The problem with Jimmy Carr Destroys Art is that it never quite embraces its own sheer nihilistic pointlessness
There’s not, perhaps, a lot to be said for being alive right now. I don’t mean that in a sort of ‘only death would be a comfort’ sort of way. I just meant, you know: climate disaster, cost of living crisis, threat of nuclear war… if they were handing out historical eras to have to live through, you wouldn’t really want to be given this one (I would personally want to be given one where I could be a medieval monk, which I think would be my ideal mode of life – just reading books and brewing beer).
On the other hand, no medieval monk ever got to see Jimmy Carr destroy a painting by Hitler with a chainsaw. No other historical era has ever offered this.
In many ways, Jimmy Carr Destroys Art (2022) is the ultimate Channel 4 show. It purports to settle a big public debate about ‘problematic’ artists and art! There are (sort of) celebrity guests! Stuff gets wantonly destroyed! It’s hosted by Jimmy Carr! The concept is basically solid. I think a show where people on Channel 4 destroy valuable art for the purposes of a ‘public debate’ could have been good. I don’t necessarily think it would have been morally ‘right’, or anything like that, but it could well have amounted to the perfect cocktail of stupid and horrible that makes for great reality TV.
But nothing great is ever embarrassed about its own concept – if you want to produce great TV (or great art) you have to commit to it. René Magritte never told anyone: this might be a pipe, who knows, no worries if not. The KLF didn’t only burn thirty quid. The problem with Jimmy Carr Destroys Art is that it never quite embraces its own sheer nihilistic pointlessness. And so what it leaves us with is something, sadly, less than either edifying or entertaining. I’ve seen Jimmy Carr destroy a painting by Hitler with a chainsaw. And all I could think was, ‘Oh well. That’s that then.’
Perhaps the problem is that ‘art’ itself barely ever feels like what’s at issue here. Jimmy Carr Destroys Art purports to be an alternative to how debate is conducted on social media, where we are (as we know) too quick to ‘cancel’ and condemn. The show thus seeks to offer a measured, reasoned debate on the relevant issues – before giving its audience a binary choice as to whether Carr should destroy a painting by Rolf Harris or some Eric Gill sketches with a flamethrower. It ends up feeling like a badly-run philosophy seminar, where everyone keeps losing focus and arguing about something else instead.
Everyone agrees that both Harris and Gill were creeps – and so we get Dom Joly arguing that we should destroy the Harris because it’s crap, before he’s rebutted by Nina Power, who implies we only think the Harris is worse because we’re classist. Gill was apparently a “figure of the bourgeois establishment” – a point that seems a bit off when we’ve just watched footage of Rolf Harris painting a picture of the queen. There is no real aesthetic debate here: the show seems to want to ask us whether we’re more ready to forgive Gill’s sins because he was a genius, but in the end the audience opt to save the Harris, though it’s not remotely clear why.
The Gill gets nuked – but it doesn’t feel good. If I’m going to see irreplaceable art-objects be destroyed on TV, it should at least seem fun. I don’t know how exactly this might be achieved – perhaps if the show had leant into more of a Jackass vibe. Instead, Jimmy Carr Destroys Art is weighed down throughout by a completely unearned self-seriousness which makes the Gill’s destruction feel perfunctory and procedural – the only real reason it happens, is because the producers say those are the rules.
The same dynamic then plays out, for the rest of the hour, over and over again. A Sally Mann print of her naked daughter is saved in preference to a Marcus Harvey Myra, which is destroyed by paintball firing squad. A bust by Rachel Dolezal is smashed in preference to an old racist cartoon. The Hitler watercolour (which actually, we are told, might not even be an authentic Hitler, though it’s been sold as one) is chainsawed. A debate which is supposed to be about Picasso’s mistreatment of women ends up being about whether he illegitimately appropriated African art. No-one really seems to learn anything. By the end, things have gotten so bad, that when Carr ends up getting Andrew Doyle, of all people, on to complain about the ills of ‘cancel culture’, he ends up seeming like the voice of reason – just why are we destroying all this art, anyway? Although by this point, it is of course too late to do anything about it.
At least, at the end, the Picasso gets saved. Carr balances a beautiful Picasso statuette under some weights, and invites the audience to cut the strings holding the weights up: if enough of them are cut, the Picasso will be crushed. The producers obviously want the show-piece ending – but the audience members can’t bring themselves to do it. Good on them. Even if Picasso was a piece of shit (and even if he wasn’t respectful enough to his African sources), crushing this object was never going to remedy that. Perhaps we can’t always ‘separate the art from the artist’. But we also can’t separate art history from Picasso (or, for that matter, Gill). That’s not to say that we ‘have to forgive them’ (given that none of us knew them personally, I’m not even sure what that would mean). If it’s their person that offends, perhaps it would have been better to get Jimmy Carr to kick a Picasso impersonator in the nuts.
Ultimately, what has happened here is: Channel 4 got Jimmy Carr to host the destruction of artworks by Eric Gill, Marcus Harvey, Rachel Dolezal and Adolf Hitler. And it was boring. No other historical era has ever offered this. But that’s just one more reason our time has not to recommend itself.