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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: The dance of Degas's pygmalion

The Week In Culture

Is it a doll or is it a sculpture? Sotheby's, I take it, is absolutely clear about its answer, putting the kind of estimate on Sir John Madejski's cast of Degas' Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans which the average Barbie could never command. For them this is unquestionably sculpture – and sculpture of the first division, the sort of masterpiece that hardly ever comes to market and which can confidently be expected to draw big spenders even in the grizzliest of bear markets.

For Degas himself, though, the matter was a little more ambiguous. "The only reason that I made wax figures of animals and humans was for my own satisfaction," he said in an interview in 1897, "not to take time off from painting and drawing but in order to give my paintings and drawings greater expression, greater ardour and more life. They are exercises to get me going; documentary, preparatory motions, nothing more."

The implication is pretty clear. The little dancer is a doll – or, as an artist might put it, a lay figure – part aide-memoire and part three-dimensional working sketch. On the other hand Degas thought highly enough of it to exhibit the wax original at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, where it caused something of a stir because of its startling realism. Not only was it dressed in a real tutu and silk bodice but it sported a wig of real hair, thinly coated with wax.

The bronze casts of that original were only made after Degas's death – and have always carried with them a faint scent of the posthumous cash-in, at odds with a creator's intentions. By then the original was some 40 years old and the founders carefully replicated the dusty, faded aspect of the original skirt by dipping the new ones in mixture of glue and pigment.

It is an extraordinarily charming work, but one in which the word "charm" recovers some of its necromantic force. Because when you encounter this work (Tate Modern owns another cast) it's immediately clear – despite the lovely naturalness of the pose – that it's not just a sculpture. There's something else going on; something about the intersection of the imitated and the real – a fabric ribbon tied around cast bronze hair – that leaves us a little uncertain about how to treat it.

For his wax original Degas first modelled the nude body and then added the clothes – and though that isn't true of the casts (where the bodice is bronze), there's still a sense that this is a sculpture that has been dressed up – just as one can dress a doll or a toy. The point being that we can imagine taking the tutu off and replacing it with something else, which in turn leads us to imagine the young girl as something more than mere representation. She pokes a toe across that ill-defined border between the sculpture and the mannequin – the same border that the sculptor Ron Mueck explores in his uncannily life-like figures and that Hans Bellmer broaches with his sexualised dolls.

And the real objects attached to the little dancer also bring with them a sense of the fetish – of a model treated as if it were real person, in need of real garments and real shoes, sometimes bristling with real hair.

Stand in front of Rodin's The Thinker and you know it needs nothing from you but thought. Stand in front of the Little Dancer and it occurs to you that you might tie her ribbon in a different kind of bow, or rearrange her tutu to prettier effect. She commands a childishness of response – a kind of domestic, cosseting affection – that we don't usually expect to feel in an art gallery. She's a doll and a sculpture – and all the more effective for blurring the distinction.

Just block it out

An online science journal reports that playing the computer game Tetris half an hour after exposure to traumatic stress can reduce subsequent flashbacks – an effect which, it is thought, might have something to do with the way the brain lays down long-term memories. Distract it at the right time, it seems, and it won't have a chance to get clogged with horrific images.

I'm not sure what clinical applications this discovery could have: it's hard to imagine first-aiders rushing to the scene of a disaster and pressing a Nintendo DS into the hands of a bleeding victim. But I'm not at all surprised that Alexey Pajitnov's notoriously compulsive time-waster should turn out to have measurable neurological properties. Several years ago, I became mildly addicted to it myself, resolving to go cold turkey only when the whole world started to look like a Tetris game. I found myself one day working out how to rotate a passing bread-van so that it would fit perfectly into the space between a tower block and a Tube station, and make the whole assembly gratifyingly vanish into thin air. I hope someone is working on a cure for post-Tetritic stress disorder for those trauma victims who get a bit carried away with their therapy.

A warning was issued recently that morris dancing might be extinct within 20 years unless more young dancers start taking it up. It was a warning that I couldn't help treating as a kind of promise, being mildly allergic to the strained folkloric nostalgia that often attends morris performances. But obviously enthusiasts take the matter more seriously: "Once we've lost this part of our culture, it will be almost impossible to revive it," said a Mr Corcoran. I'm not sure he should worry so much, since morris dancing only exists today because it was resuscitated from near death at the turn of the century by Cecil Sharp and other folk enthusiasts. Given the fact that we now have video cameras to record the dances it could go into total hibernation for 400 years and still re-emerge completely intact, should the will to bob around jingling eventually return. And it would be not a jot less "authentic" than it is now.