their creativity. Even though Van Gogh was broke, he did not start painting sad clowns.

And I think that is what my discussion with Burger was all about. I think he was struggling between his sense of artistry and creativity on the one hand and his role as an entertainer on the other. 

Personally, I haven't yet made up my mind about this one.


Bill, you are onto something here. I've posted this in another thread for a different purpose but one of my biggest blessings was being able to join Ernie Heldman on a birthday party gig. Ernie was a true pioneer of magic, having appeared on national television when TV was still new. He was capable of advanced sleight of hand but did tons of kids parties to put food on the table. You do what you have to do. He entertained the heck out of them with no skill except for his presentation.
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Socrates

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Reply with quote  #14 
There's a lot to unfold here I see. 

In the initial post I mentioned the classics, and it seems the card on the ceiling has stuck in people's minds.  Bill has mentioned Eugene and the sponge balls, Ray and Anthony have given some great examples using guitar players, movies etc. and Mike has spoken of Penn & Teller, and used Shin Lim as an example of innovation. 

"When I started out, I didn't know that much about puppets, and not having seen that many, I wasn't overly influenced by what had gone before" - Jim Henson

Since beginning magic I've taken the time to study as many books as possible. Alongside this I have also investigated many different types of performance art.  When I was much younger I took the time to contact a number of professional magicians and asked them specific questions regarding the craft/art of magic.  Each and every one of them was generous enough to take the time to respond with honesty.  Their expertise came to the fore, and saved me a great deal of time and effort.  Unlike most magicians I went out straight away and began working gigs, learning on the job... after each show I took the time to assess the show and write-up a post-gig analysis, thinking about what worked, what didn't and how to ensure the next show was an improvement.  The people I performed for were my mirror, their reactions taught me what worked and what didn't... and I learned a great deal about the human mind and its blind-spots. 

The one thing I never did was join a magic club, or hang around with other magicians - I think this has been a great advantage to be honest.

Creativity has popped up a few times now in the responses to this thread.  Creativity is a natural human trait, all children are creative, yet it seems many adults grow up to believe their are not.  This is more than likely a result of our education system than anything else.  After all most schools do not encourage creativity and spontaneity, and even if they do it is only a little bit.  Mostly we a taught to follow rules and answer questions, if we do this we can pass the tests, and when we pass the tests we can get good jobs and become successful citizens.  Seems fair enough to me, if not a little constrictive.  Anyway it makes perfect sense that most people would continue to look up to authority figures, and turn to books for the answers - the creative folk are the ones who tend to continue to ask the questions.

Now my angle is one of enquiry, I'm more interested in stimulating interesting topics than giving directives as to how things should be.

Anthony reminded me of confirmation biases, or hypothesis-confirming behaviour.  We are often limited by our own view of the world, mistaking our beliefs/preferences for the reality of things.  Seek and ye shall find as they say.  Anthony pointed out that the audience has certain expectations of what a magic show should be... perhaps this viewpoint is also influenced by the way TV shows portray magic.  P&T have a show where the magicians try to fool them, I think this must be the one Mike Powers is referring to, and many people have seen Chris Angel, David Copperfield, Paul Daniels, Dynamo, Doug Henning etc etc. so these shows become the template for how magic is presented.

My question pertains to our thinking as magicians, are we too influenced by these shows and the industry of magic?

Perhaps it's not a subject most have even considered before.  As I said previously we often tend to hit the same venues looking for gigs, hopping from table-table, and strolling around parties - my assumption is this close-up style of performing comes from the nightclub era, back in the 30s or 40s... does anyone know the origins of table magic?  It'd be interesting to know why we all wander from table-to-table.

Bill gave us the example of Eugene and the dreaded Sponge Balls [smile]  And Ray mentioned Ernie Heldman doing kids parties to pay the way.  It seems the environment has a great influence on the magic we perform, or are expected to perform - and if you want to earn a living from magic there is obviously a compromise to be made.

"So, the question becomes "who are we doing the magic for?" Now I know that sounds rhetorical, and like the answer is obviously that we should be doing what will most please our audiences. But, I am not so sure. If we are to take seriously the concept of magic as an art, then we must think about how many artists did work that was not what would most please the audience, but that which would most express their creativity. Even though Van Gogh was broke, he did not start painting sad clowns" - Bill Guinee

Who are we doing the magic for is a good question to consider indeed, thanks for sharing Bill... such a great question to continually ponder, thank you.
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Senor Fabuloso

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Reply with quote  #15 
"My question pertains to our thinking as magicians, are we too influenced by these shows and the industry of magic?"

We are not Soc but many are [wink] Btw I sent you something, I think you will like? Check your email.

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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #16 
Soc, I had something of an epiphany as I read your post and particularly the question of who do we perform for. If I'm honest, at the core, I perform for myself. Not that I don't pay attention to whom I'm performing for and their wants and needs but I do it for me.

I think many artists do likewise. They have a fire inside that needs to be expressed and it will be whether anyone else notices or not. Some write poems every day yet nobody reads them. Some are closet musicians, playing only to themselves. Some magicians apparently perform on their beds with a single camera focused on their crotch.
Just watch youtube.

So while I DO want to be entertaining and mysterious, in the end it really is for me. Because I love it.
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Anthony Vinson

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Reply with quote  #17 
Of course we're influenced by culture. We cannot help ourselves. You want unusual acts? Go to a fringe festival. There's lots of them scattered around the world. I have performed in a couple, and in doing so been exposed to lots of interesting acts. While there's plenty of templated acts on the roster, there are also many that are avant-garde, and of those roughly 20% are polished enough to shine. They're interesting to watch, filled with surprises, and are rarely seen outside of fringe fests. Why? There's no audience. No audience, no act. No act, no money. No money? Get a job! 

Consider someone the likes of Andy Kaufman. While dated, this is an example of creative brilliance. Different? You betcha. Commercial? Turned out to be. Andy performed as a variety of characters, pushed the limits of television and entertainment, and eventually found himself absorbed into the mainstream where he was miserable.

P&T started out as fringe performers, developed characters as the bad boys of magic, and later drifted into the mainstream where they have found great success. While certainly filled with creative ideas, their act has gotten less controversial and more acceptable. At the same time they have grown wealthy.

An example outside of magic, but still, I think, relevant. Last night the wife and I attended a show dubbed as The Lost 80s. We danced, laughed, and sang through nine acts, all one, tow, or three hit wonders from the 80s. The show was structured in such a way that each act performed only their signature hits. That meant that some acts performed a single song, while others had four-song sets. Sitting through longer sets with most of these bands would have been interminable, but as structured, the show delivered. And just what did it deliver? Exactly what the audience wanted.

Successful acts, with few exceptions, drift towards mainstream over time. It's our nature as humans.

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Robin Dawes

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Reply with quote  #18 
One of my favourite books from the last couple of years is "Algorithms to Live By".  The authors devote a lot of pages to discussing the "explore vs. exploit" dichotomy.  This applies to any situation where you need to choose between a lot of alternatives, only some of which you have information about.  Example: You want to see a movie - there are 10 showing close by.  Three of them have had reviews, but the other seven you have never heard of.  Do you exploit the knowledge you have and pick one of the three you know about, or do you explore new territory by picking one of the seven unknowns?

The cool thing is that there actually are algorithms to help you decide when to exploit and when to explore, in order to optimize your chance of making the best choice ... but that is the topic of the book I mentioned, not this post.   All I wanted to say here is that almost all of the points raised in this discussion can be viewed as people taking different (and individual) approaches to making "explore vs. exploit" choices.

I have found it useful in my own life to reflect on this when faced with a choice of this sort.
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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #19 
Robin, I went to their website and copied the following.  Glowing reviews.  Seems like a must-read.

PRAISE

“Compelling and entertaining, Algorithms to Live By is packed with practical advice about how to use time, space, and effort more efficiently. And it’s a fascinating exploration of the workings of computer science and the human mind. Whether you want to optimize your to-do list, organize your closet, or understand human memory, this is a great read.”

— CHARLES DUHIGG

author of The Power of Habit

“In this remarkably lucid, fascinating, and compulsively readable book, Christian and Griffiths show how much we can learn from computers. We’ve all heard about the power of algorithms—but Algorithms to Live By actually explains, brilliantly, how they work, and how we can take advantage of them to make better decisions in our own lives.”

— ALISON GOPNIK

coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib

“I’ve been waiting for a book to come along that merges computational models with human psychology—and Christian and Griffiths have succeeded beyond all expectations. This is a wonderful book, written so that anyone can understand the computer science that runs our world—and more importantly, what it means to our lives.”

— DAVID EAGLEMAN

author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

“A remarkable book... A solid, research-based book that’s applicable to real life. The algorithms the authors discuss are, in fact, more applicable to real-life problems than I’d have ever predicted.... It’s well worth the time to find a copy of Algorithms to Live By and dig deeper.”

— FORBES

 

“By the end of the book, I was convinced. Not because I endorse the idea of living like some hyper-rational Vulcan, but because computing algorithms could be a surprisingly useful way to embrace the messy compromises of real, non-Vulcan life.”

— THE GUARDIAN (UK)

 

“I absolutely reveled in this book... It's the perfect antidote to the argument you often hear from young math students: ‘What's the point? I'll never use this in real life!’... The whole business, whether it's the relative simplicity of the 37% rule or the mind-twisting possibilities of game theory, is both potentially practical and highly enjoyable as presented here. Recommended.”

— POPULAR SCIENCE (UK)

 

BEST SCIENCE BOOKS OF THE YEAR, AMAZON

#1 AMAZON BESTSELLER IN SCIENCE

TOP PICKS IN SCIENCE, BARNES & NOBLE

#1 AUDIBLE BESTSELLER IN NONFICTION

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Anthony Vinson

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Reply with quote  #20 
From the description it appears similar in scope to The Organized Mind, by Daniel Levitan, a favorite of mine. Despite attempting many times to adopt some of the suggestions though, it's obvious that my mind will never be organized...

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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #21 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Anthony Vinson
From the description it appears similar in scope to The Organized Mind, by Daniel Levitan, a favorite of mine. Despite attempting many times to adopt some of the suggestions though, it's obvious that my mind will never be organized...

Av 


Was it plugged in?
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Anthony Vinson

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Reply with quote  #22 
Quote:
Originally Posted by RayJ


Was it plugged in?


My mind? Oh, it's always plugged in. It's just receiving current from another dimension...

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Robin Dawes

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Reply with quote  #23 
Daniel Levitin's book "This Is Your Brain on Music" is another of my favourites.  I haven't read "The Organized Mind" but I will add it to my wish-list.  Thanks for the tip!
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Bill Guinee

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Reply with quote  #24 
Earlier, I mentioned that Van Gogh did not stoop to painting sad clowns (if that was even a thing). But, I am a bit concerned by Socrates' description of the classics as being something of a least common denominator and showing a lack of creativity. I don't think, although it is a very interesting concept, that I concur. It does seem to me that great artists across time have painted nudes, bowls of fruit, seascapes, self-portraits, and so forth. And yet a nude painted by Rembrandt is quite different than one painted by Picasso. When I see one of Picasso's cubist nudes I don't think "Oh, just another nude...why can't he be more creative." Is it not possible that our ambitious card (or card in wallet, or chop cup, or even sponge balls) is our nude or our seascape? As far as venues, painters have always painted for galleries, homes, museums -- is that a lack of creativity? Admittedly, now we also have comic books, murals, and so forth. But do we say "it's just another painting on a building?" Somehow, the most important aspects of creativity seem more ineffable to me than just the plot of the trick or the venue in which it is performed.
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RayJ

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Reply with quote  #25 
Vernon's cups and balls is certainly a classic and I would never call it a "least common denominator".  I got his point but feel it went a bit too far.
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Intensely Magic

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Reply with quote  #26 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Guinee
Earlier, I mentioned that Van Gogh did not stoop to painting sad clowns (if that was even a thing). But, I am a bit concerned by Socrates' description of the classics as being something of a least common denominator and showing a lack of creativity. I don't think, although it is a very interesting concept, that I concur. It does seem to me that great artists across time have painted nudes, bowls of fruit, seascapes, self-portraits, and so forth. And yet a nude painted by Rembrandt is quite different than one painted by Picasso. When I see one of Picasso's cubist nudes I don't think "Oh, just another nude...why can't he be more creative." Is it not possible that our ambitious card (or card in wallet, or chop cup, or even sponge balls) is our nude or our seascape? As far as venues, painters have always painted for galleries, homes, museums -- is that a lack of creativity? Admittedly, now we also have comic books, murals, and so forth. But do we say "it's just another painting on a building?" Somehow, the most important aspects of creativity seem more ineffable to me than just the plot of the trick or the venue in which it is performed.


I fully agree. I can't imagine anyone listening to the Boston Pops and saying "Oh, it's Beethoven's Fifth again". Likewise, I can't imagine the director of the Pops saying "we must be original, so let's have the bassoon and violin swap parts and I'll direct without my pants".

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