PaintingSkepticismVisual Art

AI: Skeptical Critique #1

The Short Verson:

We’re going to be trying something new and exciting here. Every Monday we are going to put up a new piece of visual art for the purposes of a skeptical art critique.

We’ll be looking at a wide range of works in the coming months, but to start out I thought we’d go with something famous and clearly skeptically involved.

The Treachery of Images, René Magritte, 1929 - Oil on canvas, 63.5 cm × 93.98 cm

The question for discussion this week is:
How is this piece encouraging or critical thinking?

N.B. For those not versed in french the text translates to “This is not a pipe”


The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

The Long Version:

What is a skeptical art critique? We don’t know yet. That’s what’s exciting. We’re inventing a new field of artistic criticism here. There are a number of ways that visual art has been examined historically. Each has purpose and value in certain context. Here are a few examples:

Formalist Critique: Examining a work primarily on technical elements like colour choice, lighting, proportion, scale and so on.

Historical Critique:  Interpreting the piece based primarily in the context it was created and the audience for which it was intended.

Feminist Critique: Investigating how a piece represents things like gender roles, ethnicity and so on. Its incorporates a variety of considerations like current and historical context to evaluate the impact and meanings found in a work.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and no critique style needs to be used in isolation. I’m presenting them to give a bit of context to what the aim of these critiques is. What we’re trying to do is create yet another method of evaluating artistic work. We want to discuss what, why and how a piece makes you think and feel from a skeptical perspective. There are a number of questions we want to explore and angles from which to investigate art. Some examples:

  • Can a painting be logically fallacious?
  • How can a sculpture encourage, incite, or restrict critical thought?
  • How have advances in science influenced our understanding of a piece?
  • What is the visual language of truth? How can it be applied or misused?
  • How can critical thought and science inspire art?
  • How can art inspire science and critical thought?

I thank you all in advance for participating. I’m extremely curious as to what we’ll get out of these discussions. Also, if you have any works that you think would be fun to critique, feel free to send them to me.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. Great choice of art for this. It may be one of the best examples of skeptically inspired paintings we have.

    It is not a pipe but a painting of a pipe. It tells you right there in the painting it is not what it seems yet our brains take a look and instantly say, “pipe.” Rationality tells us otherwise.

    I love that painting. 🙂

  2. I love this painting and recently used it over on my blog, re: illusions.

    I love Magritte’s quote about it:

    “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”

    And it’s true. It is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe. Magritte smeared some paint onto a canvas in the shape of a pipe and, using color and tone, made the pipe appear as if it was ‘turning’ in space. He made it to appear as if it has ‘form’. But this is all a trick. It’s the most basic trick in representational art.

  3. I like this piece because it walks the nicest part of the border between conceptual and representational art.

    The biggest complaint I heard from my time as a museum docent regarding conceptual pieces was, “I could do that!” People, by and large, don’t think of themselves as artist. They expect artists to have an ability they themselves do not possess, and they don’t count cleverness. Thay want to see technical skill. This piece fools you by being really well rendered, as Brian pointed out. It’s a really “artistic” pipe. It looks like it required a lot of skill and practice and art training to paint.

    But then it sweeps the rug out from under you: it’s actually all about the IDEA! It’s a conceptual art piece, a pure abstract idea. Now it’s making you think. It is a pipe. Isn’t it? ISN’T IT!??


  4. This is the first time I’ve really considered that painting since I really started drawing and painting myself.

    Previously, when I first saw it as a kid, I thought it was kinda boring – not very bright colors, and eh, it was a pipe.

    Then later, when I learned what the caption meant it made me smile, as in “Oh, haha, how clever” but I still didn’t have a deep appreciation for it.

    Now I’m drooling over those highlights. They make it convincing. That IS a pipe, every inch of it, only it’s not, as he said.

  5. Interesting article. By the way, thanks so much for starting the Mad Art Lab! I was quite excited when I came across it. Skepticism and art (writing music in particular) are two of my favorite things.

    I’d like to address some of the questions you posed:

    * Can a painting be logically fallacious?

    Only if it has propositional content that could either be true or false. Interpreting a bare image (without text) could introduce such content, and we can’t avoid interpreting every image we see. I suppose such interpretations are by definition not strictly aesthetic but meta-aesthetic critiques, like historical or feminist critiques. If the interpretation is accurately portraying the work or its context, then it makes perfect sense to me to address its logical validity, as well as whether its supposed assumptions are supported by evidence.

    * What is the visual language of truth? How can it be applied or misused?

    The first is a complex question. I have no alternative but to say that everything one sees is “true” in some sense of the word — even a hallucination is something that is truly happening, just not what it appears to be. More generally, the nature of our visual system is such that nothing is ever exactly as we perceive it. The second question is ambiguous to me. I guess “misuse” could mean anything from optical illusions to any kind of artistic license or distortion, but it’s not clear to me what you intended by it.

  6. It reminds me of a sign on the door net to my office door.

    “This door is not a door.”

    Of course, some people stare at the sign, then assume it’s a joke, and try to open the door. After finding out that that door has been sealed shut since the Johnson administration and that door really isn’t a door, they quickly look around to make sure that no one saw.

  7. I love this painting! It certainly boggled my adolescent brain for an enjoyable time, as did so much of dada and surrealism. This is certainly art for Thinkers!

    I think Magritte’s choice of a functional object, a pipe, makes this work especially well. It is obviously not a pipe because it does not perform the function of a pipe. A “this is not a sunset” painting wouldn’t have the same punch.

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