Trump-Griffin scandal underscores American celebrity-obsessed culture
When I first heard of the uproar over Kathy Griffin’s infamous Trump photo, I hesitated even reading the story because I didn’t want to feed Ms. Griffin’s ravenous hunger for fame. But Hollywood is my beat, so I reluctantly dove into the story.
My first impression upon seeing the (warning: graphic) photo was to be startled by the grotesque face with vacant eyes staring back at me. I soon realized that vile and contorted mug was Ms. Griffin’s and that she was holding a cheap replica of Donald Trump’s head, severed and bloody.
Griffin, for those that are lucky enough to not have heard of her, is a talentless hack of a comedienne. A sad desperation seeps through her every pore, proof of which is her aspiration to be a D-list celebrity. While Griffin is devoid of any and all talent, she is not entirely without skill, her lone proficiency being the ability to tirelessly and shamelessly promote herself.
Griffin’s “career” is littered with one self-serving stunt after another. She’s been banned from the television shows The View, Today and Late Night with David Letterman for her crude and obnoxious behavior. After this Trump photo controversy, she can now add CNN’s New Years Eve special, which she co-hosted with Anderson Cooper, as among the growing number of shows where she is no longer welcome.
Reading up on the Griffin story left me irritated, frustrated and fatigued. Once again some dopey celebrity was providing aid and comfort to Trump, a man I abhor, by diverting attention away from his catastrophic administration, and instead focusing it on their mind-numbing idiocy.
As Napoleon once said, “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Hollywood liberals would be wise to stop ignoring Boneparte’s sage advice.
Whether it be Madonna at the Women’s March, or Snoop Dogg and his Klump video, or Stephen Colbert and his “holster” joke, or Ms. Griffin and her ISIS-inspired photo shoot, the left-wing out here on the left coast keeps giving Trump a welcome distraction from his floundering presidency. With the President embroiled in a series of crippling investigations, leaks and a stalled agenda, now would be a great time for the liberal opposition to keep their mouths shut and let Trump get on with his self-immolation. But no, the temptation of attention is too great for those who endlessly thirst for it.
Which brings me to my central point. Kathy Griffin despises Donald Trump, but she is exactly like Donald Trump. Both Griffin and Trump have made a name for themselves by doing anything and everything to make a name for themselves.
They are both reality television stars, Griffin on My Life on the D-List and Trump on The Apprentice. Both of them require fame and attention like the rest of us do oxygen, and they both will do just about anything for it. Griffin once had a pap smear poolside on her television show, and performed a simulated sex act with Cooper in Times Square. Trump has a long history with WWE professional wrestling, and appeared - fully clothed - in a pornographic film and has attached his name to everything from a beleaguered university to steaks. Both of them have shown an astonishing ability to debase themselves and a remarkable shamelessness in their pursuit of fame.
This Griffin-Trump photo story is a perfect microcosm of all that is currently wrong with our celebrity obsessed culture and politics. You could have easily foretold the way this entire episode would play out from start to finish.
Kathy Griffin quickly apologized when the uproar over her photo became deafening, and then Trump jumped at the chance to play the victim. Both he and Melania delivered statements bemoaning how their 11 year-old son, Baron, was horrified by the photo, which was probably true.
I am sorry. I went too far. I was wrong. pic.twitter.com/LBKvqf9xFB— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) May 30, 2017
Not to be outdone in the race for the crown of victimhood, on Friday Griffin held a tearful and defiant press conference with her press-hound lawyer Lisa Bloom, claiming that Trump and his family were bullying her and that she had received death threats. This script is as predictable as an episode of Real Housewives, but not nearly as dignified.
The reality is that both Griffin and Trump want this story to go on for as long as it possibly can because they both benefit from it. Trump gets a distraction from his disastrous presidency and bad press, and Griffin gets people talking about her, which is her lifeblood.
As I kept reading about this story and seeing the photo attached to each article, one of my favorite paintings, David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1610) by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, came to mind. The reason I thought of Caravaggio’s painting is that in his work David holds aloft the decapitated head of the slain Goliath, much like Griffin holds the bloody head of Trump in her now infamous photo.
Caravaggio painted multiple versions of this same event over his lifetime, but the one that has always moved me was the one currently hanging in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. I love this panting so much I actually made a pilgrimage to Rome a few years ago with the express purpose of seeing it. Witnessing the painting in person did not disappoint, as Caravaggio’s supreme talent and transcendent work resonated deep in my soul. What makes this painting so fascinating, besides the masterful skill required for its creation, is the subtext of the story it reveals.
In the painting, Goliath’s lifeless face is also that of the artist, Caravaggio at the time of creating this masterpiece. It is also said that the face of David in the painting is that of a young Caravaggio. And unlike Caravaggio’s other renderings of this scene (the one on display in Vienna for instance), in the Borghese version, David is not triumphant, or proud of his conquest of Goliath, rather he looks down at the giant’s lifeless head with “an expression of sadness and compassion." Caravaggio’s famous paintingis not only a depiction of the story of David’s victory over Goliath, but of Caravaggio’s own struggle against his inner demons.
In relation to the current scandal du jour, it would have been much more interesting if Griffin and photographer Tyler Shields had the artistic vision and courage to eschew the usual attempt at trying to muster shock and garner attention, and instead recognized that Griffin and Trump are both symptoms of the same disease - celebrity - that ravages America, and let that fact be reflected in their work.
For instance, if Kathy Griffin had been photographed dressed as young David, with a sword in her right hand and her left her breast exposed (in order to mimic the painting and supply the titillation both she and Shields crave) while perhaps wearing a Trump wig, as she looks down with “an expression of sadness and compassion” at Trump’s decapitated head in her outstretched hand, then Griffin and Shields would be saying something both artistically and politically worthwhile. The symbolism of the eternally vapid Griffin mournfully understanding that Trump, the Goliath of vacuity, is just a larger version of herself, might awake America from its collective cultural and political madness.
That is what great art does and why it is so vital, it reveals a larger truth that resonates both personally and collectively for its audience. Instead, Griffin and Shields went the cheap and vacuous route in their photo shoot searching for the instant gratification of agitation and satiating their adolescent emotional needs rather than the more difficult, but ultimately rewarding, work of telling an artistic truth.
What makes Caravaggio’s painting so exquisite is that it is a work of artistic introspection that tells an uncomfortable truth about both its creator and all of humanity, while the Griffin and Shields photo is one of shallow projection meant to allow the artist to continue to lie to themselves.
Griffin and Shields lack of self-awareness does tell a wider story about narcissism run amok in America, but unintentionally, and that worthy revelation is only born out of the artists own unconsciousness and not out of any artistic vision or insight.
What our emaciated culture and politics truly need right now is a lot more Caravaggio, and a lot less Kathy Griffin. Sadly, as we spiral deeper into a new Dark Age fueled by our insipid celebrity obsession, there are no signs of a cultural and political Renaissance on the horizon. We are stuck with the culture, and the politicians that we have dutifully earned and so rightly deserve.
Kathy Griffin and Donald Trump are living proof of that.
Michael McCaffrey, for RT
Michael McCaffrey is a freelance writer, film critic and cultural commentator. He currently resides in Los Angeles where he runs his acting coaching and media consulting business. mpmacting.com/blog/
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.