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Persuasion in art: Magritte's "Treachery of Images"

The rules of persuasion are present in all forms of human communication, including the visual arts

People are sometimes surprised to hear me say that the rules of persuasion are present in all forms of human communication, including the visual arts. To explain this phenomenon at work, let’s look next at one of the most famous paintings by the artist René François Ghislain Magritte. Magritte was a surrealist artist, that is to say, his paintings were not meant to be reproductions of reality but examinations of the concept of reality itself. In one of his most famous works, The Treachery of Images, Magritte presents us with a painting that is a masterful example of a persuasive argument presented through an artistic medium.

The painting itself is simple enough: it is the image of a wooden pipe with a bowl of brown wood and a mouthpiece in a darker shade of brown. The two parts meet where a yellow ribbon circles the stem. Beneath the pipe we see a declarative statement: This is not a pipe, written in cursive script. Both the pipe and the statement appear over a soothing cream-colored background.

In this example, the argument is easy enough to find since Magritte spells it out for us in plain sight. This is not a pipe, of course, in the sense that one cannot use it to smoke tobacco. This is indeed a pipe in the sense that is a representation of a pipe. In other words, Magritte’s declaration is a paradox, i.e., a statement that appears to be contradictory at first glance but yields some greater truth when considered fully. We are all familiar with this particular paradox, for all of us at some moment have looked at a photo and said something along the lines of “Person X is in the photo,” knowing full well that what we really mean is that what note is but a visual representation of Person X. As such, the representation is, and is not, Person X, just as in the painting’s case the pipe is, and is not, a pipe. Paradoxes are common in philosophy, and there are many other famous paradoxes we could discuss. Suffice it to say that in this case, the philosophical argument is stated clearly by the artist: you are looking at a thing that only seems to be what it (and I and perhaps you) claims to be.

Moving on, we also see character clearly, if we look closely at the pipe itself. Magritte could have painted any pipe — from Sherlock Holmes’ famous calabash pipe to the complex hookahs used to smoke in the Middle East. The artists did not choose any of these exotic models; rather, he chose the pipe of a solid, middle-class man — a man much like his father Léopold Magritte, a tailor and textile merchant. Thus, the pipe represents the character that created Magritte and in which he grew up: a solid, conservative, bastion of the bourgeoisie (to use a term from Magritte’s time). As for emotion, the artist presents both his argument and statement of character across a soft, comforting background, and it is not a stretch to imagine the owner of the pipe sitting in a study whose walls were decorated in this color. It is not a color of anger or adventure; it is, rather, a color that suggests the everyday — and possibly bland — life of the middle-class man whose pipe Magritte has reproduced.

What then, do we make of all of Magritte’s elements and what do they tell us? They ask us to consider reality and the way in which we interpret and conceive of the world around us. If something so simple as a pipe, Magritte asks, can both be and not be, is it not possible — even likely — that many more things around us are paradoxes? After all, most people are at any given moment both young (to anyone older) and old (to anyone younger). Most people are at any moment both living and in the process of dying. People can be right in front of us physically and yet far from us mentally. They can seem rich, when crushed by debt. They can seem faithful, even as they have affair after affair. Such is the way of the world, the painting tells us, and we cannot, we should not, take what we see around us as our reality. Indeed, we now know that what we think our eyes see is always a fraction of a moment delayed — we never see the world around us in real time. We also know the eye is easily tricked, as any good magician can attest.

One can imagine that Magritte would be utterly unsurprised by today’s “deep fakes” and by seeing dead actors reanimated in movies and commercials. It is for this reason that his painting has persuaded so many viewers and has become an instantly recognizable shorthand for a complex set of epistemological and philosophical arguments. It is no coincidence that Magritte’s work would seek to comment on such complex issues. He was well-versed in the history of philosophy, had read Plato and Aristotle, and wanted his art to communicate ideas and to challenge conclusions we hold about the world around us.1 As one viewer has noted: “What Magritte wanted us to know was that the obstruction to our desires is not the object in our field of view, but is vision, thought and perception itself.” This message continues to persuade and will do so in the future. As the art writer Duncan Ballantyne-Way concluded, it is “strange to think that this top-hatted surrealist, under the guise of a bourgeois Belgian did more than any other artist to reveal the absurdity in our existence. Sixty years on, his work is as compelling now as it was then, and in another sixty years we’ll still be utterly transfixed.”2

1Pound, Cath. Magritte and the subversive power of his pipe. 2017
2Ballantyne-Way, Duncan. René Magritte and The Treachery of Images. 2019
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