A still from Shirin Neshat’s “Women Without Men” (2009) (courtesy Indiepix Films) (click to enlarge)

…that is why a child is never more content than when he invents a secret language. His sadness comes less from ignorance of magic names than from his own inability to free himself from the name that has been imposed upon him. No sooner does he succeed, no sooner does he invent a new name, than he holds in his hand the laissez-passer that grants him happiness.

—Giorgio Agamben, “Magic and Happiness” from Profanations (2007)

Childhood is the kingdom of magic. In this world, the child invents new secret languages, speaks with people and creatures visible only to her eyes. She is happy. She spends days, weeks, years inside this world, her own, this warm dream. Here, she is Queen, she is Princess, she is Creature; she is God of her own strange, feral universe.

She wears her cape to the dinner table where no one worries when she talks to her peas. She sings while she drinks her pink lemonade, answers her siblings and parents in her own concocted language. When she leaves the table, dragging her pelt bear with her, having barely touch her food, no one says a word. She is immune; they have given her the gift of this immunity from the “real” world and its rules and regulations. For now, she is allowed to slide in and out of daydream, exist inside the safe warm incubator of her mind’s own making.

But there is a line. When the child reaches the edge of childhood, she will be expected to behave herself, to learn her family’s mannerisms, memorize their system of regulations. One day she will be scolded for behaving “like a child.” The border between this world (the one we call reality) and the Other world is a narrow one that is constantly shifting. Who guards the border depends on who crosses over. But once a child grows out of her childhood, she is yanked, once and for all, from her gluey underworld, and made to stay in the dark shadow of “reality.” She stands at the precipice, watching in sadness, as her magic world falls away.

Addicts, alcoholics and the insane stay children, remaining in the kingdom, taking their tincture that returns them to the world of their phantasms. The adult who voyages into the kingdom is treated like a child by other adults. These are the magicians of the contemporary: the ones who stay, who will not allow the world to take away this connection. Magic is the Other: the Hopi, the Navajo, the Mexican, the homeless with their bricolage of bright plastic bags and painted faces. Magic is the realm of the madman, the inarticulate who use magic to escape and magic to speak.

Aby Warburg wearing a Hemis Kachina mask, Oraibi, Arizona, May 1896 (courtesy © The Warburg Institute, and used with permission)

In the preface to his lecture, “Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America” (1923) Aby Warburg argues that magic is an integral and important part of the Native culture, used for manifesting solutions to their everyday lives:

For so long as the railways remained unable to reach the settlements,
drought and desire for water led to the same magical practices toward
the binding of hostile natural forces as they did in primitive, pre-
technical cultures all over the world. Drought teaches magic and prayer.

It is telling that Warburg binds the two words, “prayer” and “magic” together. As it turns out, they are two words for the same thing. In this case, the case of the Pueblo, magic was performed in times of deep need. For them it was not a return to childhood or an attempt to escape “reality.” Rather, it was an act of desperation, not unlike Warburg’s lecture, which worked as a kind of magic. Warburg presented “Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America” at the Kreuzlingen Sanitarium where, under the care of Ludwig Binswanger for depression and schizophrenia, he was kept from 1921 to 1924. It was the presentation of the paper, — a paper on magic and ritual in the Pueblo and Hopi communities — that worked, in fact, as a kind of magic, proving to the doctors at the clinic, that he was, in fact, sane. For Warburg and for the Pueblo, magic is a calling to the gods. “The masked dance,” Warburg writes, “upon which we might ordinarily look as a form of play, is, in its essence an earnest, indeed warlike, measure in the fight for survival.”

The modern-day anorexic is steeped in magic. She lives inside a world of ritual. Counting, for example, calories, portions, hours, minutes, inches and pounds. This is the foundation of her masterful language, her secret language. It is through this language that the anorexic conjures her own mysticism, her own spiritual exercises or language by which she is able to enter the Other world. Anorexia is its own language, readable only by others from the same tribe. It is a conglomeration of intricate signs and symbols. And beneath this set of symbols and signs exists belief. Anorexia is belief seeping out from itself.

In Women Without Men by the Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat, follows four different women during the British- and US-backed coup which removed the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. One of the four is an anorexic prostitute named Zarin. In the film Zarin does not speak. Her only language is her body. When she performs her job as a prostitute, she hallucinates, fleeing into the Other world of phantasm. In this case, magic is her only power. It is what keeps her alive.

Magic is the gummy glue, the very spit that binds the ephemera, the near-silenced babble of madmen, geniuses and artists who cannot or will not turn their backs on the kingdom of magic. Robert Walser, Martin Ramirez, Aby Warburg. One sees its trace in the lost, the missing, the wanderer. Walter Benjamin’s mescaline, his obsession with the phantasm, his flight into the mind, into his writing. And writing (and art making) is, itself, a kind of magic. It removes the writer from the world. When the writer is writing, he is no longer in this world, (he vanishes into the Other world, the world of magic). No longer exists. Too, writing is a small death, another act of magic.

Ioan P. Couliano writes in his book, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (1987), “Magic, by definition, is believed.” But what happens when only the believer believes? This is precisely when trouble ensues. Again, Couliano writes:

For a magic process to succeed — as Bruno never tires of repeating — it is essential that the performer and the subjects be equally convinced of its efficacy. Faith is the prior condition for magic: ‘There is no operator — magician, doctor, or prophet — who can accomplish anything without the subject’s having faith beforehand.”

This is when the believers in magic are ushered away from the crowds, away from society and into their cages. In this case, such people are considered mad and sent into institutions: psychiatric wards or prisons. The magician, the one who believes, has faith in the invisible, other world, and when this world is not shared or seen by those with power, it is seen as degenerate. Similarly, when an artist makes an artwork that emits a whirr of magic, and yet remains inexplicable, when we cannot fathom the mechanics, then that artist is considered insane. To make something happen beyond logic is seen as an act of magic. Because we cannot discern how or why it happened, we fear it. It is seen as dangerous. The one who holds the magic is deemed dangerous, Other, insane.

Isa Genzken, “Spielautomat (Slot Machine)” (1999–2000), slot machine, paper, chromogenic color prints, and tape 63 x 25 9/16 x 19 11/16 in (160 x 65 x 50 cm) (Private Collection, Berlin) (courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin) (© Isa Genzken)

This is the case with the German artist Isa Genzken, an artist trained in the formal, with more than forty years of practice behind her and yet, because she creates work that critics and other artists are not able to understand (they can’t understand how or why it works) she has been called insane. In an art writing class I took last year at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, the male painter teaching the course seemed genuinely perplexed and unnerved at not knowing how her work worked. He asked the students, “How does it work?” When some of us answered that it was perhaps the co-mingling of her training, her genius, and the dropping of her own life experience into her work, he remained unconvinced, as though this couldn’t possibly be it. That it must be another kind of conniving or madness; magic. Also that same semester, a guest artist visiting one of my classes at the School of Visual Arts, a famous young political artist, when approaching the topic of Genzken’s work, said, “Genzken is stark raving mad.” “Her work,” he added, “has crazy all over it.” He claimed, furthermore, that Genzken does not care what people think of her work — again, painting the artist who makes work we are unable to decipher or deconstruct, as mad.

Here we have another example of the border patrollers at work: determining who is and who is not allowed to dabble in magic, who is and who is not allowed to practice in magic. Again, this comes about as a result of the discrepancy between believer and non-believer. Here, Genzken is tapping into an unknown source, anchoring her work in this source (most probably her own life experience). The result of this is artwork that feels realized, and not work that, no matter how interesting, aesthetically pleasing, or rooted in one idea, feels empty, hollow, without a world behind it. But because she can access this world, and the others cannot, she is bad, she is wrong.

In a scene in Isa Genzken’s film, Die Kleine Bushaltestelle (Gerüstbau), 2007–2009 (The Little Bus Stop [Scaffolding, 2007–2009]) (2012) Genzken, along with the artist Kai Althoff, plays a baby swathed in what appears to be a tablecloth or curtain. The two lie in a crib and watch as various everyday objects appear suddenly before them. They scream and cry. When removed from context, everyday objects can be frightening. But they can also be exhilarating.

A response to the question, “How does her artwork work,” currently in circulation regarding Isa Genzken’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (November 18, 2013–March 9, 2014), might be that the great pleasure we feel when gazing at Genzken’s sculptures is that they, or rather she, gives us the experience of seeing the world as if for the time. She returns us to our baby selves. When we gaze upon an object we both do and do not recognize (bits of plastic, duct tape, children’s toys, and so on) removed from context we are filled with a sense of the uncanny. Genzken’s work does just this for us. We are changed as a result: we see the world the way a baby might first see the world.

In today’s art world, the inexplicable is slowly being banished, or if not banished, at least labeled insane (wrong) as a form of banishment within the art world. The symptom here is strangeness, nonconformity. It seems to me to be a case of envy: those who have turned their backs on the world of magic can’t stand to see others practicing it, they cannot stand to see other’s happiness as they traverse both worlds. As Agamben writes in “Magic and Happiness”:

It is, in fact, quite likely that the invincible sadness that sometimes
overwhelms children is born precisely from their awareness that
they are incapable of magic. Whatever we can achieve through
merit and effort, cannot make us truly happy. Only magic can do that.

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Cynthia Cruz

Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Her first collection...

4 replies on “In Defense of Magic”

  1. “In today’s art world, the inexplicable is slowly being banished, or if not banished, at least labeled insane (wrong) as a form of banishment within the art world. The symptom here is strangeness, nonconformity. It seems to me to be a case of envy: those who have turned their backs on the world of magic can’t stand to see others practicing it” — Id say that’s quite right.

  2. This was lovely, it’s quite rare to come across pieces discussing magic and its loss as we grow older. I’m not convinced that magic is being banished in art though. That Genzken was honored in a retrospective at MoMA seems to speak to her general respectability in the art world, despite what a few critics say. I think art is the medium where the most magic thrives, and the reason why I keep going to galleries is that I consistently find works which transport me from daily mundane existence. You’re right though that the struggle to understand, to label, to analyze, can strip a work of its inherent power. That’s why I try to avoid reading the wall text 🙂

  3. Very interesting, though I question the “magicalness” of addiction and alcoholism, though many creative, magical people do fall prey to both

  4. love this article! sometimes creative people prefer to hide from reality to create their own little world, like a child, yes! no need of drugs or alcohol or anything like that. They’re just overactive minds having fun ‘keeping an eye on the inside’…

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