In Sarah-Anne Michel’s blog post, “This Is Not a Post,” for the Art of Steve Prince class, she presents analysis of one of my favorite works of art. “Treachery of Images” is a painting by Rene Magritte in 1928 in which the text seems to contradict the image. While the image is of a pipe, the French text underneath translates to, “This is not a pipe.” Magritte’s rationale for the text is that because the work depicts an image of a pipe, it is not in fact a pipe. I think Sarah-Anne sums up the complexity well with her statement, “words can mean what they say and not say what they mean.” In another context a reader may be presented with a text that faithfully describes the aesthetic of a pine tree. And yet, if the reader interprets, “This is a tree,” they are missing that it is the authors portrayal of a tree. The author’s unstated purpose may be to promote preservation of wildlife, so they may manipulate their portrayal of the pine tree to suit that purpose. It’s up to individual viewers/readers to be vigilant about interpreting how a work may mean more than it says.
Of the texts we have read so far, I think one that most clearly demonstrates the distinction between surface meaning and subtext is Chapter 10 of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the chapter, the unnamed black narrator begins work at a paint company known for their Optic White paints. He is assigned to add 10 drops of graduate to each can of white paint, but the graduate is “dead black.” The narrator does not understand why he is adding black to white paint, but he does as he is told. When his supervisor inspects his work, he says, “‘That’s it, as white as George Washington’s Sunday-go-to-meetin’ wig and as sound as the all-mighty dollar… It’s the purest white that can be found.’” So on the surface, the narrator is making paint.
Underneath that, there are several messages about structures of race in the United States. Through the supervisor’s comments, we understand that he believes white is pure. White is linked to the history of American power through George Washington’s wig, and white represents the soundness of the dollar. By understanding the supervisor’s perceptions about the color white, we can better understand the company’s advertisement, “KEEP AMERICA PURE / WITH / LIBERTY PAINTS.” The subtext here is that white makes America pure, makes it successful. So why is the graduate black? When I read that detail, I interpret it as an extended metaphor for systems of production as they relate to race. Ellison is illustrating that the white (paint) depends on the black (graduate). Likewise, the paint company run by white people depends on the black strike breakers in order to continue production. Going further back, plantations run by white people depended on black enslaved people in order to continue production. However, the final product does not represent the black graduate, or labor, that went into it. The final product is Optic White. This system is not sustainable for the black narrator in the text, who was driven away from the paint company on his first day.
In the example of Invisible Man, the reader must be vigilant about interpreting the subtext in order to understand the author’s intent. If the reader stops thinking at, “White paint is pure,” or even, “White paint represents white people and white paint is pure,” then they have missed the point. The reader must delve deeper in order to understand the structures that Ellison has so artfully and deliberately illustrated to suit his intent. “This is not making paint,” as Magritte would say. At this point, I would like to acknowledge that to anyone in the field of arts or literature, the existence of subtext is not brand new information. My point here has been to demonstrate that it is significant and is crafted deliberately by authors. We must be aware that on the other side of our reading experience there is a writer holding the pen, creating the pipe.