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Debate or Destruction: A New Show About Problematic Artists

October 17, 2022
Photo of Jimmy Carr by Albin Olsson

Photo of Jimmy Carr by Albin Olsson https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Jimmy Carr is a British comedian who has become incredibly well-known outside the UK over the past few years. Many people know him from his comedy specials, but I think much of his work nowadays involves hosting television shows. He’s been the host of comedy panels and game shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats and The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. But recently, Britain’s Channel 4 announced that he would be hosting a show that touches upon an incredibly serious topic: how can we admire art created by people we know are horrible human beings?

Years ago, on a different website, I wrote about how many world leaders, particularly the more infamous ones, were also amateur painters. People often point to Spain’s Francisco Franco and Germany’s Adolf Hitler as the most notable examples of painter-dictators. Clearly, it’s difficult to separate the art from the artist regarding paintings by dictators. But what about people primarily known and admired as great artists who also had troubling personal lives? The show, creatively titled Jimmy Carr Destroys Art, has already announced its acquisition of a ceramic work by Pablo Picasso. The Spanish master has always been a problematic figure. Of course, he was one of the twentieth century’s greatest, most influential artists. Still, he frequently abused and manipulated his family and close friends, referring to women as “machines for suffering.” This was chillingly accurate in Picasso’s experience. He was significantly involved with seven women during his life. He drove two of them to suicide and two more to have nervous breakdowns. Picasso’s granddaughter Marina once said of him, “He needed the blood of those who loved him.” The production team stated that Carr would host a debate on whether we, as viewers and consumers, can separate the art from the artist and whether or not the work is worth destroying. Yes, that is the gimmick of the show. If the audience decides, Carr will destroy the work of the artist in question. So if the audience says so, he will smash the Picasso ceramic to pieces. Channel 4 also announced that they had purchased one of Adolf Hitler’s paintings for use on the show, which they said Carr would incinerate with a flamethrower.

The show’s very concept has been attacked since Channel 4’s announcement, especially when they bought their Hitler painting. And that’s what most of the criticism has been aimed at. When Channel 4 announced the acquisition of the Hitler painting, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust criticized the move as “making Hitler a topic of light entertainment”, as well as “a stunt for shock value” that “triviali[zes] the horrors of Nazism”. However, the show hasn’t even been made yet, so I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. Works of comedy featuring Nazism are nothing new, and they have almost always been described by some as tasteless. But Stephen Merchant, when commenting on his work in the film Jojo Rabbit from 2018, stated that comedy is a powerful tool to expose “the nonsense of Hitler’s ideology and the kind of absurdity of those beliefs”. Obviously, when handling these subjects in a humorous or satirical way, one must take great care. But rejecting it at face value might be jumping the gun a bit.

While the mere inclusion of a Hitler painting does not really bother me, the destructive element of the show certainly does. Of course, it’s important to discuss if it’s possible to reconcile an artist’s great work with their problematic lives. To do so live on television on a popular channel is even better since it takes the debate out of academic circles and thrusts it into the public forum. But even if we decide that an artist’s life is too problematic for us to enjoy their work, destroying the work itself is not the answer. Of course, it’s easy to say we can’t separate Hitler as a person from his bland cityscapes or Francisco Franco from his horrifyingly violent hunting scenes. It becomes increasingly difficult, however, to decide whether we can still admire Picasso’s paintings given his past. Or if we can appreciate the works of Paul Gauguin in light of what we know about his time in Tahiti. Or if we can still publicly display Eric Gill’s work since we now know about his abusive relationship with his children. But no work of art is ever worth destroying. Destroying a piece of art completely erases the artist and what we can learn from their lives, whether to emulate them or avoid their shortcomings. Art is a teaching tool, and destroying it also destroys its potential for people to learn.