Art news from Madrid has me wondering if something got lost in translation. The Reina Sofia Museum, showing Ben Shahn, says his works “reveal the complexity of his aesthetic vision.”

There are many things to be said about Shahn’s artworks, but complex and aesthetic, they’re not. He said it himself in art historian Kenneth Prescott’s 1973 book “The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn”: “There are just two things to paint – the things you are very strongly for and the things you are very strongly against. It can take any form.”

Politics played a big part in Shahn’s picture making.

The museum says as much, pointing out that he “tackled issues such as discrimination, unemployment, totalitarianism, militarism, and the threat to freedom of expression.”

And in those cases, neither complexity nor aesthetics mark them. Besides imagery, Shahn adds words, as if to make sure you get his meaning.

In one exhibit example, he painted a male figure with anxious eyes above the caption: “Warning! Inflation Means Depression.” You can’t get much simpler than that. The painting comes off like a subway poster.

Show, don’t tell

In contrast, a contemporary of Shahn’s who used similar subject matter –Rockwell Kent – got his messages across as powerfully, but without words.

Last summer, the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, mounted a show of Kent’s works, and only his picture title suggested their meaning.

Consider “Heavy, Heavy Hangs Over Thy Head.” This is a political statement made during the Cold War, showing a rifle nailed over a sleeping infant.

There are no words to explain what you see, but the message is clear. And to further emphasize the tensions in the Cold War, Kent pictures a bucolic scene in the distance, as if to reinforce the serenity of the sleeping infant.

The introduction of a weapon of war into the quiet scene comes across as a violent interruption without a single shot fired or a single word added. Talk about complexity and aesthetics, Kent’s work makes the case, not Shahn.

Compare Kent’s exhibit example with a similar message in Shahn's work titled “We Fight for a Free World!” What you see on the picture plane are five individual poster-like images, each with a subtitle.

The subtitles – “Suppression,” “Starvation,” “Slavery” and “Murder” – come with the addition caption “Enemy Method,” which sits beneath each image.

What you get, then, is hit-people-over- the-head communicating. Viewers aren’t given the chance to think about their own thoughts. Shahn controls the narrative. He tells you how to think and feel.

As I see it, this is not artmaking. But wait, in Shahn’s favor, his works are always relevant, and for that, it’s worth a look. There’s just not enough relevant art around these days.

Shahn was big on relevance. He told a University of Buffalo audience in 1951, “It is the mission of art to remind man from time to time that he is human, and the time is ripe, just now, today, for such a reminder.”

Shahn was talking about the unrest in the world in 1951.

That was the year that the U.S. began nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. Coincidentally, it was also the year the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” debuted.

Given all the unrest in the world, both then and now, Shahn’s words are even more pointed.