Perhaps the dreamy landscapes, iconic hats and well-polished pipes can speak more about today’s world that when it was first conceived. Nearly 90 years ago, Belgian painter René Magritte invited us to question reality and its accuracy. In 1929, Magritte was making The Treachery of Images, a painting of a tobacco pipe with the sentence “this is not a pipe” right below it. His interest in exploring the reality of things versus its representations served as compass when discussing issues around appropriation. Much like Marcel Duchamp and The Fountain, these issues appear to be noticeably relevant in the contemporary era.
As we stumble upon endless curated images on social media feeds, it’s feasible to make connections between what we see in real life and what we experience online. One could potentially cancel the other, allowing us to only exist inside screens. But what happens when such screens are broken, exposing what lives under the surface?
Snapshots of reality are merely photographs, or solely limited viewpoints presented by the photographer. It is not whole. It does not represent reality itself.
As we amplify our technological advances and our own skills, we also amplify our abilities to question what we see and what we don’t. What lives under the surface might be entirely different than the display. Today, there is a particular necessity to go further and distinguish what’s real from representations. Magritte’s flat and near perfect paintings, mirrors the complexity of reality and the visuals surrounding us. Our obsession with sharing what we experience, fueled by our peers and the apps themselves, serve as a friendly reminder of Magritte’s legacy: this is not reality. It’s a simple, highlighted and carefully enhanced representation of it. Though a simple message, it’s one that seems easy to overlook or even forget.
As human beings, we are perfectly apt to question. Question rules, regulations, ideologies, values and realities. Far too often, we surrender this capability to third parties, including technology itself. Doing so, we allow external influences decide for us: what’s real and what’s fabricated. Fortunately, we have Magritte’s work. A meaningful reminder to never lose touch with this inner capability.
Our ability to question is what makes us free.