Wire walking is similar to bullfighting in its illusory properties: it is a risky act imbued with the seemingly oblivious grace of the performer, whose prime objective is to denude his feat of its danger, to strip it of its one dire possibility: death. The matador retains his poise despite the onrushing bull; his performance is also predicated on his—perversely—heightening risk: the closer his passes are to the bull, the purer his performance. His apparent artlessness is no clearer to the lay spectator than it is when the bull is kept at a safer distance; in this way he achieves his desired effect: to blur, through stylization, the tangible peril he is in.
And the high-wire performer? What is his task, then, after initially stepping onto the wire? To convince his audience that what he is doing is effortless, technically, and most importantly, psychologically. That is to say he must make this extraordinary feat appear to be no more than a simple act, one in which he is in complete control, by shunting the specter of death to the metaphorical sidelines through style and form. The moment Philippe Petit placed his feet on a cable strung across the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974, he showed tremendous courage and daring. The rest is the madness of art.
How is it possible to charge Petit with the serious task of art? Are jugglers, magicians, other high-wire walkers even, artists? Even in these days of egalitarian pursuits and faux accomplishments the answer is a resounding “No.” So how, exactly, does Petit differ? First, there is the question of scale. So outlandish was his feat that it immediately divorced him from the antics of Vaudeville or the big top.
Second, there is the question of intentionality; what Petit hoped to achieve, aesthetically, through his performance. Petit has written lucidly and intelligently about his aims. His declared interest in “the beauty of gesture,” in turn, elevates his achievements to a conceptual or theoretical realm much different from the hammy, narcissistic television stunts of David Blaine, for example. By planning his daring, and illegal, act covertly, Petit also threw the question of commerce out the window: he was not paid for his act, a television network did not air a prime time special on his performance, and those who viewed this singular exploit did so, like something out of The Surrealist Manifesto, by chance, not through advertising or fanfare. Paul Auster, who witnessed Petit wire-walk between the towers of Nôtre-Dame Cathedral in 1971, noted this in the introduction to his translation of On the High Wire: “With the thoroughness of a bank robber preparing a heist, Philippe had gone about his business in silence. No press conferences, no publicity, no posters. The purity was impressive. For what could he possibly hope to gain? If the wire had snapped, if the installation had been faulty, he would have died. On the other hand, what did success bring? Certainly he did not earn any money for the venture. He did not even try to capitalize on his brief moment of glory. When all was said and done, the only tangible result was a short stay in a Paris jail.”
Finally, it is the act itself, in tandem with the spectator, which makes his feat a valid artistic pursuit. Petit was fully aware of the visual element of his act, that the striking silhouette he would etch on the skyline would be an indelible image to all who witnessed it. Unlike the fleeting gestures of other ephemeral arts—dance, for example—what Petit accomplished can never be forgotten. No one who saw his austere figure painted on the canvas of the sky that day could look at the World Trade Center again without seeing Petit on the high wire, crystallizing the impossible.