Back in 1929, the Belgian surrealist René Magritte first exhibited what looked less like a painting and more like a sign hanging outside a tobacconist shop. In Magritte’s painting, a pipe hovers over a plain beige background, written below it in a simple script: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. Harry Torczyner later quoted the painter in his book Magritte: Ideas and Images: “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!’
Nearly 100 years later, the painting remains a delightful surprise for many viewers for a few reasons. One doesn’t need a degree in art history to tease out what Magritte was trying to articulate. The imagery is simple to grasp, as is the painting’s meaning. More importantly, the artist’s observation is so obvious that we tend to laugh at ourselves for not thinking of it first. Of course an image of a pipe is not an actual pipe, and yet on some level it is because we do not delineate linguistically between the symbol of a pipe and a functional pipe. Both are pipes, as is the word spelled p-i-p-e and pronounced “pīp”.
We can both differentiate and relate the tangible object, the visual symbol, and the written and spoken words for “pipe” courtesy of our personal experience, or context if you prefer. A baby can’t pull off this magic trick, nor can a speaker of Mandarin if we’re talking specifically about the word spelled p-i-p-e. Imagine an undiscovered tribe happening upon Magritte’s painting, or for that matter an actual pipe. Assuming they have no concept of smoking or written language, either object would be completely meaningless to them.
The whole thing is a reminder that try as we might, we cannot suspend the entirety of our personal experience when viewing an image. It’s simply not how our brains work. If we were unable to bring our own personal context with us, we could not make sense of the barrage of imagery that greets us every day. We couldn’t read. We wouldn’t sense the danger of running a red light. We couldn’t recognize the emotions conveyed in others’ expressions.
Advertisers rely on our ability to convert symbols to meaning: A glistening body means hard work; a glistening beer bottle means ice cold refreshment. Artists rely on it, too. Writers are 100% dependent upon your ability to turn the squiggly symbols on the page into voices in your head. Visual artists convey motion via blurriness, for example.
None of this is a revelation to you; in fact, it’s as obvious as the message of Magritte’s “The Treachery Of Images.” We all know that the word, the visual symbol, and the physical object are related yet distinct. We know that advertisers rely on our personal experience to sell toothpaste and zit cream. Even the most average human is a very sophisticated image interpretation machine, and yet we repeatedly fall into the same trap.
We insist upon believing that the camera does not lie.
Most recently this tendency reared its ugly head courtesy of the Covington Catholic controversy. The initial image that most of us saw was a photo of a smirking boy wearing a MAGA hat, his smug mug inches from the face of what appeared to be an elderly Native American gentleman. Boys of apparently similar age seemed to be caught mid-laugh in the photo’s background. The photo spread quickly across social media as evidence of myriad societal ills: white privilege, racism, bullying, out of control teens, the Catholic church, etc.
Shortly thereafter another image appeared, this one a video rather than a still photo. This inerrant image proved for its proponents an entirely different list of somethings: media bias, rush to judgement, victimization of white people, the dangers of Black Israelites, on and on.
But if the camera cannot lie, how can two visual representations of the same event support such wild divergent conclusions? Because we can’t view any image–painting, photo, or video–without dragging along our own baggage. We know that’s a pipe because we know what a pipe looks like! Come on! Stop playing word games!
So which side is right in their interpretation of the Covington Catholic images? The only arbiters of truth are the individuals represented by the images. Only the kid knows whether he was an instigator or, like Senator Ted Cruz, just happens to possess an unfortunately punchable face. Only the Native American elder knows why he injected himself into the moment that was captured in viral images. Only the kids in the photo’s background know whether they were nasty little bastards spraying gasoline onto a potential fire or were maybe just coincidentally all remembering their favorite knock knock jokes at the moment that the shutter snapped.
Our responsibility as consumers of images isn’t to get them right, whatever that means, so much as to approach them as objectively as possible knowing that we’re viewing said images through the prisms of our own experience. Sure, it’s possible to be completely wrong. If you walk away from “The Treachery Of Images” convinced that you just viewed a cigar; well, I don’t know what to tell you. But it’s important to remember that stripped of context a sunrise looks a lot like a sunset, and you really had to be there to know for certain whether that ice cold beer bottle is sweating or that room temperature beer bottle was sprayed by a mister before the cameras rolled.
Life is filled with ambiguity, the worlds of symbols and imagery even more so. Don’t be afraid to reach a conclusion and defend it, but don’t forget that the image of a pipe isn’t the actual object spelled p-i-p-e. Unless you’re from an undiscovered tribe, of course, in which case I congratulate you on remaining undiscovered while maintaining internet access.