This week there has been a minor controversy over a painting Jim Carrey posted on his Twitter account. The picture was of Sarah Huckabee Sanders in what most would consider an unflattering portrayal. It reminded me of the controversy of last May when Kathy Griffin published a satirical photo of her carrying a bloodied, decapitated head of Donald Trump. While Carrey was getting some blow-back about the portrait it was mild compared to Griffin in which the response was swift and furious. She lost a U.S. tour she was on, was fired from CNN, was widely condemned from friends and the public at large, and couldn’t find work in America. While the controversy surrounding Carrey’s painting is fading away, Griffin’s career suffered almost irreparable damage. Both are examples of the artists exercising their First Amendment Rights. It occurred to me why such disparate reactions to very similar artistic statements.
After Griffin’s picture was made public, Griffin explained the picture was satire in response to Trump’s comment to Megyn Kelly during the first presidential debate in which he said, “there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her...wherever” (Kelly a true conservative was questioning Trump’s conservative credentials). When the photo wasn’t well received she immediately tried to mitigate the damage by explaining that she wasn’t condoning violence or violence towards the president and that it was supposed to be satirical. She also apologized for what was by then considered an ill-conceived joke that had gone wrong. In the aftermath, Griffin was subjected to what can only be described as political persecution, she was interrogated by the Department of Justice under the threat of being taken away in handcuffs, threatened with a no-knock search of her home (for a joke!), the subject of two different departments of the federal government, put on the Interpol list, has been detained in every airport on her recent international tour, and threatened by Trump supporters (ironic for Griffin’s supposed indiscretion against Trump).
In contrast Carrey’s portrait has received only a little backlash, mostly from other Twitter users accusing him of being a sexist and a bully, and Huckabee’s father (former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee) added Christaphobe to his criticism. Carrey has confirmed the painting is his, but hasn’t made any further statement about it other than the caption that accompanied it, “This is the portrait of a so called Christian whose only purpose in life is to lie for the wicked. Monstrous!” On Monday Carrey posted a portrait of Trump as the Wicked Witch of the West without further controversy and the initial outrage about the Huckabee-Sanders portrait fading away to memory. One has to ask themselves why the double standard in the response to Griffin’s and Carrey’s satirical representations, is it sexism? But this isn’t the only noticeable double standard since the start of Trump’s presidency there’s one that has filled the New York stage.
In June 2017 there was an uproar over the New York Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar with Caesar personified by the character in costume looking very much like Donald Trump. Critics said it was disrespectful of the president and the office, and corporate sponsors pulled their support. In comparison there was a 2012 production of Julius Caesar by the Guthrie Theater with Caesar portrayed by a black actor who resembled then president Barack Obama. What was the reaction? Did members of the audience become offended? Was there a hew and cry how it was disrespectful of the president or the presidency? Did corporate sponsors threaten or pull their support? The answer is no, nothing, silence, no hew and cry, no teeth gnashings, no hand wringing. Crickets, not even any commentary about the imagery of a black man being killed. Both productions are noted for being faithful to Shakespeare’s play. Again, one has to ask why the double standard?
Art has always been dangerous in many countries artists are among the first to be jailed, art cannot go “too far,” it can’t cross a line, it is meant to challenge the perceptions and perspectives of the world, it is supposed to foster controversy, debate, discussion and sometimes this bleeds over into the political and that’s when it becomes dangerous not only for the artist, but for the society surrounding the artist. Is it condemned without thought? By dictate of the ruling party or leader? Does it lead to recriminations by those who don’t approve of the artist’s message? Or does it lead to the possibility of change? Maybe leading to a change of thinking on a subject or in how one perceives the world and the society we’re engaged in. This is the measure we have to take of ourselves as a society, do we want to encourage thought, discussion and differing points of view?
Griffin’s career now seems to be back on track in the U.S., she has been playing international appearances since the controversy, she has appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time, is working with J.J. Abrams on a possible TV show (the sure sign of acceptance in the televised age), and Griffin is now set to play in New York at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall which are not only in “Trumps backyard” but are among America’s most prestigious venues. Griffin’s experience, as awful as it might have been and may still move her comedy to deeper expressions of her art and move her into Lenny Bruce territory.