Rachel Maddow, who’s usually fierce and tenacious about going wherever a story leads, covered yesterday’s attack on and destruction of Andres Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ art photograph in a curiously timorous fashion. Not only did she refuse to name the photo while describing the attack on it, she didn’t mention a word about its storied history. Wikipedia has just the barest outlines; my own memory is that the painting was at the center of a national firestorm, in 1989, at the peak of that particular great wave of the conservative war on popular culture. Its mere existence was trumpeted as a justification for defunding public art at all levels, and the National Endowment For The Arts came under massive attack for having been in some manner supportive of the work (I don’t recollect the exact details).

Although the specific conservative buttons pushed by Piss Christ have more to do with religion than sexuality, the culture war of the late 1980s got a lot of its oxygen from sexual issues, especially those surrounding gay culture and homophobia. (See also: Robert Mapplethorpe.) Given Rachel Maddow’s sensitivity to and ready willingness to stir into culture-war issues affecting the gay community, I find it astonishingly unlikely that the name Piss Christ doesn’t trip as easily off her tongue as it does mine when she views the footage of the destroyed photo. I suppose it’s theoretically possible she’s ignorant of the history; after all, she’s some younger than me, and was only 16 or so in 1989 when the photo first rose to national political prominence. Theoretically possible, yes … but wildly unlikely.

How, then, to explain her curiously tepid coverage of the destruction? Why was the destruction news? You and I know it’s because of the photograph’s history; Rachel must have known, or there was no story. But she didn’t tell her viewers who didn’t already know … not a word, not even a gesture to the fact that the history exists. I expect better journalism from her, and normally get it.

One possibility, I suppose, is that MSNBS, General Electric, or the FCC simply won’t let her say “Piss” on cable. That seems unlikely, and anyway, Rachel routinely circumlocutes around awkward vulgarities that are central to her stories, using graphics with asterisks and “a word I can’t say that rhymes with” phrasings. So no explanation there.

We’ve already covered the faint possibility that Rachel is too young to remember; but she has staff, and they can’t all be younger than her. And everybody on that show, Rachel included, knows how to Google.

So an icon in the culture wars gets destroyed with a hammer and spray paint. Rachel chose to cover the destruction without naming the work or even hinting that it ever was an icon in the culture wars, even though that iconic status is what made the destruction into an international news story.

I’m scratching my head here. It doesn’t make any sense. I know the photograph is horribly controversial, but it’s not like Rachel to blink like this and let an important story pass without saying why it’s important.

I suppose I could just shrug and say “old media, it all sucks anyway…” but that’s too facile, and doesn’t (usually) apply to The Rachel Maddow Show. There’s got to be a reason I’m not spotting.