Book review: Creativity: The Perfect Crime, by Philippe Petit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm

Creativity: The Perfect Crime
by Philippe Petit
Riverhead Books
2 stars

Richard James Havis

Creativity is still a hotly debated topic in the scientific community, and neuroscientists have not yet properly addressed the reasons why one individual may appear to be more creative than another.

Science has proved that technical skills are generally a result of sustained practice, so if students put in the hours and are physically able, they will, for instance, end up with the necessary motor skills to play an instrument competently.

But the certain "je ne sais quoi" that allows one individual to become a Jimmy Page or a Lang Lang, and another just a serviceable musician, remains just that.

Creativity sees Frenchman Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who traversed the gap between the World Trade Centre's twin towers in 1974, weigh lightly into the debate.

A cross between a memoir, a self-help guide and a scrapbook, it consists of Petit describing his creative methodology in the hope that it will help others discover their own. The result is sometimes charming, often irritating, occasionally perceptive and generally a bit obvious.

Tightrope walking and juggling, one of Petit's other professions, would not generally be considered art forms - they are circus acts.

But then Petit is from France, a country which (brilliantly) embraced Dadaist pursuits such as walking around ( flâneur) as performance art. Petit's book fits nicely into this tradition and it's written in the tone of an early 20th-century European artistic manifesto, albeit without the academic content.

The narrative is voiced as a caper, and has the cheerful flavour of Cary Grant trying to steal diamonds from Grace Kelly in the south of France in Hitchcock's light and breezy To Catch a Thief.

For Petit, the act of creation is a grand conspiracy with himself, an act of mystery in which he must continually surprise himself, cajole himself and scare himself into making something happen.

Unfortunately, the actual manifestations of this mystery are humdrum. Petit does a lot of research before he commits to a performance, collects clippings, writes notes, and draws little pictures and diagrams on pieces of paper. He makes sure he has the right tools for the job and that he knows how to use them. He tries occasionally to disrupt this process by thinking about something subversive and works hard to distract himself so that he doesn't become bored with the task at hand.

None of this is groundbreaking and some of it is banal. A chapter on how to remain creative after making a successful artwork is unusual, but the book otherwise adds little insight to the act of creation.