The thing about performatively threatening the president is that you want to make it symbolic. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do that. You can threaten a person who symbolizes the president, as Snoop did when he expressed his frustration with powerful clowns. Or you can make the threat itself symbolic. If I sent you a drawing of me stabbing you in the chest with a knife, you would probably go to the cops. But if I sent you a drawing of one stick figure urinating on another, with the figures labeled “me” and “you” respectively, you would probably take it as less a literal threat than a gesture of contempt. Introducing symbolism lets you perform violence against the president and expect it to be taken as an artistic expression rather than a threat.
That’s where Kathy Griffin messed up. This picture of her holding a severed head1 is not symbolic enough. With its big stupid hair, the head looks too much like Trump. And campy though it may be from a special-effects perspective, we are clearly looking at a murder scene. The violence is not symbolic, and neither is its target. It’s a photo illustration of Griffin holding up the severed head of the president.
A lot of people have condemned it as a threat. Threatening the president is illegal, even in a joking context,2 and the AV Club reports that the Secret Service is investigating. I bet their investigation finds that Kathy Griffin ain’t gonna do shit. This photo was obviously a stunt. K-Griff herself said it was all a jape, once it turned out no one thought the picture was cool. I quote Twitter:
2/ OBVIOUSLY, I do not condone ANY violence by my fans or others to anyone, ever! I’m merely mocking the Mocker in Chief.
— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) May 30, 2017
Welp, there goes your plausible deniability re: that could have been anybody’s head. But more importantly, why didn’t anyone think that picture was cool? I submit that the moral condemnations are a dodge, and a reasonable person would not take this photograph as a threat. The problem with it is not moral but aesthetic. All it achieves is to neatly convey the pitfalls of political art.
What does this picture make us think? It tells us that Griffin is very displeased with President Trump. After that comes a howling silence. There is no nuance to any of it, no source of additional meaning. Her face is expressionless, suggesting neither knowingness nor innocence, irony nor sincerity. She makes no comment on her own attitude toward the president. She makes no substantive comment on the man himself, like if the head were smoking a cigarette or wearing Gaddafi glasses or something. Unless you want to argue that her blue blouse symbolizes support for the Democratic Party, the only idea this picture conveys is “Kathy hate Trump” in capital letters. But a piece of paper with that printed on it wouldn’t be audacious enough to go viral.
This audacity introduces the defense that it’s not the photo that matters but the act of releasing it. In the same way the art wasn’t in Warhol’s soup cans so much as in the act of painting them, “Trump Head” is not a photo but a concept piece. Publishing this picture is like putting a shark in a lucite tank or submitting a urinal to the Grand Central Palace exhibition. What happens when Griffin issues a blunt, potentially illegal expression of hatred for the president? You could argue that’s the artistic question examined here, and it’s not a photo but rather a piece of performance art.
Except what happens is utterly safe and predictable, so it fails as performance, too. It’s not as though this picture will cost Griffin her gig in Branson. With the possible exception of Log Cabin Republicans, the overlap between her audience and people who will be offended by this photograph is small. Here lies the natural sin of political art. Where good art asks questions or introduces unfamiliar sensations, political art is tempted to tell people what they already know.
That’s why Bill Maher sucks now. He’s not surprising me to make me laugh; he’s agreeing with me to make me clap. Griffin’s severed head photo does the same thing. It styles itself as defiant, but it’s a bid for applause. It seems dangerous to hold up the head of President Trump, but when you think about it, anyone else’s head would have been riskier. That’s what makes him so insidious.
The worst thing about having this man as president is the brutalization of the poor, sick, and brown. The second-worst thing is the terrible judgment his election laid upon our country’s soul. But way down the list, and perhaps too little remarked, is the problem of how his flat, stupid badness has flattened and stupefied art. So many of us feel so strongly against him that we are apt to mistake any mirror for a picture. The question of how to say something interesting about this man is getting increasingly hard to answer, and yet he is so terribly important.