Man on Why

January 31, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Man on Wire” is the documentary about Philippe Petite walking a wire stretched between the two towers of the World Trade Center a quarter-mile above the ground. The tagline for the film is “The Artistic Crime of the Century.”

As that implies, the movie takes much from the “caper” film genre, and Fabio Rojas had a great post sketching the social organization dimensions of Petit’s operations. Petit is the center of attention, but his feats (he’s done this sort of thing more than once) are made possible only through extensive planning and coordination with a team of others.

But there’s a cultural note as well – that good old American automatic reflex, the utilitarian assumption (see here for another example). After Petit is captured by the police and brought to earth, a news reporter interviewing a cop at the scene asks, “Did he say anything about why he was doing it?” The question occurs again and again.

In the film, we hear Petit remembering back 30 years, still incredulous, describing the immediate response of the Americans:
And you know, “why, why.” . . . I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a practical ‘Why, why?’ The beauty of it is that I didn’t have any why.
That’s what makes it an artistic crime. Art for art’s sake, a concept that seems almost un-American.


Arnie said...

The world of art brings to mind many examples of "art for art sake" followed by many whys (?)

For instance:

1) "The Gates" installation art initiative by Christo and Jeanne-Claude which adorned New York City's Central Park during February 2005

2) The Brooklyn Bridge art installation which featured three waterfalls cascading into the East River and New York Harbor during the summer of 2008:

3) The Cow Parade which hit the streets of NYC in 2000 featured fiberglass sculptures of cows that were decorated by local artists and displayed throughout Manhattan:

brandsinger said...

Ha ha - great post, Jay. I love the idea of dismissing the utilitarian "why."

Of course, "art for art's sake" has been a wonderful inspiration... for a lot of lunatic acts... but not this one.