To Expose Or Not To Expose

By Brian Rappert - Monday, May 29, 2023

As with other arts, the magic community needs to establish and enforce standards while also fostering innovation and individuality. When faced with questions about appropriate conduct, we can struggle with many of the same predicaments that bedevil other ethical topics: On what basis should choices be made? Whose experiences count? How can uncertainty and disagreement be handled?

The rights and wrongs of the exposure of methods has been a perennial topic of debate in the history of entertainment magic. For decades, societies have forbidden such disclosures. None other than the Magic Circle’s first president, David Devant, was sanctioned for violating its exposure rule.

As Gustav Kuhn has noted, exposure takes many forms: disclosing methods to the general public, revealing techniques in magic also used by those fraudulently claiming extra-ordinary powers, inadvertently showing methods through incompetence, as well as incorporating references to methods within performances.

The last of these is perhaps the thorniest. Many routines include actions that are more or less suggestive of methods. Penn & Teller’s iconic versions of “Cups and Balls” explicitly present the explanations and actions undertaken as disclosing methods in direct defiance of the rules of magic. Yet, there are far more subtle forms of exposure. Sucker tricks, false solutions, references to sleight of hand techniques and the handing out of gimmicks are all exposure candidates. Even side patter that ‘this is a legit deck of cards, they truly are all different’ can give audiences ideas for how that effect or others could be accomplished.

In many ways, rather than being kept secret, it would seem more apt to say the methods of magic are often ‘secreted’ in performances – this in that secrete simultaneously denotes both to release and to hide.

How then ought in-performance exposures be regarded? When are they skilful? When do they cross a line to become problematic?

Supported by the MAGIC Lab, during Vanishing Inc.’s 2023 The Session convention in London, I ran four groups with over a hundred attendees to explore magicians’ own thinking about these and related questions. By getting participants to hear and respond to each other, it was possible to jointly probe our reasonings and assumptions. The examples discussed included Slydini’s “Flight of the Paper Balls”, a “Cups and Balls” routine by Dai Vernon, and a version of the “Anniversary Waltz” that involves handing out a double-faced card.

Ways of reasoning

In what follows, I want to highlight some ways of thinking expressed at The Session for what can and should not be done with regard including references to methods within performances.

One matter that often provides the starting basis for assessments of ethics is intention. To take an extreme example, deaths inflicted on civilians in war can be downplayed in their moral abhorrence because they were not deliberate. In the groups, several contributions positioned intent as central – an exposure should be regarded differently depending on whether magicians were seeking to entertain, make money, show off or push the art forward. Overall, though, reasonings based on effects rather than on intent were much more commonplace (see below).

Another starting basis was the type of method at work. As with other bases, just how methods ought to figure in assessments of appropriate conduct differed. For instance, at the end of explaining why the method for a ‘self-working’ trick like “Out of this World” might be exposed, the exchange followed:

Participant: …if it’s something that requires no skill other than presentation, I would share.
Brian: OK, and is that because you have a sense that it is the sleight of hand, it’s the technical skill, that is really at the heart of what magicians do?
Participant: No, the heart is performance, but sleight of hand is something that is hard won and therefore valuable and should not be, you know, served up.

This exchange was immediately followed by another participant who voiced disagreement, contending he would not reveal “Out of this World” because it is ‘the method used for many other tricks’. In the discussion that subsequently ensued between the participants, at stake was whether the skill requisites or the applicability of methods was the more relevant criterion, as well as the differences between teaching and exposing.

Elsewhere it was not the characteristics of the method so much as how the methods were framed within performances that was said to matter. Exposure as part of gambling routines, comedic gags, demonstrations of dexterity and magic tricks garnered alternative assessments.

Another basis for determining what was acceptable pertained to how integral the exposure was to the effect. Since Slydini’s display of the principle of misdirection was essential for “Flight of the Paper Balls”, this merited a more positive assessment for some than Dai Vernon’s needless reference to misdirection in his "Cups and Balls" performance. Necessity was, for some, broadly conceived to include the business case for exposure.

Another topic for disagreement was the suitability of exposure in relation to the story presented. For instance, group attendees expressed unanimity regarding the acceptability of giving a double-faced card to audiences at the end of an “Anniversary Waltz” card trick. Principally this was because the existence of such an ‘impossible object’ directly followed from the actions and patter of the performance. However, outcomes not following on were also said to justify exposure. Dai Vernon’s reference to the ‘misdirection’ of a false transfer in his cups and balls performance was deemed acceptable to some because it was followed by the production of much larger balls that could not be produced by the disclosed method. In this way, any exposure was effectively nullified in the minds of the audience.

The effects of exposure figured elsewhere. Sometimes those effects were drawn around the audience to a specific performance. Herein, exposure could be justified if it increased their enjoyment. Whether this outcome would happen was said to depend on audiences’ age profile, their prior familiarity with magic, the degree of cooperativeness established between the magician and audiences, as well as other considerations.

At other times, effects pertained to any and all performances. In such lines of reasoning, distinctions were made between methods specific to one trick and those commonly used, as in when one participant argued: In my eyes, I think it is OK to expose if it is not something that can be easily replicated in a different trick in a different scenario. That is why I have no problem with [Slydini’s] paper balls over the head because that style of misdirection is entirely dependent on someone sitting in a chair and the right angle so you can chuck paper balls over their head. For others, the central issue was not so much the frequency of the use of methods. Instead, it was whether there were multiple ways to achieve a desired outcome, whether exposure influenced the likelihood that audience members’ perceptions could be misled in the future, whether the revelation would make other magic routines appear low skill (as in the case of some gimmicks) or whether the method can still be hidden effectively despite audiences general knowledge of its existence (for instance, palming versus a double lift).

Some contributions directed attention not so much to performances but performers: did the showing of methods threaten livelihoods, belittle other magicians, or give away secrets their creators were trying to keep?
Still other appraisals related to whether exposure might spark some to learn more about magic.

Where to go from here?

Let me try to offer some points derived from these varied lines of reasoning expressed at The Session.

First, as quickly became apparent in the discussions, determinations about proper conduct in relation to exposure were bound up with questions about what counts as the crucial secrets of magic and what makes magic, well, ‘magical’. As a result, it was hardly surprising that a diversity of ways of reasoning about exposure were aired. This point would suggest that we as a community need to recognize magicians can disagree about exposure for all sorts of reasons and based on unspoken assumptions.

Second, as opposed to the rules of magic societies, overall, participants to these groups adopted a fairly relaxed attitude toward in-performance exposure. Although they differed in why exposure was deemed acceptable, participants provided numerous justifications nevertheless. Those that offered negative appraisals often hedged their (often hesitantly delivered) remarks in some manner; such as in saying ‘I am not so happy about that, from a feeling’. Third, participants regarded that what counted as acceptable exposure was something they were able to take a view on as individuals. Only one person in the four groups suggested anything like the need to refer or defer to rules of magic societies. This probably stems from, but also speaks to, the lack of formal accreditation and training in magic.

Fourth, and relatedly, contentions about what audiences already know or strongly suspect about the methods of magic underpinned arguments about what is right and wrong. For instance, since audiences, or at least intelligent audiences, were said to know about palming, discussing it within a performance was portrayed as not problematic. And yet, this begs the question of whether we really do understand what audiences get. Recent books such as Magic by the Numbers and *The Psychology of Magic* provide much evidence that as magicians we often deceive ourselves regarding what we know about our audiences.

Fifth, as hinted above, many of the bases given for or against exposure could be regarded as dilemmatic; this in the sense that they could be used to support opposing conclusions. Is it OK to refer to general techniques, such as palming, because such categories are highly generic or dangerous because they are widely applicable? Should magicians limit disclosures to methods audiences might already suspect are at work or would such confirmations be the most hazardous? Are exposures related to low skill methods the most appropriate to reveal because they offer beginner level insights or do such exposures make magic appear to be a low skill activity? The existence of such contrasting ways of thinking are somewhat unavoidable because moral reasoning depends on there being opposing ways of making sense of an action to think through whether it is appropriate in a specific situation.

To expose or not to expose? The points above would suggest the need for us as a community to find ways of coming together to collaboratively discuss our standards and thinking. We have much to learn about how others reason and much to learn about our own reasoning through conversing with others.

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