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Friday, March 22, 2024

March 22, 2024: American Magic: 21st Century Evolutions

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On a handful of contemporary talents who reflect how magic has continued to evolve.

1)      Ricky Jay: I honestly don’t want to say too much here, as I’d rather you take the next hour and watch that amazing special (directed by David Mamet!). The heart of magic shows are card tricks, and no one—not in our own era, and not ever as far as I’m concerned—has mastered them more than Ricky Jay did (he tragically passed away in 2018 at the age of 72). Watch that video if you doubt my claim!

2)      Lance Burton: Burton has been performing magic since 1981 and continues to do a Las Vegas show to this day, and as the images and details on that website indicate is very much in the vein of the classic stage magicians. The evolution of an art form doesn’t have to mean brand-new iterations, of course—it can also mean how the traditional versions have extended into our own moment, what it means to perform today in those longstanding ways. Burton seems to embody that form of magic, and has for many decades now.

3)      David Blaine: The next couple magicians I’ll highlight in this post do represent more dramatic evolutions and shifts in the art of magic, however. David Blaine does perform card tricks, but in a close-up, intimate, audience-involving style that differs quite strikingly from Ricky Jay’s more traditional stage show. And he does perform illusions, but in a more extreme and death-defying form than the likewise more traditional stage show of a performer like Lance Burton. For all those reasons, when I think magic for the internet age I think of David Blaine.

4)      Criss Angel: Criss Angel likewise made his reputation performing death-defying illusions and achieving viral internet fame, but I would say in comparison to Blaine that Angel has been consistently best-known for his series of television shows and specials. In that way, Angel extends but also evolves the way that TV has played a significant role in the career of yesterday’s subjects, Penn & Teller. One critique of Angel at times has been that his shows focus more on images and narrative storytelling than on the magic itself, but that’s the fine line of any televised entertainment, and a telling reflection of where and how Angel’s career developed.

5)      Fay Presto: For most of its history magic has been a male-dominated industry (other than those scantily-clad female assistants about whom I wrote early in the week), but of course that’s never been absolute, and it has likewise evolved here in the 21st century. English magician Fay Presto isn’t just an example of a successful and famous female performer, she’s one who has been voted The Magic Circle’s “Magician of the Year” on multiple occasions. She’s not alone as a prominent female magician, past and present, but it’s equally important not to limit her through that category, and instead to name her as another talented reflection of magic’s enduring presence here in the 21st century.

Houdini post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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