An image of comedian Kathy Griffin holding a severed prop head of President Trump had hardly begun to circulate when Griffin apologized for it. “I went way too far. The image is too disturbing. I understand how it offends people. It wasn’t funny. I get it,” she said in a video, explaining that she had asked the photographer to stop circulating the picture as well.
Most discussion of this tumult won’t get beyond the shock at Griffin’s crudeness, which has long been her comedic stock in trade. And make no mistake: The resulting photo is unnerving. Depicting the murder of a living person — especially given that Griffin invoked both Islamic State beheading videos and America’s history of political assassinations — is an exceptionally risky artistic undertaking. The difficulty factor gets higher on the Internet, where pictures can circulate without context.
Images like these are exceptionally provocative, but they’re not artistically out of bounds, and they can even be powerful if the artist manages to use them in service of a specific and clearly articulated point. Griffin isn’t the first artist to fail to hit that mark in the Trump administration, and she likely won’t be the last.
As Griffin herself acknowledged in her apology, the photo wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t calibrated to produce the response she wanted. The photo shoot was bad art: It didn’t make a point that could have weaponized that tastelessness and turned it into something revelatory. Beyond any specific consequences Griffin faces (so far, CNN has fired her from a hosting role), the incident should be a valuable cautionary tale for artists who want to make provocative work about Trump: Imagining the president dead is a reflex, and not necessarily a deep or interesting one.
Griffin initially said that the photo shoot was meant to reference Trump’s comments about former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The implication of Trump’s comments was clear: Kelly’s tough questions for him during a Republican primary debate must have been the result of some menstruation-induced emotional imbalance.
But an image of a bloody, beheaded Trump is a poor way to comment on this particular incident in Trump’s sexist oeuvre.
If the photo shoot was supposed to suggest that Trump is as volatile as he suggested Kelly was and that his volatility isn’t confined to a single, hormonal phase of the month, a decapitated head doesn’t exactly get that across. It’s an overly literal image: There is blood everywhere, but my understanding is that’s what happens when someone’s head gets cut off. Introducing violence into the equation actually takes away from the idea that Trump is as erratic and hypersensitive as a woman on the verge of her period. And in any case, suggesting that leans into a misogynist idea, rather than blowing it up. Comparing a man who degrades women to a woman might make him feel bad, but it still does so by endorsing his ideas.
There are cleverer ways to mock Trump’s remarks about Kelly, and to mock his attempt to marginalize a woman who dared to question him by reducing her ideas to her biology. If he was going to act disgusted by menstruation, why not portray him as menaced by a “Carrie”-like figure: vengeful, drenched in blood and wielding more than debate questions?
Griffin isn’t the first artist to depict Trump dead or assassinated. The same dynamics that made her photo shoot a tired exercise in provocation dragged down Snoop Dogg’s “Lavender,” a collaboration with BadBadNotGood.
The clip is set in a world where everyone, including the president of the United States, a “Ronald Klump” obsessed with deporting dogs, is a clown. After an incident in which a cop shoots a white civilian during a traffic stop, Snoop Dogg and a group of other clowns stop Klump’s car, and shoot him with a prop gun: The only thing that comes out is a flag that says “Bang!” For all the outraged response to the music video, Klump is alive, if in chains, at the end of it.
As a narrative music video, there’s not much story to it. And as a critique of Trump, there simply isn’t much to “Lavender.” Snoop Dogg is hardly the first person to have seen Trump’s deep tan, gravity-defying hair and exaggerated mannerisms and imagined him as an Auguste clown in a Brioni suit, convinced that the whole world is his circus ring. The shooting and arrest scenes are so ephemeral that it’s hard to tell what they are supposed to mean: Is it retaliation for police shootings? A citizen’s arrest? Or just a little bit of light provocation?
I can see why the president and his supporters find these images outrageous, though they’re hardly unique to Trump. Shortly before last year’s presidential election, two men showed up to a University of Wisconsin football game in a costume that depicted Trump leading Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama by a pair of nooses. Last month, Trump himself hosted Ted Nugent, who has repeatedly suggested that Obama should be hanged or shot, at the White House. And the “Game of Thrones” showrunners took a lot of heat after a George W. Bush prop head ended up mounted on a stake.
But as protest art, incidents such as these ought to give the Trump administration a rare glimmer of hope. If artists can’t get beyond reflexive images of violence against the president, especially ones that undermine their arguments, then art won’t be much of a weapon against this presidency.