Tyler Shields is A Terrible Artist. Kathy Griffin is Just His Accomplice.

by Paddy Johnson and Michael Anthony Farley on June 1, 2017 Newswire

The photo that started it all.

The Tyler Shields photo that started it all.

Is a picture worth ten million words? That’s the question we’re faced with when considering the out-of-proportion reaction to a recent photo of Kathy Griffin holding the decapitated head of President Donald Trump. Enough commentary has poured across social, mainstream, and fringe media to fill a small library. But conspicuously absent from the discussion has been mention of Tyler Shields, the photographer who should be at the center of the authorship conversation, not the comedienne. For example, The New York Times published two reports on the subject, neither mentioning Shields by name, and one omitting any reference to a collaborator whatsoever. Would the discussion be different if the image were considered as an artist’s work rather than a celebrity publicity stunt?

Certainly. It’s hard to imagine a scandal this big—even in light of the culture wars—were art at the center of the conversation. Probably the debate would focus more on freedom of speech and the artist, rather than the head-scratching that’s gone on over Kathy Griffin’s unfunny choices. As comedy the piece lands like a ton of bricks. As art, it’s just a banal attempt to shock by a b-rated artist.  

And let’s be honest, b-rating is generous in the case of Shields. His career has thus far has been defined by remaking famous photographs without crediting their sources and turning them into cheap versions of themselves, usually through some combination of shock, sex and nostalgia.

Given this background, it’s no surprise that the photograph looks like a reproduction of every boiler plate horror flick ever. Beyond the derivative aesthetics, the content is just as unoriginal.  Comedian George Lopez tweeted a drawing of a decapitated Trump last year and in March rapper Snoop Dogg pointed a gun at a Trump look-a-like’s head in a music video. Marilyn Manson also released a video in 2016 of himself decapitating a man that looked just like Trump. It received a fraction of the attention. It seems having a reputation for shock makes it more difficult to actually do so.

Shields’s rip offs are more significant, though, than being merely derivative. In a VICE story about Shields’s propensity to steal work, photographer Henry Luetwyler complained that his famed photograph of a ballet dancer’s gnarled feet had not been copied nearly verbatim, but given a false backstory on Shields’s Instagram account. “He has mentioned that it has taken him years to create this image but an image like this is documentary, not staged, and should not be staged,” Leutwyler said. “The picture I took actually happened while I was working backstage on a book for NYC Ballet. Those are real ballerina feet and that is what they looked like after a performance.

Leutwyler’s observations make Shields’s own statements on his process seem suspect. If he was willing to lie for professional gain, what’s to make his more recent statements any more truthful? Shields claims the photograph was mostly Griffin’s idea. In a statement to the New York Daily News, he said, “She came to me. She said she’d like to do something political, that she’d love to do something that makes a statement. It’s always a collaboration. It wasn’t completely her, but it wasn’t completely me, either. Without Kathy, I would have never done a photo like that.”

But this statement was modulated slightly from the interview he gave the day before to Entertainment Weekly, saying, “We’d been talking about doing something and she said to me, ‘I’m not afraid to get political if you want or make a statement if you want.’ It’s always a collaborative process, especially with someone like Kathy, but it was one of those things where we didn’t know exactly what we were gonna do until we got there. Then, once we got there, it just kind of escalated into that. There were a bunch of different ideas thrown around and then, I was like, ‘This is the one we gotta do.’”

How seriously are people taking this? So seriously that CNBC and other news organizations have pixelated out Trump’s bloody head.

How seriously are people taking this? So seriously that CNBC and other news organizations have pixelated out Trump’s bloody head.

Beyond the fact that Shields’ account of a last-minute concept is highly specious (where exactly did a prosthetic head emerge in this on-the-fly decision-making process?) it also suggests that the photograph was mostly his idea.  So, which is it? In truth it shouldn’t matter. It was a collaborative process in which an artwork was made—you don’t need to know who did what to understand the message. You do, however, need to understand that it’s art. Without that, it’s possible to read the photograph as a call to incite violence, which is not only in poor taste, but illegal. (Though that hasn’t stopped the Trump White House from hosting celebrities such as Ted Nugent, whose threats against Obama were taken seriously enough to prompt a Secret Service investigation.)

Without that hermeneutic understanding, rational discourse loses out to visceral outrage. A recent study from the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology suggests viewers react differently to photographs on a neurological level when they’re told they are artworks. Our emotional responses to a photo we know is an artwork versus a “real” image, for example, is less heightened. Conversely, viewers receive images more positively on a cerebral level when they’re contextualized as artworks. Do we have a positive physiological reaction to the photograph with the knowledge that it’s an artwork? Not particularly, because it’s a terrible artwork. But there is, of course, the small pleasure of dissecting it critically as opposed to knee-jerk celebrity-shaming.

Yet very few people know this is art, due to a near total failure on the part of mainstream media from The New York Times to CNN and Fox News. The context of art has been completely removed, thus creating waves of unwarranted outrage. Just how far out of proportion has this gotten? Griffin has been fired from hosting a New Year’s Eve celebration at CNN and lost several endorsement deals. Nearly everyone has spoken out against her, from CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper to Donald Trump and his family.

That seems like just the type of controversy a schlock-artist such as Tyler Shields would relish. Unfortunately for all parties involved, that spotlight has fallen solely on Griffin.

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