Ceci n’est pas une pipe


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If you’re a John Green fan, you’re likely already familiar with this shirt and slogan, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” translated in English as “This is not a pipe.” This depiction of a pipe was first created by Belgian Surrealist artist Rene Magritte, who painted a picture of a pipe with the above slogan scripted below the picture. He created this painting to emphasize the necessary separation between a literal object, the pipe, and the representation of the object, the painting and slogan.


Magritte’s “Treachery of Images”

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Sturken and Cartwight use Magritte’s painting as the basis for their argument about the representation of images in “Images, Power,& Politics” Chapter One of their book, Practices of Looking. They define representation as “the use of language and images to create meaning about the world around us” (12) and they claim that we as humans develop meaning about what is around us based on our specific cultural surroundings.

Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images” draws attention to the limitations of representations of objects, both in linguistic and visual terms. The painting of the pipe implies the limitations of images because it is only a visual depiction of the pipe, not the actual object you can pick up and smoke out of. Similarly, objects represented through words have limitations because the word “pipe” is not the tangible object itself.

Hazel Grace, in The Fault In Our Stars, explains this concept well:

“But it is a pipe.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. It’s a drawing of a pipe. Get it? All representations of a thing are inherently abstract. It’s very clever.” 

While this may seem obvious and borderline absurd, Magritte’s painting and the TFIOS reference emphasize Sturken and Cartwright’s argument that we attach meaning to images through constructed ideologies, not natural tendencies. Ideologies, the “shared values and beliefs through which individuals live out their complex relations in a range of social networks,” help form the meaning we derive from looking at an image (23).

We perceive images with two forms of meaning:

  • Denotative– the literal meaning
  • Connotative– the implied, cultural meaning

As a function of working ideologies, the connotative meanings within images appear to be denotative, or natural. For example, think about the notion of beauty. We believe a thin figure is a universal sign of beauty, however certain cultures do not place such strong value in this perception of beauty and admire fuller figures. Even in the United States, fullness was previously seen as something to strive for since full figures were a sign of being wealthy enough to afford good food. Our perception of beauty only changed as our culture and our ideology changed.

Check out this video that depicts various countries’ perceptions of beauty

As you can also tell in this video, the world of photography has become more subjective with the increase of photo editing skills and programs. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to trust what you see in a photographic, because it is impossible tell the amount of editing and cropping the photograph has undergone. According to recent BBC studies, we know that images undergo extensive editing processes, but we still take these images as face value. We then translate what we see in these images to certain thoughts and memories associated with these images. This is where preestablished ideologies re-enter our mind and the danger of representation reemerges!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we better recognize the ideologies that influence our perception of images and advertisements?
  2. Do you think the increase of photo editing programs is helping or hurting the art of photography?

Until next blog,



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