The Treachery of Images

In 1929, Belgian artist RenĂ© Magritte produced a painting which seemed to contradict itself. It was a pipe (the kind people used to smoke tobacco with), with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” That’s French for “This is not a pipe.”

Magritte was a surrealist, a group of artists who were fond of playing with the notions of things vs. the representation of things, and the other kinds of mind-bending word-play and picture-play.

The actual name of this painting was La trahison des images, which is usually translated into English as The Treachery of Images. His implication with that title was that images are not what they appear to be, they are only representations of those things.

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!

This simple distinction is the basis for a great deal of censorship (intended and successful) in our society, even decades later. Governments and self-appointed censors don’t just prohibit things which are harmful, they do the same thing to representations of things that are harmful. This, in itself, is harmful.

A description of a murder is not the same as a murder. A video simulation of a disembowelment is not the same as a disembowelment. An illustration of an illicit sex act is not an illicit sex act. Supressing those creative works, even to the point of arresting people who happen to have copies of them in their possession is irrational, and should not be acceptable in a civilized society.

But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Leave a Reply