I do not believe that I would be farfetched in claiming that the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (1928-1929) remains among the world’s most ubiquitous works of art. The image is familiar: a brown pipe with a black stem rests in front of a beige background. Magritte has given the pipe dimension: it curves smoothly and it seems to reflect an omnipresent light. Nevertheless, the painting in its entirety maintains a certain flatness. Beneath the image of the pipe, Magritte has written “Ceci n’est pas une pipe [this is not a pipe]” in steady cursive script onto the pale background. With those words, Margritte has begun to teach his audience a fundamental lesson in media literacy.
In fact, this image played a central role in one of my first lessons in media literacy. Early on in the course, my high school Mass Media teacher asked the class to show him a pipe. With pencil and paper in front of us, we began to draw. I drew a simple plumbing pipe—a long, unimpressive cylinder. When the time was up, my teacher circled the class, scrutinizing our drawings. As he returned to the front of the class, he sighed and said “I’m sorry, but none of those are pipes.”
Our drawings, he explained, were representations of pipes, not actual pipes themselves. He then projected The Treachery of Images onto the screen behind him. He explained that like the painting in front of us, media consist of representations as well, and like The Treachery of Images, they too construct meaning.
The Treachery of Images ultimately comments on the process of representation or the “relationship between words and things” as Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright write in Practices of Looking. Magritte, they write, “is also pointing to the relationship between words and things, since this is not a pipe itself but rather the representation of a pipe; it is a painting rather than the material object itself.”
Not only is the painting a representation, but the very word “pipe” as penned by Magritte is also a representation. The word is not “the material object itself.”
In this sense, Magritte’s The Treachery of Images enters into a lineage of structuralism and theory. The Treachery of Images invokes Ferdinand de Saussure's structural linguistics, and much of Margritte’s oeuvre elaborates on theories of representation. Magritte himself was indeed an admirer of philosophy. He was a dedicated reader, correspondent, and collaborator to many of the emerging thinkers of his time. His work was not only integrated into the terrain of philosophy, but it was imbued with it. In fact, the French post-structuralist Michel Foucault dedicated a 50-page essay to the analysis of The Treachery of Images.
I personally prefer to think of Magritte as a philosopher himself—a philosopher whose preferred medium was simply painting and not text. His oeuvre is his theory.
Magritte’s oeuvre offers an important lesson in media literacy. It details how representation creates meaning.
In 1972, John Berger and the BBC released Ways of Seeing, a television program that sought to educate audiences about critical viewing practices. Ways of Seeing was later adapted into a book. In Ways of Seeing, Berger revolutionized the common understanding of visual images, and he advocated for a more informed viewership. Ways of Seeing expounds many lessons pertinent to Media Literacy. It is no coincidence that the book both begins and ends with paintings by René Magritte.