Ceci n’est pas une pipe

[ 2 ] February 17, AD 2012 |

This famous image with its seemingly contradictory text (“This is not a pipe.”) led the way for an overhauling of art and artistic representation as we know it today.  Painted by the astute Rene Magritte, a member of the Surrealist movement (associated with himself and other painters such as James Ensor and Salvador Dali), it provides a clever way of explaining what art really is: just an image.  When asked about this particular image, Magritte would reply, “Try putting tobacco in it.”

I could keep going with more clever Magritte witticisms, or begin to toss in Dali, with all his eccentricities, but then I would miss the point of this post and it would turn from a humbling philosophical thought into an art history lesson (spurred onwards by my frequent Wikipedia searches to check my facts).

Many artists (myself included, at times) strive for realism–but no matter how boldly and successfully we may strive towards realism, our image will be simply that: an image.  Nothing more than a representation (literally, a re-presentation) of an object.  Some people took the image above as an excuse to break from the realistic portrayal of artifacts and to abstract them.  This results in interesting analytical drawings and a different way of looking at the world.  If the artifact becomes too abstracted and removed from context, however, it becomes unrecognizable and morphs into another creation in and of itself.  Some day, this could develop into a metaphor for what happens when you stray too far from the truth.  But that is not this day!

It is, in this case, a metaphor for all forms of sub-creation.  Without God’s help, we mere mortals cannot create anything truly new.  All that we can do is to work with the tools and materials He has given us.  An image is simply an image; it will never be the object, or the person, nor if the image is changed will it affect the subject itself in any way.  This is why an icon (or any other image of a holy person) is not worshiped–it is not the person.  The icon is the tool through which we, as material beings, may have a more solid way of requesting the intercession of the holy person in the image.

With God’s help, however, we can achieve great things.  This is the difference between sacraments (and sacramentals) and  mere artifacts.  Sacraments (and sacramentals) effect what they signify (in the case of sacramentals, to varying degrees).  Artifacts, however, do not bring with them these graces.  Another beautiful instance of greatness created through grace is children.  Each soul is unique and irreplaceable (no matter how many times someone may say that you remind them of someone else they know) and is God’s own creation.  (Proof that marriage is a sacrament!)  God chooses to work through us, fallen and mortal though we are, because we were made in His Image–this is why we are, so often, driven to create.

Print Friendly

Category: Columnists, Life, Sacraments, Spirituality

About the Author ()

Ink and Quill are Roman Catholic college students studying architecture and philosophy (respectively). Long-time friends and co-writers, they enjoy studying Ancient Greek and attempting to re-create the 1920s (or sometimes the 1220s). Ink rarely sleeps. Quill rarely posts. Both love what they do. They post together at With Eager Feet.
  • Nathaniel Gotcher

    This post is not a series of words.

    I’ve always said that art should be comprehensible. Not to say there shouldn’t be mystery, but mystery is not the same as confusion. And confusion is not the same as being intentionally misleading. Irony in art is fine, but irony is not intended to be misleading. In irony, the meaning is the opposite of the apparent expression, but good irony is irony that is clearly irony. Art is like that. It can have an message that isn’t what it seems to be, but it should be clear that there is something beyond the obvious. Then art becomes a journey of discovery, not just a static message.

    My rule of thumb? If people can understand something that is not antithetical to my intentions without me having to explain anything, then I have succeeded at art even if their understanding isn’t exactly what I intended.

  • Michael Wong

    I think you’re missing a key point. “it will never be the object”. However, it will *always* be *an* object (and I’d contend an object that didn’t exist before, but also another day). This other side of the coin is the most important
    thing to be taken from Magritte’s non-pipe.