Maybe the secret to getting the New York Times to publish an artwork depicting Muhammad is to take a rendering of the prophet and “egg” it. That’s one possible explanation of what seems like another act of hypocrisy by the paper that prides itself on knowing what news is fit to print and what isn’t.
On Monday, the Times published a copy of a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI in which the pontiff’s likeness — which is notable — was achieved by artfully arranging 17,000 stretched-out condoms in a variety of colors. The title of the work, reproduced below, is “Eggs Benedict.” (Hence the reference to “egging” Muhammad.)
So how does the Times reconcile what appears to be a double standard in running this image after refusing five months ago to run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? Part of its rationale is that in the eyes of the artist, Niki Johnson, the work is “not hate-based.” She told the Times in an interview that she disagreed with Benedict’s conservative social positions, including his statement that condoms could contribute to the spread of AIDS in Africa. She is quoted as saying:
What I want to do is really destigmatize the condom, normalize it. I’ve watched kids and parents talk about condoms. It opens a door to talking about what those things are and what they do.
OK. So if an artist asserts that his work is not hate-based and claims that it offers social commentary, it doesn’t matter if some viewers are offended. Or maybe it does. Here’s what executive editor Dean Baquet told the Washington Examiner in January about the decision to withhold the Muhammad cartoons:
Was it hard to deny our readers these images? Absolutely. But we still have standards, and they involve not running offensive material. And they don’t meet our standards. They are provocative on purpose. They show religious figures in sexual positions. We do not show those.
The objection Baquet’s raises in the second-to-the-last sentence was to one obscene cartoon in which the prophet was depicted bending over. But there were numerous others in which he was not shown in a compromising pose. Why didn’t the Times run one of those?
Phil Corbett, the paper’s managing editor for standards, had no answer for that question, but he did shed some light on the issue of art and religion:
There’s no simple, unwavering formula we can apply in situations like this. We really don’t want to gratuitously offend anyone’s deeply held beliefs. That said, it’s probably impossible to avoid ever offending anyone.
There is an additional piece to this puzzle that the Times staffers are omitting mention of, likely on purpose, that makes their argument sounds disingenuous. That is, no Christian who is offended by a picture of the pope fashioned of condoms is likely to drop in on the good folks on 43rd Street in New York City, machete in hand. The same cannot be said for radical adherents to another religion.
(h/t T. Becket Adams, Washington Examiner)
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