Written by: Catherine Barrie
Text gives authority to what we see, perhaps this is why Les Académie des Beaux-Arts declared ‘Historical’ paintings, paintings of mythological or biblical texts, as the most respected genre in the 19th century more so than landscape or portrait. It is language that gives image warrant. The association between power and text is one that is so imbedded, it becomes hard to separate - the bible and the American
constitution come to mind as arguably the most influential texts on Western and democratic society. Culturally, language forms in us a sense of reality or more alarmingly, truth. That, paired with image, creates a space easily abused – one that distorts a reality to justify an ideology. Fascist and Communist regimes alike, have historically perfected the art of subverting what we see with the help of textual influence. A propagandised image depicting armies of faces decorated with smiles is captioned "Enthusiastically celebrating the successful opening of the Chinese
trade union's ninth national congress." We are being told what to see. Like a crutch, our eyes rely on words. Art is subjective, painting is a construction – that, we understand is not reality. Words on the other hand, are undeniably, overtly, and categorically the objective truth. First, we look then we read. The text informs our sight.
Perhaps it seems that text and image is only a historical tool for ideological propaganda that does not apply to us today – in current society, we indeed understand the doctoring of image and text to support political aims. However, this
is not the case – it has simply evolved. Modern advertising also uses the text and image to influence our perception of reality, often using punchy lines to inform what we see. Notice how more often than not, we remember a company’s slogan more than the image we are shown. It is remembering the slogan that informs our sight. Soon enough, with the ambiguity of memory, we end up taking what we have read and imposing it on what we have seen.
It is misconceived that we read images like we read the written word. Looking is such a primitive, instinctive exercise we can hardly compare it to reading, an activity which is learnt. Though, through categorising image and text together, looking becomes something learnt and conditioned – something processed and refined like the act of reading. Reading on the other hand becomes something automatic and assumed alike to the mechanism of sight. The subversion of how we read and how we see is instrumental in distorting our own judgement of the truth. It confuses our gut instinct, tricking us into simply believing something as automatically as seeing it. Maybe this is why we are left so confused by Magritte’s Treachery of Images which so perfectly reveals the crutch of text on which we rely. Magritte shows us an image of a pipe, though tells us through written form that ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (this is not a pipe). We are disturbed and Magritte is clearly laughing at us because of it. To us, there is no way that what we read is not replicated in
what we see. The words cannot lie. The image and the text must be cohesive or else truth is just a farce and reality is simply a figment of our imagination. Philosopher Michel Foucault tries to solve this worrisome dilemma with numerous theories. Perhaps this is not a pipe, but an image of one? Maybe, the word ‘ceci ’ is not a pipe? Or the painting of the pipe with the words ‘this is not a pipe’ beneath it, is not a pipe? Regardless, Magritte succeeds in showing us that like image, text is simply a construction and together, text and image is not truth, but a subjective illusion.