Smoking Magritte's Pipe
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Like most people I know, the Urban Man lives a life of illusion. I keep multiple identities online, clever clothing on my back, and DVD's about more elegant worlds on my flat-screen TV.
Yes, I try to remember that substance is more important than image, but it's not easy--so sometimes, when I really I need to be chastised, I go to exhibits of modern art. There I let my eye pass over disassembled words and shattered mirrors so I can learn how my truths are actually frauds, my values mere painted ladies, and my daily routine, to quote the song, is "a moving paper fantasy."
I figure a good exhibit is better than religion at humbling the heart.
Today, I've gone down to the County Museum to see René Magritte's pipe. You know the pipe--right now it's up on banners all over the city. The real painting's about three feet wide and shows nothing but a clean, advertising-style image of a man's pipe. Underneath, Magritte wrote those famous words, "This is not a pipe."
After 79 years, it's the joke that never gets old. You go up to the picture and you say, "Right, dude, I get it. It's just a painting of a pipe."
I spend the whole afternoon trying to be admonished by Magritte and his imitators. I want to be chastised by surreal men in bowler hats, by painted landscapes obscuring genuine landscapes, by images that both seduce and repel.
But this time, something in me resists. Some cry from my L.A. soul rises up, and like a true Angeleno, I find myself addressing the famous pipe in cheeky tones.
I say, "Of course it's not a pipe, René: it's much better than a pipe. Your painting's worth millions while a mere pipe might be worth five or ten bucks. It has been remembered long after the original was thrown away, and if we've learned one thing in the last 79 years, it's that image almost always has more value than substance. In fact, more and more, we've learned to say, "who cares about substance?"
Why buy a Lexus when you can rent a Jag?
Why go to the gym if you can become a buff avatar with ripped biceps and rippling blond hair in some gaudy video game?
Why worry about your actual self if you can Photoshop your MySpace portrait so you resemble Cary Grant?
Take our president, an old-money northeasterner from Yale who bought a ranch in Texas, adopted a Texas accent, and pretended to be "down home." We might be angry about his many failings, but this deception we still approve. I mean, it's a basic modern skill. And if we could not respect a man like John Kerry, it wasn't because he was also a privileged northeasterner from Yale, but because he didn't have the sense to pretend otherwise.
For millenia people have tried to create virtual realities more significant than the life they merely lived. Catholics painted frescoes. French nobles dressed in silk stockings. Image manipulation has only become...democratic.
"Dear René: You called your painting 'The Treachery of Images,' but surely reality often proves much more treacherous. Reality still kills more people each year than music videos, designer jeans, and all our giddy celebrities combined."
I'm not sure if Magritte is listening or laughing, but I'm sorry to report to the museum that instead of chastising me, the whole exhibit seems to confirm my L.A. identity. Night falls as I stroll out to Wilshire Boulevard, and as I watch the beauty of this ugly town rise up all around me, I only find myself making a new commitment to a life of illusion. I think: Isn't it time to start coloring my hair? And hey, what would people say if the Urban Man started smoking a pipe?
Copyright © 2007 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.The exhibit "The Treachery of Images: Magritte and Contemporary Art" closes March 4 at LACMA. Thanks to John Clair for his insights on MySpace.com.
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