The Deceit of Representation: The Representation of Deceit

The Treachery of Images, Rene Magritte, 1928-29


I first read the works of Nietzsche many years ago and I have been regularly  misinterpreting him ever since.  Reading Nietzsche lead me to Foucault and after a few years of existential angst, I returned to the former philosopher with a more academic and less troubled eye and confessed that I was not smart enough to understand the latter.  

Where am I going with this, you might ask?  Well, in a roundabout way this tangential and brief autobiographical sketch leads up to a perusal of the relationship between representation in the visual arts, the nature of language, and how the “treachery” of the two subsequently shape the perception and construction of an individual’s sense of reality–topics that both philosophers explored.  

Now, I am certainly no expert on semiotics, hermeneutics and the like, so this is more of a free-form exploration based upon what I have read and experienced as an off-and-on practicing artist/armchair philosopher over the years (I hear people clicking away already). 

Mimetic interpretations of nature have been a staple genre within Western art since antiquity and, particularly since the late Middle Ages, representational art has maintained favor among those who inadvertently or intentionally view works of art.  It is one thing to appreciate a well executed painting or approach the work from an aesthetic standpoint in order to understand or categorize how successfully the piece measures up to established criteria (not often practiced in the postmodern age when compared to, say, the 1700’s to late 1800’s); and it is another thing entirely to attempt an analysis of how something is created and what this may indicate about the confines imposed by the limits of representation.  

Yes, this doesn’t make much sense…yet (fingers crossed).  A simple example: A child is given a set of building blocks and from these blocks she can construct a number of nearly limitless different arrangements.  However, the number of arrangements is limited.  Furthermore, certain constraints are imposed upon her options due to biological and physical reasons.  For example, she cannot cause the blocks to hover through telekinesis or produce a web with which to hang the blocks. 

Now, if we add a mediator between the blocks and the child, we have a much more complicated situation in which the options are further narrowed.  In this instance, we’ll say that she has to pass each block through an appropriately colored hole and do so in a certain order.  Her thought processes and decision-making are altered in very specific way and further reinforced via each successful event. 

Expanding this simple (and probably inadequate) analogy, the child represents the self (in the Cartesian sense, I suppose) and the blocks cum mediator represent language and how it shapes our perception of reality. 

Language is a convenience.  It is expedient.  It is a loosely agreed upon arrangement of sounds with which we conveniently deceive each other.  I don’t mean deceive in the sense that we lie to each other but that if I say the word “tree” it really has nothing to do with the objective existence of the myriad objects that we agree we can call a tree.  “Tree” is a sound made by the clever manipulation of air though our teeth, throat, and mouth muscles.  Likewise, the written word “tree” is an arrangement of marks with a mutually agreed upon meaning. 

Why is this distinction between the word and the extrinsic object that the word represents important?  I’m not 100% sure but I strongly feel that it is important.  I think that it has to something to do with the child and blocks analogy.  It is easy to mistake the words and the narrative (or the painting) for the reality that it references.  In a sense, we are deceiving ourselves by doing so–it can be considered a violation against Truth, if that’s how one perceives the world.  

Now, not only might words and language be considered self-deceit to some degree, but it is important to consider that language is limited and subject to the mechanics of grammar.  Categories of thought and internal dialogues are language based.  The structure employed by the grammar we use not only determines our means by which we communicate, but it effects the manner in which we perceive stimuli.  

We use language to apply distinction and connection where none may exist simply because the structure associated with dialogue dictates that we do so.  Language implies a static moment in time when no such stasis exists.  “This is a tree.”  For now, perhaps.  But ten years from now, it will certainly not be the same tree that it was today.  It will be older, diseased, a chair, etc.  Further, to say that it is a “tree” fails to convey the myriad of change that is happening via vascular activity, the affects of wind, light, the one leaf that is now slightly smaller because an aphid chewed it, etc.  Of course, no one can be expected to qualify every statement of being with some long-winded explanation of the implicit dynamism within all matter–and this is exactly my point: that language and grammar force us to simplify and this process of repeatedly using language as an interface between the self and nature blurs the distinction thus creating a necessarily false perception.  However, the paradox is that we cannot have it any other way. 

Now, I can’t say if the same limitations of language translate into the visual arts world; however, I think that Magritte’s painting of a pipe, or rather his cleverly arranged pigment and lines upon canvas that deliberately allude to an actual pipe,  lead me to believe that they are congruent.  

A painting points towards something; our words point towards something.  The self yearns to connect with what is outside of itself yet it cannot adequately do so.  It can only create symbols and sounds for what is outside of itself and share those sounds and symbols with others.  If that self is lucky, maybe those others will agree with the sounds he or she uses for what is outside of both of them and a semblance of a connection is invoked.  This may be my most bizarre (and probably most incoherent) post to date, so I think I’ll end it here.

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