Channel 4 has bought a painting by Adolf Hitler and will allow a studio audience to decide whether Jimmy Carr should destroy it.
As part of its latest season of programmes, the TV channel has bought artworks by a range of “problematic” artists, including Pablo Picasso, as well as convicted paedophile Rolf Harris and sexual abuser Eric Gill.
A forthcoming televised debate called Jimmy Carr Destroys Art, airing later this month, will then question whether you can truly separate a work of art from its creator – before deciding which pieces to destroy.
Ian Katz, Channel 4’s director of programming, confirmed that if the studio audience chose to save the painting by Hitler it would not hang in the Channel 4 boardroom but would be “appropriately” disposed of.
He suggested that if Channel 4 was privatised by the government, then a for-profit owner would be unlikely to take such risks: “This kind of programming is difficult and expensive. And probably not a rational, commercial approach.”
Katz explained the concept of the show. “There are advocates for each piece of art,” he said. “So you’ve got an advocate for Hitler. There’ll be someone arguing not for Hitler, but for the fact that his moral character should not decide whether or not a piece of art exists or not.”
He said the show celebrates Channel 4’s long tradition of “iconoclasm and irreverence” that saw it once televise an autopsy and give people drugs on live television.
Channel 4 hired an art expert to buy the works “from reputable auction houses”, although there is a long history of doubts over the attribution of Hitler’s art. Given the broadcaster’s budget, the Picasso work is “a vase of some description” rather than one of his paintings.
The works under debate on the show will be destroyed with a variety of tools including a flamethrower [see footnote].
Carr himself has been criticised for his jokes, with one about the Holocaust in a recent Netflix special being condemned by a litany of anti-hate groups earlier this year.
Katz unveiled details of the programme in an interview reflecting on his five years as director of programming for Channel 4. The broadcaster, which is celebrating its 40th birthday next month, is facing pressure from the ongoing decline of traditional live television viewing, and has been overtaken by Netflix in terms of overall British television audience viewing – all while continuing to fight attempts by the government to privatise the channel.
“There’s no argument that it is significantly harder to cut through to a big audience these days,” said Katz. “The broadcast environment is completely different to what it was 40 years ago when there were two other state broadcasters and Channel 4 popped up on the scene.”
He warned this is creating incentives for television commissioners to stick to tried-and-trusted formats rather than taking risks on more experimental output, such as comedies Stath Lets Flats or We Are Lady Parts. “I could put true crime on in just about every slot and probably have double the ratings,” he said.
Katz quoted Jeremy Isaacs, the station’s founder, as saying that Channel 4 should be watched by everyone some of the time – but not everybody all the time. “I think you might add that Channel 4 should be annoying everyone some of the time, but ideally not everyone all the time,” he added.
Channel 4 has a record of nurturing new talent, such as comedian Mo Gilligan and End of the Fucking World writer Charlie Covell, only to see them move on to bigger money deals elsewhere.
Katz said he tries to stay in touch with stars and offer them the chance to return to Channel 4 for more experimental material. “Nobody wants to see all their kids locked up at home. But you want them to come back and see you occasionally for Sunday lunch,” he said.
Another issue is when the broadcaster’s own staff object to output. He said with particular territories “you are treading into a hotly contested, extremely emotional area and you have to tread with real care and sensitivity”.
He added: “When I first arrived we had a film about trans kids which caused a huge amount of debate and quite a lot of pain, outside the channel and inside the channel … It just makes the process of tackling some of these issues a bit more complex and it requires a lot of care and sensitivity about how you approach them.”
Katz also reflected on the latest Channel 4 controversy, when Bake Off presenters Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding were accused of cultural insensitivity towards Mexican people. He said: “I am a huge enthusiast of every aspect of Mexico and its culture and I would hate to offend anyone in Mexico.”
Katz, a former deputy editor of the Guardian, was a surprise choice for the job when he was elevated from editor of BBC Newsnight to Channel 4’s director of programmes in January 2018.
“In my first year it was a very, very steep learning curve,” he said. “I think I knew half a dozen television people and the first thing I had to do was figure out who everyone was. But you don’t realise until you do it that Channel 4 is the freest place in the world to make television.”
Plans to produce a series on modern Britain presented by Paul Dacre have been put “on hold” after the former Daily Mail editor became too busy with other projects, although the broadcaster will push ahead with a documentary about men with abnormally large penises.
• This article was amended on 13 October 2022 to reflect a post-publication clarification by Channel 4, which said that while a flamethrower would be available to Jimmy Carr, it would not be used on the piece by Hitler. It was further amended to update the title of the show, from Art Trouble to Jimmy Carr Destroys Art.