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Magical Origins of Art







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Ernst Fischer in "The Necessity of Art" wrote that:
"We may conclude from a constantly growing wealth of evidence that art in it's origins was magic, a magic aid towards mastering a real but unexplored world."
It is relatively easy to see the way in which early man believed that painting the image of a deer or bison on the wall of his cave gave him some real power over the animal and improved his chances of a kill in the next day's hunt.

A residue of this 'magical' element has lived on in man's attitude towards images through the ages. Even today, in some societies people do not like having their pictures taken because they feel they are losing part of themselves in the process. However, there are still many people today, perhaps from a more sophisticated environment, who would not wish to cut or deface a picture of someone they love or respect. Why is this? I suggest that it is explained by the continuing power of pictures and their continued "magical" correspondence to objects and people out there.

Right across modern societies, the power of images is perceived to be extremely strong, witness the adage that "One picture is worth a thousand words." Educationists, salesmen and trainers capitalise on the power of visual images to teach, sell to and help people far more effectively than by using words alone.
In the case of the representational artist, the evidence for continuing elements of magic is made up of several aspects:

1 The continuing magical power of images as above.

2 The re-presentation of the relationship between selected parts of external reality and ourselves enables us to position ourselves more surely in the world.
Ernst Fischer also wrote:
"Art is necessary in order that man should be able to recognise and change the world. But art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it."
3 There is a persistence of magic when objects of the 3D world are portrayed upon the 2D surface of the canvas. Interestingly, this magic does not seem to diminish when we understand the rules of perspective nor as we understand more of the way in which the brain interprets what the eye perceives.

4 A further element of magic in the artist's craft is the transformation of raw pigment on his palette into something which is no longer wholly physical in the finished painting.In a sense, what the artist accomplishes goes beyond the dream of alchemy, which was to translate base materials into gold, because the artist takes the base pigments and turns them into something spiritual.

Conceptual art lacks aspects 2, 3 and 4 above and Conceptual artists have therefore largely elbowed out the magical element in art. They have deprived their work of the resonance of that age-old magic which still reverberates within us as we stand before a picture. This is one major reason why their work is so unsatisfying.

If the work of art is primarily the concept in the artist's mind, as Conceptualists claim, and the object (if there be one) is but a perfunctory trace of that concept, then clearly there is very little room left for a magic element in art.
Magic is missing from the work of Installation artists. They produce a work made up of many ready-made parts in an environment which may be of some considerable size and complexity. Yet, any qualities these works have are certainly not those shared by paintings and installations are often dismantled after exhibition, leaving only documentation. Where's the magic in that?

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