Crap Magic

Ask any of my friends and family who have young children: I love nothing better than demonstrating my one and only magic trick.

I think it’s a good trick, because the props and situation required – a fork, a napkin, a mealtime – are based on a situation where kids are always bored. Everyone else – including most children who are old enough to understand what is meant to be going on – knows it’s a crap trick.

I take the napkin and hide the fork behind it. Holding the napkin at the two top corners, I also – watch closely, here is the trick! – hold the end of the fork with with my right hand.

My attention rapturously fixed on the centre of the napkin, I now mime it rising into the air, propelled in the middle by the point of the fork.

Every child I have ever met immediately insists there is something behind the napkin, and I do my best to hide the fork.

Ta da!

‘Magic’ is a cliche that haunts the theories of creativity in the kinds of books available in art-gallery gift shops. Get in touch with your unconscious. Trust serendipity. Embrace possibility. Magic is real.

But what if Real Magic is not the right metaphor for creativity? What if creative work is more often like crap magic?

It was not my own crap magic that first made me think of this. It was the magic described in the cases from the project. (And probably the #CrapMiracles from medievalists on Twitter.)

I’ve always thought that the idea of this project – to hold creative practices and the specific, historical topic of magical harm up to one another, to see what they have to say in conversation – depends partly on a two-way exchange.

Not just creative practices as better (or different) ways to do history, but history as different ways of thinking about creative practices.

I should be clear what I mean by the crapness of these cases: I’m not talking about doubting the reality of witchcraft.

When I say a lot of the magic in these cases is crap, I don’t simply mean I don’t think that it never worked. I’m not asking whether witchcraft is real. (Like many historians, I don’t think that’s the most interesting question to ask.)

I mean simply that it was normally rubbish, and very often recognised as such by many of the people involved. The fact that any given example was nonsense, however, never has been a barrier to suspecting that other magic could be more powerful.

So what makes both the napkin and the cases crap?

  • They are emotionally confusing for participants. Are they meant to be funny or astounding (both the napkin and witchcraft)… or frightening, overwhelming (just the witchcraft, I hope)? This emotional confusion is as true for the performer (I suspect) as for the audiences.
  • They are very quotidian. They rely on everyday objects, and often ones that are relatively inexpensive (tools, cheap materials, fairly cheap animals and animal parts). They are events that insert themselves into everyday situations, or even mimic them in order to create ritual.
  • They don’t work. Probably. This is the nub of my magic trick. Nobody, not even a three year old, thinks there is any magic involved. But. I have yet to meet a child who does not consider it very important to verify what I am hiding behind the napkin. Similarly, the cases so often involve disappointed clients of magical specialists, or disabused victims of witchcraft, who change their minds about what has happened. And yet so often witnesses and participants refuse to commit to a firm position on what they think magic can really achieve. What makes it magic is that uncertainty.

So how is ‘creativity’ like this crap magic?

In a recent book on craft, craftivism, and creativity in the internet age, David Gauntlett has taken issue with probably the most widespread academic definition of ‘creativity’, which comes from the work of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi proposes that creativity requires three things: an established domain of rules, a person who brings novelty into this domain, and experts who recognise this innovation, and accept its validity. The problem with this definition, as Gauntlett points out, is that it is good at explaining the creativity of famous artists or pioneers of new thought, but less good at explaining the experiences that constitute the majority of creative work, not by world-famous authors or inventors, but by people making more modest things.[1]

What connections would I sketch between Gauntlett’s more democratic and inclusive sense of what creativity is and crap magic?

I would start with connections to the quotidian nature of many activities that are nonetheless recognised as ‘creative’. I find it interesting that in conversations about creative historical practices, many historians want to assert the creativity built in to research (I agree), but don’t want to recognise how it works, with what tools, in what places, and in what ways. I sometimes feel it is as if having those conversations is considered embarrassing, petty, or trivial. There aren’t big magic secrets to hide, just silly moments.

There is also thinking to be done (thinking I am still trying to do) about emotional ambiguity, both in supernatural experiences and in creativity. I would suggest that making things and making history can be disappointing, sad, frustrating, and embittering just as often as it is inspiring, joyful, and the other adjectives you might associate with magic that is not crap. I don’t think we have enough work on the histories of emotional ambiguity and especially humour and the supernatural.

Finally, more often than not, creative work involves pretty much outright failure.

Of course, the gift shop books will tell you that this is all part of the process.

Which is a productive idea, in as far as it goes:

A large part of creativity is making mistakes and then noticing what’s good about them.[2]

Errors are the gold of creativity.[3]

But I also wonder if crap magic doesn’t suggest some slightly less optimistic directions.

Perhaps sometimes the toddlers are right.

I won’t be giving up the day job.

[1]Gauntlett, Making is Connecting, 14-7

[2]Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery, 119.

[3]Atavar, Better Magic, 25-7.

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