Friday, May 07, 2010

What Makes It "Art"?

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"?


anotherpanacea said...

I love your Petit posts.

To your questions, I add my own:

1. Is Petit's walk art for the same reasons that Gauguin's paintings or Warhol's soup cans are art? (i.e. is art a unified concept? Do we want/need it to be?It even seems, as in your last post, that art can be political and disunifying.)

2. When I feel the exhilaration of the walk (half inspiration and half vertigo-by-proxy) I wonder if it has anything at all in common with beauty, or if it's more like the sublime, a challenge to my faculties. The fact that human beings built two buildings as large as mountains, and one of us walked between them on a wire... that's an experience that exceeds the bounds of sensibility: reason 1, imagination 0. When I think about Petit's walk, I am convinced that the natural world presents “a power that has no dominion over us." We've split the atom, we've been to the moon, we've learned to fly, and we've walked on a wire 1300 feet above the ground, just because we could.

DOCTOR J said...

@AnPan: I fear that Petit is coming to occupy the place formerly held by the Uncanny Valley. Sigh.

I'm glad you asked both of these questions. I want to know the same!

John said...

May I add something, Dr. J? While I don't have much to say about the act of the walk itself, the event, it seems to me that the question "is Petit's walk art?" goes to the heart of the problem of the frame. That is, it is not art in the way that a painting (conventionally understood as within the frame or in the gallery) "is" art, but because it removes the frame in the most unexpected and dizzying way.

I imagine that someone living in New York City experiences the cityscape as an array of forms, as a kind of art, or maybe architectural museum with recurring forms. Isn't the accomplishment of Petit to open up the forms, remove the frames, allowing a place that "has been seen" innumerable times to "be seen"?

DOCTOR J said...

Interesting question, John. I wonder whether or not Petit's walk isn't "framed" in just the same way a painting is. I mean, Petit's walk *now* is really just the photograph of the walk, or the film about the walk... both of which are very familiarly "framed" as art.

My question, I suppose, is whether the walk itself (whatever that means) was/is "art"?

anotherpanacea said...

I think performances, especially guerrilla performances, only become art through some form of framing: a video or photograph, a narrative that emerges around the event, the planning that precedes it, etc.

Then too, I wonder if it even makes sense to speak of an unframed experience. Describing something as art is one way of framing events already framed in other ways, often by other works of art. Think of the way we experience our lives through the lens of classic works of art: when we call out a sunset's beauty, do we do it independently of any frame, or do we mention it because of the innumerable poems and films that feature sunsets prominently or the way our culture fetishizes a particular kind of communing with nature.

In short, Da-Sein is always already being-in-the-world, and human worlds are always the product of human meaning-making activities. In this sense, the question of whether something is art might matter less than the question: "What does it mean?"

Awesome as the walk was... what does it mean, anyway?

John said...

I am thinking of the effect of art-- the viewer becoming absorbed in a kind of active seeing of the work. Simon Critchley in his lecture on Obama referred to Wallace Stevens' concept of the "supreme fiction" and went on to say that this fiction is at the foundations of the political, from "divine right of kings" to democracy, the myth of the founders and the rest. And we can think of world as(completely believable) artwork, our being absorbed in something so completely that the "work" as such ceases to exist-- this is the real.

But even though we are accustomed to think of art as political, the artist is in a certain sense not allowed to enter into the political. Why? For one thing spontaneous creation has no place in politics. The artist has no "license" to experiment, to toy, with the established order. Think of the artist in an authoritarian regime! Seemingly then we must choose between adherence to the established (with the knowledge that all art is derivative, a by-product) and creating in a void, ex nihilo, with complete originality but no legitimacy. But it seems to me that an artist would not choose-- rather he would shape the existing material and set of forms to engender-- to give birth to-- something new. Breaking with, while maintaining, the origin, betraying the origin (both as revealing and as turning against) is part of artistic creation.

The unresolved question is: what would it mean to create a world? Also what would it mean for us to suspend our belief in such a world? This is perhaps a question not for man, but for the gods, even if someone like Sartre helpfully suggested we are free to write books and to set our own table!

John said...
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