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Kathy Griffin, political protest art, and the backlash over “beheading” Donald Trump

Griffin joins centuries of women artists who symbolically beheaded powerful men.

24th Annual Race To Erase MS Gala - Show Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Comedian, entertainer, and occasional media correspondent Kathy Griffin has come under extensive media fire after participating in a violent artistic protest against President Donald Trump.

As reported by TMZ on Tuesday, Griffin posed for a grisly photo shoot with somewhat notorious photographer Tyler Shields, in which she holds up a model of the president’s bloodied, decapitated head. “Tyler and I are not afraid to do images that make noise,” Griffin says in video obtained by TMZ.

On Twitter on Tuesday, in a pair of now-deleted tweets, Griffin first posted the image and later reacted to criticism of it by stating that she did not condone violence and was “merely mocking” Trump:

But while Griffin was dismissive, other public figures rushed to condemn the stunt:

Later Tuesday evening, the photographer, Shields, joked about the backlash, framing the photo shoot as an artistic statement.

But other Griffin supporters backed away in response to the uproar: Griffin lost performing gigs and at least one endorsement, as the CEO of the toilet stool maker Squatty Potty announced that the company would be suspending an ad campaign featuring Griffin. Wednesday afternoon, CNN announced that Griffin would not be returning as co-host for its annual New Year’s Eve program.

By Tuesday evening, the backlash induced an apology from Griffin, also posted to Twitter, in which she says, “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.”

Trump himself responded harshly on Twitter Wednesday morning, stating that Griffin’s art had upset his children:

Right-wing media and opinion writers rushed to criticize the incident as an example of the left’s vicious hostility toward the president and his administration, calling it “the tip of the liberal violence iceberg” and “political pornography.” But the context behind Griffin’s photo further complicates the controversy it has attracted.

Griffin’s photograph extends several controversial artistic traditions

Artemesia Gentileschi, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” 1614-1620.

This isn’t the first time the suggestion of violence against a US president has been used as an artistic statement — it isn’t even the first time this presidency.

For example, in 2012, the first season of Game of Thrones featured a scene in which a prosthetic model of former President George W. Bush’s head could be seen impaled on a pike in the background of a shot. The showrunners claimed it was an accident devoid of political meaning, and HBO distanced itself from the action.

That same year, conservative provocateur Glenn Beck submerged a bobblehead doll of President Barack Obama in a jar of urine as a way of mocking politicized art. (Beck was responding to another famous piece that featured a crucifix in urine.) And most recently, rapper Snoop Dogg provoked a media cycle’s worth of controversy — and the ire of the sitting president — after filming a video in which he assassinates a clown stand-in for Trump.

The violent nature of the Griffin photo is also in keeping with its creator’s artistic tradition. Shields’s photographic art often flirts with violent themes, even when it’s not actively targeting political figures. For instance, in 2011 he collected blood from celebrities for use in his art, and later drenched his studio, Lindsay Lohan, and other performers in it.

Tyler Shields, “Dead Stormtrooper,” 2014.
Tyler Shields

While it’s arguable that none of these artistic statements were as shocking as the picture of Griffin holding Trump’s decapitated head drenched in fake blood, it’s also important to understand that Griffin and Shields’s photo recalls another artistic tradition: images of women beheading men.

The artists Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi painted recurring images of the biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes. For Gentileschi in particular, the story allowed her to assert her empowerment through the metaphorical beheading of men with positions of political and sexual power over her. Modern artists like photographer Cindy Sherman have also turned to this theme.

“The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it,” male artist Kehinde Wiley once said about his work; when he painted Judith and Holofernes, the statement became one of black empowerment within patriarchal white society.

Kehinde Wiley, “Judith and Holofernes,” 2012. North Carolina Museum of Art.

Wiley’s statement could also apply to Shields’s photography, which frequently reverses traditional power dynamics in order to make politically charged statements about social inequality and injustice.

Griffin is a successful celebrity in her own right, so it’s easy to read her Trump beheading as one celebrity taking aim at another in attention-courting fashion. But it’s also important to note that she and Shields are resisting a rapidly shifting world in which women are losing access to basic reproductive health care and arguably agency over their own bodies — often directly at the hands of Trump’s administration.

In fact, while Griffin and Shields’s artwork was attracting backlash, there were also plenty of cynics eager to put it in perspective by comparing it to Trump’s own actions:

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