Jan 6th 2018

Degas’ Doubt

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

 

Paul Valéry met Edgar Degas in 1896, and the two were friends for the two decades that remained in Degas’ life – the poet, almost 30 years younger, was in awe of the older painter, whom he considered a genius, and the painter was clearly flattered by the interest of the brilliant young poet. Valéry early had the idea of writing a book about Degas, but Degas was too cantankerous to agree to the project. In the event it was not until 20 years after Degas’ death that Valéry published his reflections and recollections in a small book he titled Degas Dance Dessin. Now, on the hundredth anniversary of Degas’ death the Musee D'Orsay honors the painter with an exhibition of his art seen through the lens of his relationship with Valéry, and the themes of the poet's book.

Degas made common cause with the core group of Impressionists – Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley – because he shared their visual approach to painting, concerned not with ideas or symbols, but with truthful representation of how things looked. Unlike the core Impressionists, Degas’ subject was the human figure: he studied people the way Monet, Pissarro and Sisley studied the landscape. And because of that difference, his obsession was not with light, but with form.

Edgar Degas, "Study of a Dancer", ca 1890. Image courtesy of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 

Valéry’s memories of Degas created a detailed portrait of an archetypally experimental painter, with all the attitudes and attributes of the species. Thus Valéry was

convinced that [Degas] felt a work could never be called finished, and that he could not conceive how an artist could look at one of his pictures after a time and not feel the need to retouch it. He would sometimes get possession of a canvas that had long been hanging in a friend's home, and take it back to his den, whence it would rarely emerge. It reached a point where those who knew what he was like would hide anything of his that they possessed.

The poet compared the painter to

a writer striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and re-drafting, canceling, advancing by endless recapitulation, never admitting that his work has reached its final stage: from sheet to sheet, copy to copy, he continually revises his drawing, deepening, tightening, closing it up.

Edgar Degas, "Seated Dancer With Hand on Her Ankle", ca 1879. Image courtesy of The Ordrupgaard Museum, Denmark.

Degas was always uncertain:

he would take a certain pleasure in repeating what a critic had said about him in a review of an exhibition: “Continually uncertain about proportions.” Nothing, he claimed, could better describe his state of mind while he was toiling and struggling over a work.

Valéry was not a student of painting in general, yet he nonetheless realized that not all painters were like Degas, and in one passage he captured a key difference between conceptual and experimental artists:

For any given artist, what does his work signify?... A means, or an end?... According to their natures, some will pass easily from one work to another, tear up or sell, and go on to something quite different; others, on the contrary, become obsessed, involved in endless revision, cannot give up the game, turn their backs on their gains and losses; like gamblers, they keep doubling the stakes of patience and determination.

Two decades after Degas’ death, in 1939, Valéry looked back with nostalgia to the artistic values his friend had represented, that were now lost:

In literature as in the arts, there is a general hurry to publish or exhibit what one has been doing…Our age is very severe on any of the qualities that call for time…Purely exploratory labor without hope of immediate reward, prolonged and retired self-preparation, the will to submit to irksome or apparently unnecessary constraints, have all become impossible or more than we can bear.

Valéry thus recognized the conceptual bias of 20th century art, and noted a shift in artistic values:

We have developed a curious habit of supposing that any artist who fails to begin by shocking, by being sufficiently laughed at and insulted, must be third-rate…Whence the necessity of shocking becomes a sacred task. A sound study of modern art, over the past half or three-quarters of a century, would have to expose the fresh solutions that have been devised every five years to the problem of shock tactics.

His judgment was poignant, for a lost art world:

To put it briefly, the word knowledge once had a meaning in the arts, and it no longer does.

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 
Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.