Magic and Metamodernism

How to Cite

Wilson, S. (2023). Magic and Metamodernism. M/C Journal, 26(5).
Vol. 26 No. 5 (2023): magic
Published 2023-10-02


Magic has a long and controversial history grafted through the occult, entertainment, and cultural mythology. Its agency, when thought of as a mechanism of storytelling, reconciles an oscillation between natural and unnatural phenomena in as much as magic has historically been weaponised against “society’s most marginal members” (Marshall). Yet there is no substantial investigation of magic in metamodern theory that considers the nature of magical power a critical component of a metamodern affect in contemporary art. As such, this article will argue that magic in this regard positions the idea into the affectual state within two structures of experience. While metamodern thought prescribes an ontological approach through what Vermeulen prompts as a structure of feeling (Vermeulen 2017), this article proposes a more complex assessment of affect in metamodernism by adding a ‘structure of reason’ where both assessments of an oscillation between singularity and relativism are determined from magic. In this, where a structure of feeling is assessed through an ontological approach to interpret an emotional affect, a structure of reason uses an epistemological approach to establish a knowledge-based affect. Further, this article proposes the affectual considerations of magic as a magical power from affect to invite new ways to consider both reason and feelings within the subject, most notably through recent contributions of UK artist Damien Hirst and Australian artist Shaun Wilson.

From witches to vampires, and sorcerers to wizards, these actors of magic, across the state, institution, and local partisan, have historically conjured fear and trepidation (Flint), and fascination (Leddington): most recently in popular cinema, literature, and gaming of magical realism. Yet the comprehension of magic in contemporary society, from films to books to fashion, has integrated, on the one hand, a commercialisation of branding magic through popular culture, and, on the other hand, the socialising of magic, whether festive or occult-based national holidays, celebrations, cosplay, and other socially orientated gatherings. These, of course, hark back to the narrational elements of folklore firmly integrated within cultural social practice. Yet how can magic and affect be thought of as acting together in contemporary art outside of associations from the occult and unnatural powers?

Affectual discussions after modernism from Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida, and after postmodernism from Gibbons, van der Akker, and Vermeulen, connect a similarity by way of agreement that affect is a relational phenomenon prompted by experience. Whether this be a postmodern, post-structuralist, deconstructionist, or even a post-postmodern context, magic as a condition of affect offers a way to understand affect from a different perspective than previously debated. However, there are several considerations for magic in affect that this article will address throughout that affords a suitability for metamodernism than, say, other branches of modernity such as postmodernism, which structurally lacks the ability for the arts to consider magic as an affectual experience in ways that metamodernism can accommodate. Herein exist three variations of magic for metamodernism: the magician who engages such power as an affectual actor; the presence of a magical power as an affectual state; and the condition of a magical power as an affectual experience. In this sense, magic is a term that this article will argue is about the condition of a magical power in metamodern affect, as represented in Figure 1. As relativism and singularity surmount an affectual structure, magic is argued to be a conduit between affect and an assessment of a metamodern oscillation, which is between an ontology and an epistemology.

Fig. 1: A diagram of Metamodern Affect and Magic. (Used with permission)

Furthermore, the inclusion of magic into the modelling of metamodern affect as a formalism achieves two key points. The first is to reconfigure the term from its semantic heritage to otherwise be part of an affectual process. The second is to examine this process to understand magic as a condition of affect, which enables what kind of assessment such mechanisms will determine the affectual structure through experience. If, say, magic was thought of as an agent of experience from an oscillation, then magic in this sense functions as the effect of an oscillation, but not as a starting point or, to be precise, an unrelated stand-alone mechanism. For magic to exist in this modelling proposal, it needs to be a condition from an oscillation to a structured assessment of experience. If accepted debates (Gibbons) about affect after postmodernism indicate that a structure of feeling, and, for that matter, metamodernism, is indicative of how an assessment of feelings can be derived through lived experience, an epistemological reading gives an assessment of reason through experience that, in art, enables the viewer to justify emotions through logic to form an understanding of knowledge from experience.

Debates across other fields, such as psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and critical theory, have located magic in these three affectual areas paramount to emotions, non-reality, and reason. R.G. Collingwood, for example, argued that “magic is the evocation of emotions needed for practical life” (Collingwood 77). Collingwood’s “magic in the basic phenomenological sense” is one that “refers to any practice in which we evoke and sustain emotions for a practical purpose” (Greaves 277). Likewise, Sartre also referenced two key terms, which differed between “magic” and “magical image”, and contrasted between images imprinted through imagination, which he describes as “caught in its own snare” (Sartre 76-77). Similarly, the Sartrean perspective of magic identifies as the acts of imagination to be enacted through reality in a sense of totality from freedom. Other perspectives, such as both Patrick and Chin’s discussion of magical realism and Morton’s causality of realist magic as an object-oriented ontology, or OOO for short, typifies the extent of recent academic debates surrounding magic favouring ontological structures. Yet for metamodernism, work such as Kapferer’s claim that “magic, sorcery and witchcraft are at the epistemological centre of anthropology” (Kapferer 1) offers insight into considering both ontological and epistemological structures in a metamodern affect, where his debate gives a nod to how a structure of reason can offer artists a way to create work with magic as a condition that detaches from archetypal representations of magic; that is to say, causal narrative associations  such as ‘a witch cast a spell’ or ‘the apple made Snow White sleep’, thus discussed in mainstream thought about magic. Moreover, an epistemological and ontological reading of magic reconciles the differentiation of the agent, the effect, and the condition through an affectual experience. An example of an ontological assessment will be considered in recent works of the former Young British Artist (YBA) Damian Hirst, who mines an ontological approach to art through a type of aesthetic-driven meta-romanticism.

As Vermeulen describes the YBAs as “concerned first and foremost with dominant discourses of the present, such as capitalism, consumerism, patriarchy, institutional racism, simulation and mediation” (Vermeulen, “Snap!”), Hirst, the leader of the movement from the early days of his 1988 student exhibition Freeze, imbued issues of life and death, mortality, consumerism, and irony in his art none more postmodern than his 1999 goliath sculpture Hymn, an upscaled bronze “exact replica of Humbrol Limited’s Young Scientist Anatomy Set” (Davis). Yet an affectual turn in art gestated since the 2000s warrants a different reading of Hirst's work outside of a late postmodern assessment of the “end of history” (Fukuyama). His return to painting in the late 2010s through the Veil and Cherry Blossom series abandoned the once critique of consumerism and the ironic to become what Hirst describes as the need to “make paintings that were a celebration” (Hirst). In particular, within postmodern art, there are no capabilities of ‘celebration’ in assessing the subject, and this is what this article argues as the affectual turn for Hirst to create dialogue of an oscillation from a metamodern ontology and, thus, an affectual condition of magic.

Prior to the recognised debates of Metamodernism in the 2010s, assessment of Hirst’s work was described as “post-romanticism” (Moscovici), while Luke White’s Marxist considerations in 2009 argued that “Hirstean sublime marks the return of the disavowed violence inherent to capital” (White 2), further adding that “it is subject, not to an ontology, but to a Derridean hauntology” (White 59). Yet neither of these comments address what we now understand as a metamodern oscillation, and thus remain in contrast to the turn of Hirst in later series, making the point that there are two eras of Hirst – before the affectual turns of 2015 and afterwards. While the staples of critique about Hirst’s work continue to focus on, mainly, financial conversations and the artist's personal wealth, these considerations, in fact, have nothing to do with the artefacts produced as subjective art forms, and as such will be ignored altogether. In the context of metamodernism, the Hirst critique as retrograde protests about his wealth and success are more like the whining about a perceived banality of late postmodern conceptual art than they are about a critique of the artefacts themselves. Moreover, this article considers the dearth of arts critique about Hirst’s work since the late 1980s as limited at best in establishing commentary about affect – ranging from arguments from a Marxist, critical theory, phenomenological, and postmodern perspective – and instead argues that a metamodern reading of his art forms provides a more sober contextualisation of the subject, and by and for the subject. Insofar as magic has a place in this debate, the access of experience by the subject from oscillation contextualises an affectual condition, placing the viewer of Hirst’s recent art as both the magician and the witness to magic from an affectual experience.

Hirst’s 2021 Sea Paintings series of photo-realistic monochromatic oil on canvas paintings splattered with free-throw gestural marks depict representations of photographs of specific coastal sites in Britain. On reading these works, there is a direct relationship with the wider seascape tradition in painting, especially familiar in examples of maritime romanticism.  

Fig. 2: Damian Hirst, Okta. (Used with permission)

The melancholic drama of seascapes such as Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam Boat of a Harbour’s Mouth, August Friedrich Kessler’s Seascape 1866, and Ivan Aivazovsky’s Shipwreck all play into a history of schools of thought that propel Hirst into the same kind of historical ontology. The cataclysm of nature’s power over human activity enacts a commonality among seascape traditions, where the Sea Paintings series remove human form to continue the tragedy and drama of the seascape's formalism. When considered through oscillation, of drama and isolation, absence and presence, and history and post-history, these meta-references loaded within the seascape tradition impact on the experience from magic to derive an ontological assessment as a structure of feeling. By virtue of the tradition it represents, Sea Paintings are a deeply ontological experience where both the magical power as an affectual state and a magical condition as an affectual experience play out as a process embedded between the subject and the viewer. This demonstrates a way to consider magic as a procedural step in defining the experience of contemporary art as a metamodern exchange from oscillation to a structure of feeling.

Fig. 3: Shaun Wilson, The Black Period Cantos XIII. (Used with permission)

In similarity, an epistemological assessment from magic to a structure of reason is considered in Shaun Wilson’s 2022 monochromatic The Black Period Cantos video artworks. They represent part of the wider series The Black Period, which includes video and painting art forms as digital combines of both physical and non-fungible token artworks of the same image. “All [of these] exist as a multimodal mechanism, but simultaneously function independently of each other’s influence without dominance” (Wilson, “Affordances” 3). Each Canto takes their subject from the ongoing slow cinema series 51 Paintings Suite, which recreates the poses of characters from black plague-era German religious paintings as a collective of twenty short-form videos, composited with roundel and rectangle shapes reconfigured from individual paintings from other The Black Period series artefacts. Like the Sea Paintings, echoes of romanticism form the compositional subject but are contrasted by the intervention of the roundel and diptych paintings as if ‘block heads’ of the depicted characters. The epistemological reading of this assessment is supported by the artist’s statement “to contribute to current Metamodern debates by creating a structure of reason through an epistemological approach to metamodern affect” (Wilson). The contested artworks forgo an ontological structure of feeling to instead create a structure of reason. This article argues that the difference in reading such an assessment is prompted by the interventions of the roundel and rectangle shapes, which contrast with the surrounding cinematic frame.

While Hirst also uses interventions of paint splatters randomly flung at the Sea Paintings, these interventions still warrant a structure of feeling. First, the contrast between these gestural marks and the photo-realistic backgrounds is of the same aesthetic, and second, by the intentions of the artist “to make paintings that were a celebration” (Hirst). Learning from this, aesthetic disruption is a determining factor of magic when connecting to either a structure of feeling or reason. These disruptions in The Back Period Cantos enable magic to be assessed at an epistemological level, where the properties of reason enable a jolt for the viewer out of romanticism and into a state of reason. If, say, the cinematic backgrounds were void of colour field disruptions, the emotive response to such images then would lend itself ontologically to a romanticism, given that much of the composition and characters reposed from the German source paintings imbue the hallmark ontological signposts of sincerity, tragedy, and, in the case of the German Romanticism school of painting, reference material to medieval representation. Yet by the disruptions of the colour field images at a disruptive sublimity of aesthetic consideration, and the meta-references of the shapes being appropriations of the physical enamel on linen paintings made in the wider The Black Period series, the presence of meta references in the compositions moves away from feelings as an ontology, but instead to epistemological reason and knowledge by this contrasted aesthetic merger. Here, magic derives an affectual structure to reason based on aesthetic, contrasting in as much as it does by the introduction of meta disruptions.


This article has discussed the metamodern affect in terms of a process that builds on existing debates about ways to experience art through the subject. It has established two key points. First, that magic is a term that moves away from its semantic history to be a mechanism that prescribes both ontological and epistemological assessments of metamodern affect to experience art. Second, that these assessments are derived from a condition of metamodern affect, represented in the recent art of Damien Hirst and Shaun Wilson. These mentioned artefacts are discussed in a way that has demonstrated a reading of these artworks that connects metamodernism to an ever-evolving understanding of how the subject can be assessed, and thought about when considering feelings and reasons to inform the subject through creative practice. Where existing metamodern literature has focussed on ontological readings of this process, especially through a structure of feeling, this article has expanded such debate by also considering a structure of reason in these assessments. Simultaneously, such assessments are proposed to include magic as a central condition from oscillation, which signifies a more complex and broader understanding of how affectual structures in metamodernism can process the experience of art. Magic in this sense becomes a condition of metamodern affect, like a magical power, yet without the mechanical mythology of unnatural phenomena or the agency of magical beings.

The broader implications for magic when used in this type of semantic still respect the historical legacy of its heritage, while simultaneously distancing this history by a plausible theoretical application used to model metamodern thought. The assessment by which magic has been discussed throughout this article brings about an understanding of its history and rational application, capable of considering a robust way to explain contemporary art through emotive and rational structures that otherwise would be disparate in both thinking about and approaches to art. Metamodernism in this regard provides a contemporary debate in oscillation by which magic has been employed to amplify these differences without dominance or influence from one or the other. Magic, when thought of as a mediator from this condition, becomes a useful mechanism to engage with that this article considers enabling a better way of assessing art in contemporary times. The oscillation of relativism and singularity as ‘before affect’ and the affectual structures as ‘after affect’ are regulated by magic, which the working model of metamodern affect in Figure 1 demonstrated through a grounded conceptuality. Looking beyond such would certainly invite further discussion into other affectual structures for the metamodern, in what future discussion could derive from other philosophical branches for metamodernism, including phenomenology, axiology, and ethics that I will further explore in future research.

The inclusion of magic into metamodern thought brings a new way to understand magic, which, whilst still a condition of experience, detaches from its historical understandings and assumptions. Viewers of metamodern art, in this sense, are both the magicians and witnesses of magical powers through affect. Both identities engage the structure of experience by using magic as a procedural step in this condition. What this signifies is a new way to understand magic and art within metamodern affect. In the work of Hirst and Wilson, there are numerous connections to affectual magic, as previously discussed, that integrate ways of assessing affect to create a more enriching way to experience these artefacts. Readings of Sea Paintings situate magic in the ontological experience from an assessment of a structure of feeling based on the ontology of the British and German seascape traditions. Readings of The Black Period Cantos demonstrated the use of affectual magic as an epistemological assessment of a structure of reason from the interventions of colour field abstractions and meta references disrupting the romanticised cinematic subject. These prescribed an understanding of metamodern affect that can bring about a different way to embody the relational integration between an audience and metamodern art. The art forms in this process can then be considered by affectual structures, which opens further debate into the role of affect in art and the experience that these art forms bring to the viewer by and from magic. 


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Author Biography

Shaun Wilson, RMIT University

Dr Shaun Wilson is an artist, film maker, curator and academic working across interdisciplinary approaches of metamodernism in contemporary art. He has published and exhibited widely over the past 30 years through long term, on going projects  and is currently an adjunct professor of art and film at Bakers Road Entertainment and a senior lecturer in digital media at the school of design RMIT University. He is currently working on his second PhD at Flinders University addressing metamodern affect in slow cinema.