Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1814. Oil on canvas, 105" x 136."
Goya's The Third of May carries a political theme which is as flat-footed as its characterizations. The beatified figure addresses his murderers with a Christ-like gesture; he is the light source in the picture, and the shooters are faceless, robotic and nearly identical. The helpless clergyman pleads for his own life and the lives of his congregation, who are strewn around him soaked in their own blood. The witnesses look on crying and moaning as they, too, march to their doom. Their ghost-like village stands silent in the background, shrouded in a funereal mist.
Sound corny? It is. But it's a sensational painting, made even more meaningful by the era in which it was created: the tail end of that long void between the slow death of the Baroque and the onset of Romanticism, a full century of not-much in terms of painting. This picture is a high-water mark in Goya's long and somewhat uneven career, in which he combines the misty space and gestural application of paint so common to Venetian painting with the earthy "Spanish Palette" of Velazquez, and presages the Realism of Manet and Courbet.
It's tempting (especially for me) to say that good painting alone makes this picture great; that the subject matter only contributes to the extent that it provides an armature for the formal achievement, which is dazzling. But Goya's political views are well-known, and one would have to cede the point that the emotional pitch of the picture is due in large measure to the artist's feelings about the subject and not simply a product of deft execution (no pun intended). This canvas sits near the top my very short list of political paintings that are unqualified successes. Others include Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Goya), Courbet's The Stonebreakers, and a number of Richters. But the Goya stands apart from these entries in that the political content is not subtle, oblique, or nuanced in any way.
I'm not going to attempt an in-depth analysis of the reasons that the Goya succeeds in spite of all the good reasons it shouldn't; I mainly want to point to it as the proverbial-exception-that-proves-the-rule. The picture manages to overcome innumerable emotional, political, and theatrical cliches and still be great; a true masterpiece. Most politically-inspired cannot overcome those hurdles.
And here is the point that I really wanted to sneak up on: that it's hard to make a politically motivated artwork without having it be strident and dumb; trivializing the subject instead of sounding an effective call-to-arms. It's also nearly impossible to criticize political artworks without seeming as though you're criticizing the politics - they have a way of becoming inseparable from one another. Hans Haacke's Giuliani-bash at the 2000 Whitney Biennial and Serra's "Stop Bush" picture come to mind immediately as good politics and bad art, but one could hastily assemble a very, very long list of works from the last 40 years that suffer from that same split; works dealing with gender, race, the environment, etc. that espouse urgent issues but fail as works of art.
Art undergoes a transformation when it is pressed into service in this way, and that transformation is usually a kind of disfigurement. When art becomes propaganda or advertising, its aesthetic properties are generally deemphasized or ignored altogether, or reassembled in a chimerical way to serve the subject, which is necessarily non-aesthetic. This latter process is epitomized in the afore-mentioned Serra ("Stop Bush"), in which the artist's highly compelling visual language is changed into something silly and uninspiring by grafting the subject matter on to the style.
I'm passionate about politics and about art, but ambivalent about the two together. Political art almost always becomes political illustration, which can be terrific (Grosz, Daumier), but will generally fall short in providing a primarily aesthetic experience; at its best, it becomes a kind of journalism. Broadly speaking and with glowing exceptions (like the Goya), I think that it's not a great idea to use art to fight the revolution; instead, we should fight the revolution so that we can make art. If we change the content of our work when faced with entrenched, illegitimate power structures, then it seems to me that those powers have already won.