Somehow a deck of cards doesn’t seem like a medium that could create art. Cards are used for such low brow games as Go Fish while Bridge is about as complicated as it gets but even that is a far cry from painting or dance. However, the creative display of dexterity with playing cards has moved beyond the realm of distractions in a magic show into a thriving discipline of its own. Cardistry has a vibrant scene including a convention and a community of artists, many of whom are visible on YouTube or other social media. For someone who stumbles across a performance video – either edited with music or just clips of people showing off – cardistry lives purely in the realm of art. The patterns are unfamiliar and the motions that go into creating the flourishes are impossible to follow but the performance vids lead quickly down the rabbit hole into tutorial videos that complicate the line between art and skill.
(It is at this point that I should mention this is a piece written based on limited experience and I could not be farther from an expert on cardistry – which is kind of the point)
Just like any other discipline cardistry rests on a basic repertoire that every cardist must master before moving onto more complex moves. The charlier or sybil cuts are examples of basic moves that teach a variety of grips and finger movements that are used in more complex combinations. It is at this point that a newcomer will either sit down and spend the time grinding practice in a mirror until they become smooth or it is the point where they decide that this is too hard, and they simply do not have the dexterity. I think the ones who don’t pick up a deck are more likely to view cardistry as pure art: something that relies on natural talent that no amount of practice can teach in the same way that repetition won’t allow the average person to paint a Mona Lisa. But, for those who put in the time reaching some degree of proficiency with the basic moves opens door into intermediate patterns and makes it seem like the elaborate flourishes are within the realm of possibility. This is a view of cardistry that is based in a skill model – with practice you can be just as good as anyone else.
Even the tutorial videos only represent a tiny portion of the flourishes and cuts that are on display in performances. Cardists are constantly developing new variations on old moves or even developing tricks that are entirely new. Flourishes are named by their creators and when others talk about these movements, they refer to the name given by the original artist in the same way poetry or paintings are attributed to their creators. There is also a thriving economy that provides the supporting infrastructure for cardistry that has its own set of artists who are only sometimes the cardist themselves. Beautiful decks of playing cards are designed, printed and distributed, some tutorials are placed behind a pay wall and videographers are clearly involved in some of the film making. Cardistry is full of creative people doing creative things but rather than targeting only the talented minority they represent themselves as accessible to the newcomer.
I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle of skill and art, that yes enough practice makes any individual cut or flourish possible, but it takes true creativity to be the one designing new movements. Even putting together an entire routine made up of other people’s patterns appears to require not just practice but an instinct for how the movements fit into each other. From all outward appearances this is how the cardistry community understands itself as well, especially given they named them with a card-artist portmanteau. There are tutorials and even a cardist convention that connect people all over the world, but the individual practitioners have a great deal of respect for the work of other artists. The process of invention and sharing has the same sense of the proprietary knowledge that appears in other disciplines. Collectively this makes the world of cardistry seem very much like any other art-world with a network of artists who are part of an industry that looks impenetrable from the outside.
Cardistry offers the opportunity to consider how appearances mask the reality of what appears to be incomprehensible art. The discipline of cardistry relies on the audience being unwilling to explore the line between art and skill but just a little digging exposes the potential path to card mastery. The entrance to cardistry is guarded by what appears to be hours and hours of practice but it challenges newcomers to consider what level of work they are willing to put in and what they consider to be the dividing line between art and skill.