“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
–Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
The role of many artists is to bring to life for others the subjects that move the artist. In the bringing to life of the subject, the artist sees things others frequently miss. The artist seeks to portray those sparks and bits of emotion that might otherwise be missed but for artistic expression and in the process create memorable art.
Edgar Degas brought to life the world of ballet in late nineteenth century Paris. His beautiful portrayals of dancers are beloved the world over. His sculpture, “The Little Ballerina, aged Fourteen,” is perhaps one of the better known sculptures from the Impressionist period. But his painting of “The Absinthe Drinkers” depicts the despair and hopelessness of these people in a way that might be missed by the average person if it not for the hand of the artist. The dancers are paintings of lightness and beauty. The drinkers are sad and depressing yet the painting is quite beautiful. Degas took a sad scene and made it a beautiful work of art and in the process forces us to look at the painful life of a group of people with little lightness and joy in their world. The artist has made us see people we might have been inclined to pass by without acknowledging.
Robert Thompson of The Art of Alaska.net has an article on the website titled: “Where do you find art?” The article points out how a beautiful photograph of snow shoes tells a deeper story behind the photo. The photographer has portrayed something in these simple snowshoes that leads us to want to know more about the story behind the shoes. We might ask the question, “Why are those shoes there and where have they been?” The artist has made us see something we might otherwise not see. And in seeing we learn an amazing story of survival against unbelievable odds.
Artist Luke Roland asks the question, “What do you see when you look at a blank canvas?” He asks artists to think about what excites them, what do they want the world to see. Roland directs artists “to do something worth remembering.” The artist puts on the canvas what excites him/her. That excitement comes through into the painting giving the art that unmistakable quality that makes the artwork “worth remembering.” Sparks of excitement create a vision we might not otherwise have seen and now will not forget.
The great master, Edgar Degas, through his art, made us see the lyrical beauty and the behind the scenes work of ballet. He also enlightened us to the ugly reality of absinthe drinkers. Robert Thompson gave us snowshoes and made us see a story of survival. Luke Roland encourages artists to go for what excites them and put it on canvas. Artists who heed these words of experience will perhaps be able to make others “see” beauty and sadness, a story behind an artwork, and the excitement that makes art worth remembering. Isn’t that why we paint? We want others to see what we see.
Over 100 of Degas’ art can been seen at The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA.
For more on “The Little Dancer, aged Fourteen” here is a lecture from The Norton Simon Museum on the subject.