An obscenity in The Times

The New York Times Web site is carrying a photo of an art exhibit that includes a work with large red letters that say "KNOW YOUR SCUMBAGS." The words are next to an image of the late Cardinal John O'Connor.It is a bit surprising to see obscene language in The Times, which goes to sometimes comical lengths to avoid re-stating it even when central to a news story. But here, it appears in a photo atop a review of a Manhattan art exhibit, developed at Harvard, called "Activism, Art and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993." I don't understand why The Times would run a review without at least some commentary or perspective on the inflammatory image it chose to present from the exhibit. Instead, the review goes on about how "this exhibition of material from the fairly recent past has plenty to teach us in the present: about how an effective public art can be made in response to very specific political circumstances," blah blah blah. "Know Your Scumbags" is effective art?I picked up on this through an interview Archbishop Timothy Dolan did with the local CBS TV station. I'm not a fan of the line of argument the archbishop used - that the news media would react differently if this were an attack on Muslims or Jews or African-Americans, which are all groups that have their own grievances with the news media. But when I looked at the "art" in question and the review, I understood why the archbishop was so bothered. (In the CBS interview, Dolan also assailed a review of a new play, "The Divine Sister," which The Times called a "gleefully twisted tale of the secret lives of nuns.")The Times issued a statement to CBS saying that its job is to cover cultural events "even if some may disagree with the content of the artwork." True enough. But what kind of art criticism is it to re-print an obscene attack such as the one on Cardinal O'Connor without, uh, critiquing it?

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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