Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Jesse Prinz on Magritte (artbullion)


Over at artbouillon, Jesse Prinz has a nice piece Magritte’s place in the Surrealist narrative (prompted by the new exhibition at MoMA).

I have to say that I’m hugely sympathetic with Prinz’s call for Magritte’s excision from the Surrealist canon. For one, I’ve never fully understood the pull Surrealism has for so many, as I see the movement itself to be a lateral if not frustrating step backward in the history of 20th century visual art and most works of its “Masters” (especially Ernst, Tanguy, and Dali) little more than crude exercises in artistic juvenilia. Second, I find most of Magritte’s work to be intellectually playful and philosophically astute in ways few if any of his supposed Surrealist kin could hope to be and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, regard the less than impressive examples of Magritte’s work as invariably those commonly taken to exemplify the Surrealist spirit, the most notable of which being Le Viol (The Rape) (1935).


  1. I found his discussion of Magritte's reflections on representation interesting, but I'm not sure what's at stake in saying that Magritte is or isn't a Surrealist.
    If the label 'Surrealist' is sociohistorical, then the question is whether he influenced and was influenced by other members of the movement like Dali. I think the answer is yes, but it is a matter of biographical detail.
    If the label is conceptual, then it is unclear to me whether it is philosophically or aesthetically important at all. Unless the concept can be articulated so that there is some payoff in terms of our comprehension or appreciation, then it is not clear why 'Surrealist' should be a term we apply to anybody at all. It may not be profitable to think of Magritte as a Surrealist, but is it profitable to think of anybody as one?

  2. P.D., I can't speak for Jesse, but my own worry is that attaching any art-historical “movement” label to a work implicitly primes the audience to engage, interpret, appreciate, and evaluate that work in certain sorts of ways. For example, a big reason I actively dislike Surrealism is because the art-normative aspects (what art ought to be, what artists ought to be doing, etc.) of Surrealism's so-called “revolution” are ultimately inseparable from those bullshit junk psychologies of the period to which the movement so tightly aligned. The strength of much of Margitte's work is that it more often than not resists reduction to ultimately bankrupt notion of art as belonging to the unconscious mind and world of dreams (and in some cases openly defies such)—much the same can be said of Man Ray, as taking either as Surrealist requires both an almost criminal ignorance of their artistic genius as well as a most assuredly criminal gross exaggeration of the art-historical significance of Surrealism itself.

  3. How would one do art history without attaching “art-historical movement labels” to works?

  4. Magritte was a good thinker, a painter.
    he liked reading philosophy a lot and he took inspiration from it.

  5. I should not like Dali. I liked him though, if being rational.
    I remember his painting with the watches melting, it was so amazing. kept watching it.
    his work is good, also innovative.

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