In the documentary film Man on Wire, about French high-wire walker Philippe Petit (pictured left traversing the space between the World Trade Towers in 1974), Petit remarks several times that his act was more than simply a daredevil stunt, but rather it was a work of art. This evaluation is echoed by his co-conspirators in the planning of the Twin Towers walk, each of whom also risked life and limb (and arrest) by assisting him in his "work of art." Even the NYPD officers, who waited to arrest Petit when he came off the wire, were somewhat dumbfounded in trying to explain what they witnessed, opting instead to describe Petit's walk as a "dance" rather than a "stunt." When Petit was interviewed by Stephen Colbert last year, he said that when you see him on the wire, you will not be afraid or amazed by his technique, but you will be "inspired." And Petit has consistently refused to answer the question "why did you do it?" over the years, insisting that for his walk, like all art, "there is no why."
One of the more fascinating-- and, admittedly, maddening-- aspects of Petit's cryptic accounts of what he did is his tendency to describe himself as a man possessed. In the film, he claims that something he "did not understand but made no effort to resist" quite literally drew him out upon the wire. And, of course, there is also his now-famous remark to reporters, upon descending the Towers in handcuffs in 1974: "When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I walk." In fact, much of the film Man on Wire is devoted to re-creating Petit's Twin Towers walk as a fait accompli. He believed that the Towers were built for him, and there was nothing else he could do but heed their beckoning.
But what makes it "art"?
I've seen the film and, without a doubt, the images of Petit almost 1500 feet in the air, without any harness or net, are (for lack of a better word) "beautiful." And what those images simultaneously represent and imply-- the unrestrained indulging of a passion that is not tempered by fear or death-- is (as Petit wants it to be) "inspiring." Leo Tolstoy, in his essay "What is Art?," wrote:
The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man's expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it... Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.
By Tolstoy's definition, I can understand Petit's walk as "art." But by that same definition, I am also compelled to understand a thousand mundane acts of countless nameless people as "art," too. What makes Petit's walk different from the inspiration I might find in another's utterly ordinary, utterly commonplace, uttlerly prosaic and right-here-on-the-ground walk? Aren't there a myriad of human existential projects and activities capable of inspiring in me sensus communis? Is it art beause it does not yield itself to the "why?" or permit explanation? Is it art because we now have images, moving and still, of what was once something else? Is Petit's walk "art" merely because he called it so?
When it comes to serious questions of art, I am a serious amateur. It may be that art is everywhere and in everything, but the philosopher in me wants some clarity to the concept, some way of distinguishing it from its opposite or absence. I am resistant to relying too much on the "artist's intentions" to define what counts as "art," almost as much as I am to allowing the kind of open-admission policy that would welcome all and distinguish none. But, for now anyway, I am concerned only with Petit's walk. And so, readers, I ask you: what makes Petit's walk "art"?