Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rene Magritte - The Use of Language in Visual Art

The Right Answer Is Wrong; Is the Wrong Answer Right? Magritte's Use of Language in Modern Art

There are a number of mysterious and hard-to-grasp aspects of human language that make it a perfect element in modern art.  

For instance, this work of art has puzzled and fascinated art lovers for many years:


Basically Rene Magritte painted an image of a pipe and then wrote, under it, “This is not a pipe.”

Why would he do this?

He seems to be asking, what is it about language that provides us with what we consider to be ‘truth’?  To Magritte verbal truth seemed to be a ‘thing’ to be examined through this method.  What is it about language that gives us a ‘sensation’ or feeling of truth or falsehood?  Most of what we consider to be truth, in fact, comes from language – to what extent can we trust this?  Is ‘the truth’ always something based on how we use language?  Is there a deeper awareness or truth than language, and, if so, how are they the same or different?

At first, when we see the statement under the pipe, we think, this is wrong! This is a pipe.  But then we start to suspect that Magritte might be shooting for something deeper and we realize, wait a minute, there’s a distance between the object and any sentence about the object. Language can exist on its own as well as in relationship to an object.  When he says this is not a pipe, we realize the right answer is also wrong and the wrong answer is also right.  This is, in fact, NOT a pipe – the sound and symbols for ‘pipe’ are our construction; what is the basis of this process that allows us to construct such sentences?  The object exists as something ‘real’ in the world whether we can name it or not.  This is not a pipe because language represents but does not ‘own’ the object.  Magritte wants us to realize something important about language - now when we say to ourselves  “This is a pipe.” we get a better sense of exactly what we are doing,;we get a greater insight into how we construct systems of knowledge and truth.

A lot of people who write about art have pointed this out. In fact, there was a philosophical school called deconstructivism which claimed that language does not really correspond to anything – it is its own ‘self-referential ‘system.  However, it looks as if Magritte was shooting for more than this insight, however.

Here is another piece by Magritte:




Here we see he has 6 objects and they are all inaccurately labeled.  The mismatching images are meant to engender a sense of frustration in the viewer.  Frustration, of course, often leads to aggression.  Magritte seems to be calling greater attention to emotional states that can be elicited from statements, especially those we believe to be false.    We feel compelled to say egg, shoe, hat, candle, glass, hammer.  If we are confronted with ‘misinformation’ we literally feel an emotional response and sense of aggression. We want to change what we feel is wrong. There is some impetus or motive within us to attack what we believe to be falsehood.

I think he makes this clearer in this painting:


Here, he provides three ‘wrong’ answers and one ‘right’ answer.  He seems to be inviting us to compare how we are made to feel by these differing labels.  A viewer can literally feel a sense of relief from the ‘right’ answer as opposed to a sense of frustration and irritation from the wrong answers.  The big insight into language from these paintings by Magritte would seem to be in regard to the fact that what we perceive as false statements literally cause us pain and frustration and we are motivated by falsehood to take action to change it – on many levels.

Yet, in this painting by Magritte there is also an invitation to have a direct experience with reality – to transcend language. After all, the fact that we call a horse a door does not change the real nature of the horse.  When are these labels needed and how effective are they? What function do these labels really serve?  Magritte seems to be saying that language separates us from the world instead of helping us engage it more directly. Indeed, he may even be implying that language can bring violence toward the real object or the real world – real and false labels are both about controlling and using external reality.

Finally, in regard to a reality that exists beneath language, Magritte seems to state that making true statements is not good enough.  We merely get a sense of satisfaction from doing this.  This satisfaction does not change anything.  Language leaves us passive onlookers at the world.  To perceive language as something distant from reality also invites us to examine the extent to which we can engage and change reality itself on its own terms, instead of as verbal ‘colonizers.’  This would seem to apply to our inner as well as our outer realities.


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