This is a case of a Pulitzer Prize critic coming fashionably late to a story, as if too busy to get to it until now. The story is about rape.

On seeing Titian’s painting "Rape of Europa" at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter likened it to a “small supernova” (you know, like an explosion of a star). Apparently, the glare from the blast sharpened his vision, prompting him to say the painting “raises troubling questions about how aesthetics and ethics can clash.”

Slow learner

Where have you been, Holland?

Art historian A. W. Eaton raised that very question 18 years ago in her 2003 book titled “Where Ethics and Aesthetics Meet: Titian’s Rape of Europa.” Even if you hadn’t read it, it’s hard to understand why you only now seem to notice that Europa is being violated. Granted, the painting doesn’t depict the physical act. But it shows in great detail a frightened female spread-eagled, her clothing disheveled, and her captor, Zeus, lurking nearby in the form of a leering bull. All of which should have clued you long before now.

Perhaps, your omg reaction relates to the number of Titian paintings in one room – six in all. And given that each portrays a power play over a woman, the impact hit you hard.

It’s not for nothing that the museum calls the show “Women, Myth & Power.”

Art coup

But your late date realization that Titian’s pretty pictures are ugly scene is a supernova all by itself. I’m thinking of you exclaiming that the museum “scores an art historical coup” with this show. There is no coup here, Holland, no overthrow of history.

These pictures have been around since the 16th century. In all your years at the Times since 1998, you surely saw them before now.

The Boston show isn’t new, either, showing at London’s National Gallery and Madrid’s Prado. Yet, you say, as if making a discovery, that owing to the #Metoo movement and continuing reports of sexually assaulted women, "Rape of Europa" should put us all on “red alerts today.” It should have alerted us long before that.

You’re right, though, to wonder how such art from five centuries ago can be appreciated when seen through the lens of now. I agree with you when you say that "Rape of Europa" raises doubts about “whether any art, however great, can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.” Clearly, museums need to do more than chronicle artists’ tombstone information.

Cultural context

Your question – “The image is powerful. But is it beautiful?” – is well taken. Art can no longer live by aesthetics alone. Sensibilities of our time call out for consideration. Art museums that show storytelling pictures of power plays over women painted when that was a way of life need to put such imagery in contemporary cultural content.

They need to re-tool their exhibit plaques.

The Gardner certainly does that with this exhibit. As its website points out, the museum commissioned two artists to make a film that gives voice to Europa in order to “liberate her from the subservience and silent role she had long been forced to play in the ancient myth.”

Maybe that’s what smartened you up, Holland, seeing Titian from the 21st-century experience.