Comedian Jimmy Carr has been shrouded in controversy since he first entered the stand-up scene back in the early 2000s. He’s faced a deafeningly public tax avoidance scandal in 2012 and, most recently, during a 2021 Netflix special, he shocked viewers by telling an abhorrent and offensive joke, jesting with the audience about how they should remember the “positive” side of the Holocaust: that “thousands of Gypsies [were] killed by the Nazis.”
One might assume that after such a monumental upset, Carr might have been blackballed from mainstream television. This was, of course, not the case—as Channel 4 recently announced the launch of its new show Art Trouble and selected none other than the problematic comedian himself to be the face of the project.
Ian Katz, director of programming at the network, recently spoke to The Guardian about the show’s concept, explaining how Channel 4 would purchase a number of works of art, all created by controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Pablo Picasso, alongside a myriad of other problematic societal individuals like convicted sexual predators Rolf Harris and Eric Gil.
A number of experts will then be called upon to consider the art and, ultimately, the studio audience will decide whether or not the work should be preserved or blown to smithereens—I can’t imagine the audience not wanting to obliterate a painting by Hitler.
Carr’s problematic past—and indeed his ability to bypass any and all genuine criticism—speaks to the myth surrounding cancel culture and the lack of accountability or proper repercussions for certain public figures. Following the aftermath of Carr’s joke, rather than acknowledging the pain and hurt he had caused so many people, the comedian told fans: “I am going to get cancelled, that’s the bad news. The good news is I am going down swinging,” as reported by Sky News.
Carr reiterated these sentiments during an interview with psychologist Jordan Peterson. The comedian, commenting on cancel culture, stated, “It only happens when jokes are taken out of context. I’m telling jokes in theatres to a paying audience—people who have paid to come and see me, they’ve bought into it. I’m not shouting them through someone’s letter box.” Supposedly, a joke can only be offensive if it’s cushioned between two other less-offensive jokes…
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust spoke at length about the comments made by the problematic comedian, even releasing a public statement addressing the issue: “We are absolutely appalled at Jimmy Carr’s comment about persecution suffered by Roma and Sinti people under Nazi oppression, and horrified that gales of laughter followed his remarks,” it wrote.
“Hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people suffered prejudice, slave labour, sterilisation and mass murder simply because of their identity—these are not experiences for mockery,” the organisation continued.
Labour MP Nadia Whittome also took to Twitter to express her feelings on the topic. She penned, “I have written urging Netflix to remove Jimmy Carr’s vile anti-GRT and anti-Semitic material. I have also requested an update from @DCMS on progress to bring streaming platforms under Ofcom regulation. My full solidarity with GRT communities, today and always.”
Whittome is among a number of young British MPs who have utilised social media in ways similar to US Congresswoman and trailblazer Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC).
Carr’s public problems don’t end there either, it was recently reported by Irish publication The Limerick Leader that the 8 Out of 10 Cats host’s estranged father is demanding a “sincere apology” from his son after Carr wrote a “derogatory” joke about his parents in his 2021 book, Before & Laughter.
The joke in question reads: “I’m the son of two immigrants from Limerick who moved to Slough (they moved from a shit town to another shit town, I guess they knew what they liked).”
Jim Carr, the comedian’s father, was so deeply offended by the joke that he contacted the Mayor of Limerick and is threatening legal action if his son does not comply with his demands:one meaningful and heartfelt apology.
While it so appears that Carr has managed to slide from one sticky situation to another, the question is, will he avoid another controversy in his new TV venture, or will he tread a similar path of problematic behaviour?
Last week, the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) removed work from its shop by artist Jess de Wahls after receiving multiple complaints about transphobia. The arguments and debates around this single example are a microcosm of the ongoing culture war, not just tolerated but stoked by our government: trans rights, cancel culture, no-platforming. Acronyms abound: TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), GCs (gender critical people), TRAs (trans rights activists).
De Wahls wrote a blog post almost two years ago entitled, rather cynically, “Somewhere over the Rainbow, something went terribly wrong…” It’s not worth reading, filled with disinformation, misinformation, and transphobic dog whistles. It has all the buzzwords and stock phrases of such gender-critical writings: there is little to no original critical thought involved.
De Wahls—who isn’t an academician and, thus, has no permanent relationship with the RA—has received a lot of press in the past week from the usual sources such as citations in columns in The Sunday Times and The Telegraph. It’s the paradox of cancellation: having one’s work ‘cancelled’ elevates their status among certain right-leaning, ‘anti-woke’ commentators. The Daily Mail and, far too often, BBC Radio 4 will jump on board and uncritically give out a platform for sharing and elevating opinions.
The Royal Academy, in the minds of many, immediately became a traitor to women’s rights where previously it had been considered a bastion, when, in fact, the art world is notoriously conservative. It wasn’t until 1922 that the first woman was elected to the Royal Academy—although there were two women among the founding members, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. And the current President, Rebecca Salter, became the first woman elected to the role in 250 years. It’s just that, now, they have been deemed the wrong kind of conservative—kowtowing to the ‘woke mob’ who are, more often than not, campaigning for progressive inclusion.
Many anonymous Twitter users have pointed out that the RA is happy to still sell work by Picasso, a notorious misogynist. That’s a difficult thread to pull at, though—especially when many at The Telegraph, for example, don’t want Western history and its statues to be threatened or interrogated. Accusing an institution of misogyny as part of this ongoing culture war, while scapegoating the trans community, is much easier than actually addressing the complex mechanisms and legacies of exclusion, racism, and misogyny that permeate so much of our society.
Free speech, and the free market—both core principles of liberalism—apparently have their limits; they apply differently to individuals and to institutions, or so it would seem. Artists should be allowed to say publicly whatever they like, without repercussions; yet if galleries want to distance themselves, they cannot be allowed to.
I found de Wahls on Instagram, where she had posted work by the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist collective that raises awareness about the lack of diversity and representation in the art world. After pointing out that the collective not only supports but includes trans women and non-binary people—“we’ve had transgender and gender-nonconforming members since the beginning”—she swiftly blocked me. It seems that there are limits to the discussion and debate that many people claim are being shut down.
There are occasions to debate with people who have different opinions—and there are times when this is, at best, uncomfortable and unproductive or, at worst, profoundly dehumanising. This was on the tip of many tongues this past week after writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published on her website an essay on cancel culture and trans rights. It was praised by many on the right, but I recommend reading, instead, Aja Romano’s astute and sensitive analysis of the piece.
Anyone who wants to hijack the extension of rights for trans people—for misogyny and violence—is an enemy to us all. There’s no secret organisation funding trans rights internationally, it’s strange how often this conspiracy theory pops up on Twitter.
Prominent gender-critical activists have recently been emboldened by a tribunal that declared their beliefs to be “protected” within English law—many anonymous accounts are now dedicating their lives and livelihoods to opposing trans rights under the guise of feminism. Recently, I attended a talk by a prominent lesbian feminist and activist who noted how in America, progressives and activists look at what’s happening in the UK, aghast. These supposedly liberal groups have the most in common with the furthest-right, Trump-supporting facets of the Republican Party.
Because there are some who ultimately want to use free speech and open debate to restrict the rights of trans people—and then all queer people, and then all women. Prominent gender-critical groups have aligned themselves with pro-life, pro-abortion groups in the US. Their common ground? Wanting to control the bodies of the marginalised.
De Wahls ends her rant by asking, “who really benefits from an imploding liberal and feminist movement?” Whenever people insist on debating the human rights of the most marginalised in society, there are no winners, just a perpetuation of our ongoing, unfair patriarchal hegemony.