Earlier this year, Kathy Griffin infamously made headlines for a controversial photograph. Before I describe or interpret that image, take a moment to look at it.
Kathy Griffin released a picture of herself, wearing a navy or royal blue pussy-bow blouse and holding up a faux severed and bleeding head of Donald Trump. How to describe her gaze? Emotionless? Steely? Resolved.
I am not going to spend this essay defending the image or deconstructing the fallout around it. That has been done (see here, here, here, here, and here). The story is brief. Griffin posted the image, was swiftly condemned by both sides, lost her friendship with Anderson Cooper, lost her job, had all of her upcoming tours cancelled. She did not cry poverty or unfair; she lives next door to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
Griffin initially defended the image as satire and an allusion to Trump’s attack on Megyn Kelly as having blood coming out of her eyes, out of her you-know-what. Pretty soon thereafter, however, Griffin apologized for the image, saying it was not funny and it had gone too far. She was right on one score; the image is not funny. Trump just went about his usual shouting. Little Barron had to see the image; Barron was traumatized; there are a lot of really sick people out there.
The allusion to Kelly’s menstrual blood resonates deeply, so I will return to it. No one wrenched an apology out of Trump for these comments, even if he was widely condemned for going too far. Obviously he has not lost his job; in fact, his pussy phobia may have helped him land his job.
The problem that I have with Griffin’s image is that it never bothered me. I felt like I had seen it a thousand times before. The image is an obvious simulation of a decapitation. Griffin is wearing a pussy-bow of an institutional or royal color, navy or royal blue, depending on the image’s exposure. She is remorseless and she wants the head of the man in charge. The decapitation is a not-so-thinly veiled allusion to castration.
When Griffin staged the shot with the photographer Tyler Sterling, she wanted to take Trump out by castrating him symbolically.
The female fantasy of castration — and I am not sure I am on safe ground when I gender it — need not be taken literally. The fantasy is about a breed of rage that comes from wanting to be rid of male power, to cut off, strangle, or hang the phallus, the patriarchy, the father, whichever iteration you prefer. Anyone who has felt this feeling, male or female, knows it to be, at best, uncomfortable. The intensely vitriolic reaction to the image — get rid of it; shut her up — suggests that many people, including Anderson Cooper, and I adore him, don’t know that they have felt this feeling, so they just want it to go away, to repress it. And they will spend seemingly endless energy doing just that.
What I do find a bit shocking is the reality that some of the best educated among us are so blind that they cannot see that their reaction to Griffin’s image is about them.
Griffin’s image did not upset me because our entire history of myth and art is riddled with allegories to and images of decapitations. Our current arrangement of government came on the heels of decapitations. We can see, if we so choose, decapitations on the internet.
I have never watched a live decapitation and I never will willingly, but Griffin did not decapitate Trump live.
Let’s look first at the Bible. Salome delivers the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter at the behest of King Herod. Is this okay because she did it on command? She used her female powers of persuasion in the service of a king. And now let’s look at a fin-de-siecle retelling of the myth by an odd couple, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley did the drawings for Wilde’s Salome. Wilde was a dandy and a wonderful wit; we know of his love of boys, and we know that he wrote a heartbreaking and guilt-ridden treatise from jail, titled De Profundis. His lover had betrayed him on the stand and sodomy laws were in place. Of Wilde, I ask only one thing in relation to this essay. Why Salome? Was she how Wilde vicariously expressed his own oedipal rage and celebrated his particular version of the dance of the seven veils, you know, that irresistible mind that he used to pluck no small number of ripe boys?
Beardsley was what Edgar Allen Poe called an “imp of the perverse.” What are we to make of Beardsley’s snickering drawings? Where does Beardsley fit in all of this? Sickly and pale and of no sway with the ladies, can we wonder if his oedipal rage, his constant rejection and his subjection to Wilde’s making fun of him, was channeled through the biblical temptress as well? The imp goes about the business of transgression, and we know that transgression either works in the service of power or subverts it, and no one can say in advance which way it will go or, looking back, which way it went.
We can look at painting and take only one example to get at the same point: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, an itinerant gay painter, who painted many mythologically cloaked decapitations. His David with the Head of Goliath appears at the top of this article. I don’t know if I like his work because I am half-Armenian and half-Irish, so double Catholic. I know only that I spent my fortieth birthday in Rome walking from collection to collection to see every Caravaggio in the city and felt not a moment’s disappointment in any painting.
I had never noticed Caravaggio’s knack for decapitation until I googled Griffin’s image and tried again and again to locate the image somewhere. If it is not satire, it is because there is no humor to blunt the anger, and because it is full of a fear of women’s menstrual blood that can only be called primal or medieval because it terrified people before they knew what it was: the lining of the womb making its exit when there was no baby to grow.
Menstruation was associated thus with death and not birth, and women were to be cordoned off, shut out when they bled because it horrified people. We only know that it scared men because we don’t have much in the way of women’s stories of their experience. The fascination and charge of stigma collected around it and Trump hit that nerve on the head when he went at Kelly — she has to be irrational, crazy, and furious because she bleeds.
The national outrage was real and deep but it cost Trump none of his momentum because, I can only guess, that the fear of women’s blood, with enough people, runs deeper than the outrage over Trump’s allusion to it.
So where to put Griffin’s image? What to make of it? These questions were in and out of my mind until I had the following thought. What if the image is not satire and also not really politics? Rage can be political, but Griffin’s image just did not sit with me like that. So I began to interrogate the image and myself.
What if I call it art?
If it is art, it has to be oblique. She took a symbolic knife to one man. But she is wearing an institutional and royal color, so can the image be read as an attack on institutional and royal power that is still fundamentally male? And the pussy-bow, a genteel classic that alludes to Griffin as a woman who can still be, as Kelly was, reduced to her vagina, as sex object, as bleeder, as mother. An object that has become something of a fetish, the equivalent of the bound foot of a Chinese woman, thwarted growth or mutilation, or perhaps Sigmund Freud’s misguided notion that a little girl feels herself to have been castrated, so her vagina is a wound. These too are tales of mutilation and worship, real and imagined.
If Griffin’s image can be read this way, then it has much in common with Louise Bourgeoise’s Fillette. A suspended sculpture of a mutilated phallus, an attack on phallic power. An undisputed work of art.
And this bought me back to the exchange between Pierre Bourdieu and Arthur Danto on art. Bourdieu argued ruthlessly that art has no intrinsic value; we create art’s worth, its place in a pantheon, and we separate it from more mundane experience by putting it in a museum that is more or less a house of worship. Danto could not take him out, could not beat his argument; but he did add something essential to it.
Danto located the essence of art—-he never let go of the conviction that art could be an autonomous category — in a philosophically based tear in reality. As human beings, we need the tear, he argued, or the separation of the sacred and profane, as Emile Durkheim understood both words, even if the tear is manmade.
Danto turned to Rene Descartes to make his point. Descartes argued that there is no provable distinction between dreaming and being awake. In order to argue that being awake was something other than dreaming, he made a cheap play to God, who, he insisted, would not play with us that way. Of course, Danto rejected Descartes’ turn to God as ultimate arbiter, but kept the distinction between the mundane (or the profane) and the sacred, calling the sacred art. Bourdieu argued his point until he was blue in the face and won, but won what? They were not saying anything different.
There seems to be one more connection that needs outing. Following Donald Trump’s infamous “Grab them by the pu**y” — a decidedly heartless and artless comment — Michelle Obama said she had been shaken to her core. Most of us could hear in advance that it was “locker room talk” and “boys will be boys” and “just because he said it does not mean he did it” — and so on, from women and men.
When Michelle Obama addressed Trump’s cocky reference to sexual assault, she warned her audience that nothing that lands in a president’s lap is simple; no issue, she insisted, can be reduced to black and white. From there, she made a heartfelt connection to her supporters. She was honest, open, candid, and deeply troubled by what she saw coming. Trump is deaf to the sound of his own voice, the hurt doled out in his actions and words.
This is all to say that we do not need Trump to repeatedly open old wounds. We are healing and we need Michelle Obama and all of the other grown-ups out there to keep talking and fighting, and we need women like Griffin to shut it down when men like Trump go too far. Both of these women are deeply brave, and both of these women took different approaches to getting our attention, to rousing us from our slumber. Obama’s gesture was one way of doing this — a way that left the performance out. Griffin’s image was another way — one that kept the performance in.