Everyone remembers Kathy Griffin’s infamous decapitation shots, and the career-disaster they turned out to be.
But what most seem unaware of — indeed, what I was unaware of until just a few days ago — was that Marilyn Manson depicted something surprisingly similar, at around the same time.
What is particularly interesting is that the producer for Manson’s video was also the producer for Kathy Griffin’s ill-conceived photo shoot. So why were their outcomes so different? Why was Kathy Griffen destroyed, while Manson simply carried on, perhaps even strengthened by his very similar act?
I have to imagine that Kathy might feel some sense of resentment towards Manson. I imagine this based on my own experience. I have been a novice in certain fields, performing what I thought were identical acts to those of a master, but with differences subtle enough to make a world of difference. Unaware of what these subtle differences might be, the difference in outcomes can often appear to be the product of sheer personal bias, on behalf of the audience.
The place to begin with is the medium in question: dark performative art. Without identifying this, it isn’t as clear that we are, in fact, dealing with an instance with a clear master and a clear novice. Marilyn Manson has been performing professionally in this capacity for about 30 years. Griffin — though experienced in performance art generally — lacks the subtlety, the nuance, and the class within the genre of her expression.
When you watch Manson’s 76 second video, what is most striking is the ambiguity. At no point is it clear that Manson himself was the one who performed the decapitation, nor is it clear that the decapitated body is, in fact, Trump. It isn’t even necessarily clear whether or not Manson — being a performer — is portraying himself, or portraying a more general social attitude. Perhaps, like Orwell, his depiction is just an observation, and not a condoning or a condemnation. It is art, and the lyrics from “SAY10” nicely — and no less ambiguously — coincide with the presentation. When he sings “cash is the poor man’s money…” it seems aptly applicable to someone as ostentatiously wealthy as Trump. But who knows…
By contrast, Kathy Griffin’s shots are unpardonably direct. Cathy Griffin is no one other than Kathy Griffin, and the head held grimly aloft could belong to no one other than Trump. There is no allusion to any deeper thought, no ambiguity — in short, there is no artistry in her performance. Her crime, for which she was punished (and rightfully so) was not holding an offensive opinion, but creating shit art.
If the reader is to take away any moral from this story, it ought to be the ethos component of rhetoric. If you have something important to say or do, it is important that you first become the sort of person who can say or do that. Cathy Griffin failed in her attempt at an artistic statement against Trump because she had built her whole life around comedy, where the ambiguity is in the seriousness of the statement, and not in the meaning. She was speaking outside of her field, and beyond her genre. Here, there be dragons. Manson, by contrast, was doing in his video essentially what he does every other day.
It is acceptable — good even — to venture beyond your comfort zone and level of expertise. But if you’re going to do it before a massive audience on complicated and very heated subject, don’t be fooled into thinking you can do it, just because somebody else can.