You can learn an awful lot about a society's beliefs by looking at the things they create: If a culture is decaying, the art will decay, as well.
Something about Degas' paintings has always bothered me. I never could quite place my finger on it... But they gave me an unsettled sort of feeling. Like things were just not right.
And now I know why:
In her book, 'Saving Leonardo', Nancy Pearcey discusses the difference between Degas and DaVinci. And the difference is not just incidental. It's a hugely important worldview difference.
Degas was part of a new, and radical, approach to art. Before, a painting had always been a story. Now it was a snapshot. (Hence the chopped-off heads of the ballerinas, and the man in the far left who can't seem to make up his mind whether to be in or out of the painting.) Art had always been a way to convey a moral point, but now they were just trying to get a "slice of life" effect. Forget the morals. They're old fashioned.
Now contrast that idea with DaVinci:
In both of those paintings, there is an obvious focal point. Your eyes are naturally drawn to the central object; to the thing that Leonardo DaVinci wanted you to see; to the purpose of the painting. He uses traditional techniques and compositions to create a unified whole. He even uses light and shadow to place all emphasis on the most important part of the painting.
Soooo. What's the most important part of this painting down here? Well. Nothing.
Your eyes don't know where to focus. There's nothing that stands out to you, nothing to make impression.
Degas (and others like him) rebelled against all tradition and purpose and interpretation. They didn't create to tell a story. The art just was there. A flash of unaltered chance. This all was a symptom of a serious problem: People of that time had started proclaiming that life was unplanned, random. As a result, they wanted the art to be unplanned and random too. Since we had stopped believing that we had a coherent story to live, artists had stopped giving their art a coherent story to tell.
That is why Degas' art should not feel. . . right. It has a purpose, yes. But that "purpose" is to convince us that there is no purpose. No truth. Those artists believed that truth could only be found by peeling away interpretation. But by taking out all the interpretation, they also took out the vision. And where there is no vision, we know the people will perish. That is why we have to create with vision; like Handel, who said that he should be sorry if his Messiah had only entertained people; He wished to "make them better". That should be the goal of creating, always: To make us better.