In the last few days, comedienne and gay icon Kathy Griffin has found herself in a spot of controversy. Together with photographer Tyler Shields, Griffin created an image that depicted her holding the decapitated head of a man, covered in blood, and with a hairstyle unmistakably reminiscent of President Donald Trump.
The backlash was almost immediate. Angry tweets were tweeted by the likes of Chelsea Clinton, Griffin’s personal friend Anderson Cooper, and Trump himself, who noted that the image was very upsetting to his 11-year old son in particular. The consensus reached by both sides of the political spectrum was a sandstorm of outrage, offense, and condemnation. Liberals insisted that such violent imagery has no place in civilized debate, while conservatives predictably used the incident to indict the “hatred” they see as synonymous with liberalism, and wondered how liberals would have felt if someone depicted a violent death of Barack Obama.
Actually, we don’t need to wonder about that since violent images, often reminiscent of Jim Crow-era lynchings, depicting a violent death for Obama were all-too-common throughout his Presidency. And yet, liberals argued, two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because they did it, doesn’t mean we should follow suit. When they go low, we go high. In less than 24 hours, Griffin apologized. In a video, posted to Twitter, she said, “I’m a comic. I crossed the line … I beg for your forgiveness. I went too far. I made a mistake, and I was wrong.”
I couldn’t help but notice that in a political landscape so polarized that both sides have all but given up hope that we would ever agree on anything ever again, Kathy Griffin brought the entire country together in a matter of hours, with a single image, without ever saying a word. But it was difficult for me to celebrate this feat of momentary peacemaking, because I wasn’t so sure that I agreed with the masses on this one.
I will admit, firstly, that I’m a fan of Kathy Griffin; more often than not, she makes me laugh. I will also admit that I’m no fan of Donald Trump. As such, I should have been the perfect audience for this particular artistic creation — but something about it didn’t work for me. It didn’t make me laugh, or even smile. It didn’t inspire me to #RESIST, politically or in any other sense — it certainly didn’t fan any latent urges toward violence. Mostly, it just numbed me. I sat in front of my computer screen, taking it all in, mouth agape and eyes growing ever wider. “Wow,” I thought. Not much more than that, just … “wow.” (And not really a good wow, but more of a “WTF” wow.)
I noticed the look on Kathy’s face — not defiant, certainly not jubilant — but slightly panicked and somehow both manic and depressive at the same time. I noticed her oddly formal, bordering-on-frumpy blouse, which I was later reminded has a particularly named feature: the pussy-bow. I noticed the sheer amount of fake blood used to decorate the prosthetic head. And I reflected on the fact that I really, really dislike Donald Trump, and yet — I had to ask myself if I was okay with this. And the answer came slowly. And it was … no. No, I don’t think so. No, I don’t like this.
And yet, I’m not eager to condemn Kathy Griffin and Tyler Shields for creating this particular work of art, even though it makes me uncomfortable. I believe that many works of art, certainly this photo, are meant to make its viewer uncomfortable. And I can’t deny that this image taught me something about myself. It tested my limits; as a result, I learned that there’s a line I don’t want to cross. And I’m not upset at Kathy Griffin for crossing that line for me; in many ways, that’s an artist’s job.
Art is not a luxury. Art isn’t something to enjoy once life’s necessities have been taken care of. Art, even really bad art, has a purpose. Art, at the very least, has something to say. At its best, art is a vessel wherein the viewer learns something, not about the artwork, but about him or herself. And by that barometer, this shocking photograph is surely art. It might not have been a smart decision for Kathy Griffin to create this particular work of art; in fact, it’s already come at a financial cost. It might not have been politically savvy; many are suggesting that the photo gives Trump supporters license to dismiss any of his critics as violent hatemongers. It might not be in good taste; more to the point, it was likely never meant to be.
But it is art, nonetheless. And I am, ever so slightly, different than I was because of it.
Eric Peterson is a writer and educator in the field of Diversity & Inclusion, and the c0-host of a new podcast, POPeration!, devoted to the deeper meanings of popular culture.