November Media and Arts Domain Newsletter: Should We Cancel Degas? 1

Should We Cancel Degas?

by Timothy Loraditch

"Is there anything of which it may be said, 'See, this is new'? It has already been in ancient times before us."

Ecclesiastes 1: 10

Presumed to have been written by Solomon more than 900 years before Christ, these words remind us that as humans we really have not changed much, and the issues that plague our culture are nothing at all new. Whether one views the Cancel Culture as a moral knight in shining armor or a cultural plague depends largely on opinions of the latest victim. We find it easy to go along with canceling people we feel deserve it, but when our favorite artist, musician, or performer gets canned, our opinions of the Cancel Culture change. This topic highlights a very important question about whether the actions or comments of an individual can be separated from other aspects of the individual’s life. The true value of this question comes when we look more closely into the specifics of the individual and the work.

Joseph Beuys was a German artist popular in the second half of the twentieth century. My first exposure to the artist was learning about his fat corners. These sculptures were created by packing fat in the corner of a box. Beuys is a difficult artist even for an advanced art historian to explain. I will not try to do it justice here in such a short article. I want to focus on what Beuys called social sculpture which is explained in Beuys’ own words to mean, “Every man is an artist.” The premise is that social sculpture is a result of everyone living in a way that creates art. The problem I have with Beuys is that during World War II he was a Nazi. To be specific, he was an early member of the Nazi party before it was mandatory in Nazi Germany and served as a bomber pilot eventually shot down five times. It was after the war that Beuys became a conceptual artist. I know of no work created by him that demonstrates traditional artistic abilities. 

When studying Beuys, I eagerly looked for evidence of his having renounced his Nazi affiliation during the war but found none. It remained dust under his carpet for much of his life. With the launching of his art career, he wrote a short biography about his experiences in the war. The biography includes a dramatic experience of being shot down and rescued by nomadic Turks who, after pulling him from the snow, wrapped him with fat and felt blankets to prevent hypothermia. These Turks supposedly saved his life and Beuys uses this story as the basis of his choice of art materials. The biography is largely discredited as a complete lie, and his fat corners are not much more than fat pushed in the corner of a box. In the case of Beuys, the artist made his art inseparable from the person. His social sculpture is made from a life built on documented Nazi sympathies, lies, and insincerity.

Edgar Degas the French impressionist preferred to be called a realist. Unlike Beuys, Degas had obviously well-developed artistic skills. He was an excellent draftsman, and his ability to handle color was exceptional. Much of his work was done in pastel, but oils and charcoal were employed as well. The problem is with his ballet paintings, the beautiful ballerina works that grace so many young girl’s rooms to this day. The problem comes from the knowledge that these ballet schools were not for wealthy French families to send their daughters to, but were for poorer children who often could not be supported by their families. 

Respectable bourgeois parents were warned about the dire moral repercussions of allowing their daughters to pursue a career in dance even if they displayed talent for the ballet. The word, "danseuse" carried such a pejorative connotation at that time that the Paris Opera ballet school could only recruit its pupils from the ranks of the working classes. (Coons 143) It is not known however if Degas engaged in sexual activities with the dancers as did the wealthy patrons, but he was known to be an admitted misogynist and was a cruel dictator to the dancers who posed for his art.  

Degas’ work at the ballet does serve to document the darker side of the experiences of young dancers. Often called “petit rats” they had few options in life other than to attract the attentions of a wealthy patron and often at the encouragement of their own mothers.

Knowing this, we now need to come back to our questions of whether Degas’ work should be canceled. Does the abusive environment of the French ballet make this work a target for the Me Too movement? Can we find that the artist, rather than celebrating the practice, is merely doing what we should expect art to do by adding to his artistic skills the ability for us to see more deeply into an aspect of human life that is at first beautiful but upon deeper examination does not ignore the darker side of human existence?

Jesus tells us only the Father is good. We are all human. We all fail, and we all possess that human tendency to abuse others or at least overlook the plight of those around us. The larger problem is that we see people like Beuys and others who develop a false persona that is not representative of their actual lives. We learn from these people that we can only keep up the charade for so long. Eventually, what is in our heart comes out of our mouth and often at very inopportune moments. It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the victims of the cancel culture are actors and actresses. The word hypocrite means actor. It is one thing to play a character on the stage or in a movie and quite another to turn our lives into an act like Beuys.

As Christians we ask, “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” Sometimes individuals can be separated from their art and sometimes they can’t. Degas used his work to communicate the beauty of the ballet without hiding the dark side of human nature. We can enjoy his work on different levels and experience it with different emotions. Degas did not lie about the situation; perhaps that is why he prefers to be called a realist. Degas maintained a life independent of his art, but as Christians our lives should be a work of art.

Following Christ is a practice that is unique to each one of us and is a personal experience between us and Jesus. The art we create as we walk with Christ needs to be honest. By elevating his art to an expression of his life, Beuys bonded his art to the life he had built on lies. In some ways, Beuys was on to something when he talked about social sculpture. As Christians we should walk in such a way that the world sees our good works as social sculpture that displays Christ. Apart from God that social sculpture ends up being just fat stuck in the corner of a box.

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