Degas was called an “impressionist” by the artistic community—a painter who does not set out to replicate reality, as had most artists up to that era. Instead, this new breed of artists sought to create an emotional impact in the observer of what the scene evokes in the soul of the viewer—excitement, perhaps, or happiness, depression, terror, or spiritual insight. Impressionists did not set out to take us to places we had never been and most probably would never see without them. They set out to take us into the meaning of a scene rather than a precisely designed photographic rendering of a scene.
Degas’s picture is obviously not a snapshot of a dancing lesson. It is a psychological icon of what it means to learn to dance. It conjures up thoughts of hard work, of endless repetitions, of total dedication to being just one more member of a company of dancers where everyone is of the same ilk, the same world, the same devotion to the art, the same community of life.
And yet, Degas rejects the label “impressionist” and calls himself always a “realist,” an artist who shows us life as it is. And he does. The only difference is that Degas shows us life as it is internally—as it is in the souls of the dancers—rather than as it is externally in all the details of the costumes and the studio and the steps.
The point is an interesting one. In each of us it is how life affects us that counts. It is how we prepare ourselves to live life that counts. It is the concentration, the discipline, the commitment, the skill and sense of human community we bring to life that really count. That constitutes reality at its rawest, at its most meaningful.
Anything else, Degas makes us see, is not life lived to the hilt.
A life well lived, deeply drunk, totally tasted, Degas shows us, is a life formed slowly, painfully even, to the point of the fullness of the self. It is a life that demands our total attention, our complete commitment, our willingness to stay at something until we become the very best that we can be at it.
It is life as a spiritual discipline that Degas confronts us with here rather than simply an exercise in breathing. It is a lesson worth considering if life is to have any kind of substance at all.(Idea in passing from Joan Chittister)