Jimmy Carr knows a thing or two about controversy. Think of the time, earlier this year, when a chronically ill-judged Holocaust joke about the Gypsy, Roma and Traveler community saw him showered with condemnation. Or when he joked about Reeva Steenkamp’s murder at the 2014 Q Awards. Or his infamous tax avoidance scandal. All this might make him seem like an apt choice to host Channel 4’s new programme, Jimmy Carr Destroys Art. But he?
The TV special, airing tonight, sees the lewd-lipped comedian debate the moral merits of selected artworks created by “problematic artists”. Under the spotlight: Adolf Hitler. Convicted paedophile Rolf Harris. Sculptor and incestuous abuser Eric Gill. And Pablo Picasso, whose historical treatment of women has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Jimmy Carr Destroys Art might sound like the hooky title of a YouTube compilation video – “Jimmy Carr DESTROYS heckler” or “Jimmy Carr EVISCERATES [minority group of choice]” – but it turns out it’s quite literal. After Carr and his guests are done discussing a piece of art, a studio audience votes whether or not he should demolish it right there and then. Even without Carr’s involvement, the whole enterprise would seem like what it is: a gimmick. But selecting Carr to serve as arbiter-cum-executioner is like letting Boris Johnson chair a seminar on the value of honesty.
you see, Jimmy Carr Destroys Art isn’t really concerned with inherently controversial artworks. We’re not talking about Andres Serrano’s Piss Christor Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, or Eminem’s “Who”. We’re not even talking about Carr’s own stand-up routines, which certainly fit the bill for controversy, even if some might say “art” sounds a touch aggrandising. No, the artworks on trial in Jimmy Carr Destroys Art are all but irrelevant. Here, the artist is the dividing issue. It is obviously and deliberately a headline-grabbing premise – “Channel 4 purchases Hitler painting” was always going to rattle some cages. But the debate the program supposedly seeks to entertain is entirely moot. It is a straw man the size of the Angel of the North.
In recent years, as the public have become more attuned to the moral failings of artists, it has indeed become clear that we simply have no idea how to react when a scandal comes to light. Is it ethical to listen to Michael Jackson’s music in the year 2022? Maybe, but it’d probably be prudent to draw the line at staging a celebratory musical about him. Is it OK to watch and enjoy the films of Woody Allen? No one’s going to stop you – but can anyone make it through Manhattan without feeling just a little bit icky? The fact is, everything should be judged on a case by case basis, and on a person by person one. Just because a piece of art is problematic doesn’t mean it is without value.
These are not, however, the issues that Jimmy Carr Destroys Art is really exploring. The fact is, no one gives two hoots about Hitler’s paintings from an artistic perspective. Channel 4 are giving a spotlight to a painting that otherwise would have lived on in quiet ignominy, with the world oblivious to its very existence. It’s easy to see why the Hitler painting in particular has caused such an uproar, of course: Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, accused the series of “making Hitler a topic of light entertainment”, deeming it “ deeply inappropriate, and at a time of increasing Holocaust distortion, dangerously trivializing”. Any good faith interpretation of the program was perhaps made less viable by Carr’s own Holocaust joke scandal earlier this year, which brought opprobrium from Holocaust charities and saw the comedian accused of a form of Holocaust denialism.
Something like the Picasso artwork falls into a similar pitfall. The object in question is an obscure vase of his – a tiny artistic footnote in an oeuvre that otherwise contains some of the best known works ever painted. It doesn’t take an accounting degree to work out why Channel 4 aren’t threatening to shred Guernicabut there’s something a bit meaningless in debating the ethical merits of a piece no one who wasn’t a Picasso scholar would ever have given a second look.
The “solution” proposed by Jimmy Carr Destroys Art – that is, the physical destruction of the problematic art – is also limited in its scope, and completely inapplicable when it comes to most other artforms. Music, film, TV, comedy: they are all reproducible, on a mass scale that is impossible to reverse. Simply smashing up an R Kelly CD would do nothing to stop his music from reaching people’s ears. Even Kanye West’s staunchest critics would not argue there is any point in trying to erase his music from existence, even if – and it’s a big “if” – that were the morally right thing to do.
While our handling of problematic artworks is indeed a subject worthy of debate, Jimmy Carr Destroys Art‘s premise isn’t breaking new ground. It’s just regurgitating an argument that rages on a daily basis, that we can never seem to escape. It is a discourse that seeps into our lives through a thousand reactionary tweets and “cancel culture” think pieces, one crudely formed thought at a time. I don’t think anyone will be scandalised if Carr ends up running a Hitler painting through a shredder. But he’d probably be better saving the electricity.
‘Jimmy Carr Destroys Art’ airs on Channel 4 at 9.15pm on 25 October