A response to The Harper Review’s spring 2023 proposition, “Art must be political.”
Art is a marriage of content and form. In other words, there is a thing (content) and it is rendered a certain way (form). Life is full of things—weddings, sorrows, bowls of fruit—but they are not art until some artist comes along and paints them, or sculpts them, or pins them to the page with a few choice words. Form, then, defines art.
A great deal of work has been done (in the preceding letters and elsewhere) to demonstrate that practically all the things in our lives are political in one sense or another. Our weddings are political; our sorrows are political; our bowls of fruit, whether organic, laced with pesticides, or jetted in from Chile, are political. But art is not simply a matter of the things it does contain or does not contain; it also consists of the form of what it contains.
Take Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May 1808. A row of uniformed soldiers, their faces turned from the viewer, raise their guns at a cluster of helpless captives illuminated by a box lamp. The corpses of men already butchered lie at their feet. One captive raises his arms to the heavens in a posture of hapless martyrdom.
The painting depicts the massacre of Spanish men by the soldiers of Napoleon during the Peninsular War. The content is plainly political: Goya expresses a fear of state violence and he denounces occupation. But this is not the end of what the painting has to offer, it is only the beginning, and in fact, it is a crude beginning.
Consider the form of the painting. The size of the canvas is tremendous, but the brushwork is rough and expressionistic. There is room for detail, but Goya will not let it in. Look at the eyes and the hands and necks of the captives—they are too large, or rather, too full of emotion to be left at mundane size. Goya seems to say that in such horrors verisimilitude is insufficient and insulting. The image is like a moment captured in the mind and desperately remembered with a paintbrush.
Goya’s form, paired with his selection of content, suggests that particular moments of human horror escape the bounds of verisimilitude and leap into the unreal. This is Goya’s theme, his aesthetic ambition: an expression of horror. (For Goya, it was one work of many on such a theme.) So if form makes content art, then the proper marriage of content and form produces theme.
If I drew stick-figure soldiers brandishing guns at political prisoners, the content of my image and Goya’s would be the same, but mine would lack the complement between content and form. It would have none of the theme and none of the art. It is crude to say that Goya’s painting expresses a fear of state violence and military occupation because this only gets at half the picture. It does not take the form of the painting into account.
Our zeal to label art as “political” too often brushes aside the artist’s careful form. We might all do well to drop our preoccupation with content and search for a more holistic sense of theme in the art we admire.