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The Human Condition

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The window is wide open; the sky is blue; the white clouds are in a beautiful blend with the sky; there is a tall tree in the middle of the forest; the field is green as it is filled with grass and bushes; a cool breeze made the leaves on the trees dance; it seemed like there is not a better place on earth to be in at that moment; it was just like a dream, with the only difference being that I was not actually there. All of these words went passed through my mind in less than a second as I was staring at one of the most magnificent art pieces of all time called The Human Condition by Rene Magritte.

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The piece was quite simplistic at the first glance, but then I looked at it again. Suddenly nothing felt real to me anymore as I saw the easel in the middle of the painting. The dream was over, and now I was full awake. I got goosebumps when I realized how one little detail can change the whole feeling in the piece. The duality of meaning in the painting made me to think about the people in society. The human mindset can be fascinating at times as they come to gain some beliefs during their lifetime. These beliefs are different from place to place and they tend to change over time. As science and technology grows every day, people come to realize that some of these beliefs are in fact not true. These wrong beliefs or in other words, myths, shaped so many lives in the past and they still do, as some people will easily believe in what they hear from other people. One of these wrong beliefs that is related to Magritte’s painting is that first impression is the last impression. The problem arises when people start to judge and evaluate their surroundings based on their appearances in the blink of an eye that leads them to never fully understand the true meaning behind reality, which will result in them being judgmental, imprecise, and skeptical. Just like it was very unlikely for me to understand the whole point of the painting at first glimpse, it is even more unlikely to know another person just by looking at them or listening to them for less than ten seconds.

So many people in today’s society are being judged unfairly as it is human nature to compare and contrast others to themselves or another group of people. Judging is one of the first and easiest senses that humans carry with themselves. As Steve Maraboli mentioned in one of his books “Judging is preventing us from understanding a new truth. Free yourself from the rules of old judgements and create the space for new understanding”. This quote also applies to Magritte’s painting “The Human Condition” as so many people interpreted the painting as if the painter is hiding a different object or a secret behind his easel with using the method of “painting within painting”. Magritte’s use of simple images and symbols in complex ways keeps the brain active and makes people believe that there must be some extraordinary truth behind the painting, despite the fact that the painting could be in fact the true image that is out there. The duality that lies within the painting is the fascinating point of the whole piece. It suggests some kind of a dilemma between a lie and a truth. It is the same kind of dilemma that people are facing in society at large. It is becoming so hard these days to distinguish between honesty and deception, this automatically bring people back to the point of judging each other at the first sight. Alex Tizon says in his essay called The Land of Giants “Everything was done in the name of love, for the cause of fitting in, making friends, landing the job, providing for the future, being good citizens of paradise- all so necessary and proper”. (645) People are trained amazingly to think and behave like everyone else which will results in norms, and if someone acts or behaves differently than the established norms, he or she will be judged in a negative way. Despite knowing if Magritte’s intention was to hide a scene behind his painting or not, people easily let themselves judge and interpret the piece as if they were the one who actually painted the painting. When it comes to judgement, people are great lawyers for their own mistakes, but even a better judge for the mistakes of others.

This painting is also based on illusion and deception. At the same time, however, the title of the painting “The Human Condition” creates richer associations which direct us to interpret them. He is expressing not only the truth about the artistic representation, but also about seeing and interpreting the world in general. In The Human Condition, the way one perceives and interprets the world is linked to the activity of an artist; the way he observes and represents the outside world. Both kinds of representation (artistic as well as general) are illusions; they are not and never will be the ‘real world’ that is out there. The ambiguity of human perception is highlighted in Magritte’s painting by the presence of curtains, one of his most frequently used images. As the actress Gisela Fischer points out, “When Magritte commented that ‘we are surrounded by curtains’ he was talking of our awareness that we see the world subjectively, as if through a veil of semblances”. According to Magritte “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible doesn’t show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is apparent” (12). While Magritte’s curtains may symbolize separation and the potential to hide and cover, they also suggest man’s curiosity and desire to learn, to discover and know. Acceptance of the illusory nature of art and human experience has not prevented man from the act of drawing, from drawing an imaginary curtains open, from interpretation, and from the search for meaning.

While relevance of the work of art and its experience are well established, to reject any attempt to interpret may be highly problematic. Significantly enough, when we return to Magritte’s description of The Human Condition, we discover that while his characterization of the painting consists mainly of its direct description (what one can literally see), he adds his interpretation of the painting. The work, in Magritte’s words depicts, “how we see the world: we see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves” (15). Magritte seems slightly self-contradictory when on one hand he criticizes interpretation, and on the other hand suggests how to interpret the painting. The will to create and represent seems as a natural part of the human conditions as the will to interpret. As Ernst Gombrich asserts in his article called The Story of Art,” looking at a work of art we will always project some additional significance that is not actually given. Indeed we must do so if the work is to come to life for us” (78). In the case of Magritte’s The Human Condition, one sees experiences, and naturally tries to understand and make one’s experience meaningful, which can easily lead to false judgement at times. Since the painting bears the title The Human Condition, it is likely that a viewer would seek possible affinities between the title and the image. Thus the title does not serve as a veil, on the contrary, it adds further complexity and ambiguity to the act of interpretation. Ben Stoltzfus expresses a similar idea in his article called Roses, Daggers, and Love in Interarts Discourse, when he writes that Magritte’s “paintings can function as independent entities, but their connotations are enhanced by their literary titles and familiarity with the written text; and the reader’s attention evolves within the space of this icon text”(6). Stoltzfus really appreciated the level of creativity that Magritte had and always mentioned him as someone who’s thoughtful and creative.

Myths are so controversial these days that makes people to become inconsolably unhappy with reality, or spend a lot of their time and effort fighting to keep hold off the fantasy that makes them to miss the gifts and opportunities that the real world contains. Although they might be interesting to some people, they make other people to believe in inaccurate facts. This will lead people to become judgmental and skeptical. In Magritte’s The Human Condition, the true values are hidden behind the easel and curtains. Some will interpret this as if there is a flaw or a monstrous figure behind the easel, and it was Magritte’s point of view to see good in bad, which is not true according to the painter himself. Not being aware of the actual truth is not the problem, however believing in a lie and made up facts is. Due to these myths, the world has now receded beyond the limits of even people’s suspended disbelief.

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