Question : What is the Objectivist view of the art of magic and illusion (as a performance art)? It seems to me that there might be a conflict between the mysticism that magic is based on and the Objectivist's moral code. Is there?
Answer: Magic and illusion are actions that aim to produce effects that appear to be paranormal or impossible by the laws of logic and nature that we know to be true. Since the world does not operate along supernatural laws, the seemingly supernatural effects created by magic tricks are in fact created by using what is real, in unconventional ways. The basis for most magic tricks is simply a clever sleight of hand or thought that may not occur to an observer and so will appear to be magical.
The creation of magic tricks can thus be an interesting exercise in thought. Coming up with what will appear magical is not an easy task and takes effort. A person viewing this magic can respect the performer for his originality of thought in thinking up the tricks. Personally, I am usually impressed that the performer found such fascinating ways of using the immutable laws of reality, ways that I probably would not have thought of. In this sense, magic is fun entertainment.
Magicians usually pretend that they are in fact capable of mystical acts, but that is part of the act and is rarely taken seriously. Obviously, the magician himself knows that he is incapable of twisting reality in irrational ways; in fact, he knows this better than most. Even young children are aware of this, and know that the magicians are not capable of such leaps of logic. But we can certainly appreciate that the magician has found clever ways of creating a supernatural effect using natural laws, and it can be entertaining to guess about these. So there is undoubtedly enjoyment to be derived from magic that is not in conflict with the Objectivist moral code. The enjoyment does not come from imagining a mystic characteristic to the world, but from appreciating the thought process behind creating the illusion. A rational person knows that there is no mysticism behind the illusion.
Ayn Rand defined art as a “selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments” (The Romantic Manifesto, p.19). [See the FAQ “ What does Objectivism consider to be art ?” for more details.] Magic, however, does not reflect an artist’s metaphysical value judgments as it is not a reflection of his sub-conscious view of existence. Nor is magic a reflection of values, negative or positive. In this sense, it cannot be classified into a conventional category of art. There is nothing morally incorrect about enjoying magic, but it does not seem to have the potential to be as fulfilling or profound as art forms do.