Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Are cartoonists artists? Not to the Canada Council.

It's one of those questions that makes cartoonists, and especially editorial cartoonists, squirm. Granted, most would agree that what they practice is an artform with a long and established history. But to call themselves "artists?" That makes them uncomfortable. Because it seems pretentious. And because it weights what they do with the heavy mantle of "IMPORTANCE." Whereas, really, they just draw funny pictures.

But if that's what they think then they're wrong. Because they are artists and what they produce is art, goddammit. Highly topical, highly opinionated - and, yes, usually funny - art.

I've had the same discussion with standup comics. These are people who, like cartoonists, work intensely at developing creative skills that they apply to connecting with, entertaining and informing an audience. They can and will talk about what they do deep into the night amongst themselves, analyzing every turn of phrase, every gesture, every pause - even mic technique, ferchrissake - referring to Carlin, Pryor, Wright, the whole pantheon of comic geniuses to make their points. But call them artists? No, uh-uh, nope, they're entertainers, performers. Not artists.

Bullshit. They're artists. Just like cartoonists.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists, which held its biennial convention two weeks ago in Montreal, has launched an online petition that calls on the Canada Council to end its ban on supporting cartoonists and publishers of cartoon books.

I bet you didn't know the Council had this blind spot, did you? Except it's not really a blind spot. No, it's a form of discrimination. The Council supports virtually every other school of creative art in the country. Publishers, specifically, get funding for every kind of book imaginable (including graphic novels), but not a cent of public money for books of cartoons. Even though there is hardly a major museum or educational institution in Canada that does not have cartoons, especially editorial cartoons, somewhere in its collection.

Worse, new publishers in particular are effectively penalized for publishing cartoon books. Here's how it works: Before a new publisher can be considered a candidate for Council support, they must independently publish a dozen titles on their own dime. Fine, BUT...if one of those books is a collection of cartoons, it does not count towards their qualification because the Canada Council does not consider it a "real" book. How is that not snobbism of the highest order? How is that not discrimination?

Historians and (believe it or not) even some politicians are constantly telling cartoonists how important their work is; history on the run, lynchpin of democracy, blahblahblah. At the Montreal convention at least two academics and three politicians (including former PM Paul Martin) did just that. It's the sort of thing that makes cartoonists roll their eyes at each other. But inside they know it's true. It's just not cool to say so out loud. Because the idea is to take the work seriously, yes, but not to take themselves too seriously. Anybody who takes themselves too seriously, after all, is a bore and might as well run for office. Or run the Canada Council.

The ACEC is trying to redress what is really an injustice that (before you go off on the Tories: "That f***in' Stephen Harper!"), has existed for a loooong time, even under the Liberals. Because it doesn't have to do with politics but with perspective. The Canada Council doesn't have it.

So sign the petition if you think Canada's cartoonists deserve to be recognized somewhere other than on the wall of your office cubicle or your fridge door (though that is the highest honour). Do it now. Kick the Canada Council in the goolies.

About the pic at the top: That's outgoing ACEC president Terry (Aislin) Mosher with a framed copy of one of the most famous editorial cartoons ever published in Quebec: Serge Chapleau's portrait of Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe wearing his infamous cheese hat. Now that's art.

You can also help support Canada's editorial cartoonists by buying this book:

It's a nice little collection of drawings by every single editorial cartoonist in the country. Each cartoonist - whether working at a daily,  a weekly or other publication - was asked by Aislin to choose a single drawing that best represents their work. The result is a snapshot of the art of the editorial cartoon in Canada today. An introduction provides a historical context for the collection. The book is also the catalog for an exhibition running through the summer at Montreal's McCord Museum


  1. HI Dave, I'm Tara from the Canada Council, and I read your post with interest.

    Publishers of books that contain works by cartoonists, illustrators and graphic novelists ARE, in fact, eligible for our Book Publishing Support, Block Grant program. A wide variety of publications that include illustrations (including cartoons) are included in publishers’ submissions every year.

    What is ineligible for support are collections of editorial cartoons that were published in newspapers in the recent past. These do not correspond with the program’s objectives to support publishers for their capacity to select, edit and disseminate works by Canadian authors.

    We appreciate and welcome feedback from the community and are constantly revising program criteria to be aligned with the needs of the milieu.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tara. However I don't quite understand how, because editorial cartoons have been recently published in newspapers, this doesn't "correspond with the program's objectives to support publishers for their capacity to select, edit and disseminate works by Canadian authors."

    Perhaps you've never edited a book of cartoons. I have. It's all ABOUT selecting, editing and disseminating. But maybe it's because the Council doesn't see editorial cartoonists as Canadian authors? I'm not being facetious (for once), I'm really trying to understand what you, speaking for the Council, are saying.

  3. Rolling graphic novelists, cartoonists and illustrators in to the publishing and writers' sections does not really serve cartoonists, comics artists, and illustrators very well. If CC still can't stomach us as visual artists then maybe it's time to make a new category.

    Plus, a full-on inquiry into that old-fashioned concept of "commercial art" is long overdue. That's the category that disqualifies us, but it is never clear who makes that call: CC staff or the jury members? As I have said elsewhere, "commercial art" isn't sufficiently defined, and it needs to be defined by those who get labeled as "commercial" because artists who think they are uncommercial really don't get it, and many are hypocrites, with a vested interest in keeping others out.

    Denying illustrators and other applied artists honours and grants has encouraged exactly what the founders of CC policy some half-century ago were trying to mitigate: over-reliance on safe, predictable, and Americanized standards. Doesn't CC realize ALL creative workers need opportunities to recharge, research, and innovate? Considering the applied arts affect life for all Canadians every moment of the day, the boat really got missed.

  4. Hi Tara,

    Does Canada Council fund writers who have been published in newspapers or magazines in the recent past? Like a collection of columns or short stories? Many writers get their start publishing in periodicals. Just wondering if your criteria are as arbitrary as they seem.

    Thanks for joining the debate.

  5. Hi all,

    Thanks for your questions and comments – let me clarify: there are no barriers for editorial cartoonists or other artists who bridge editorial and visual art to apply for support from the Canada Council.

    Under our Publishing program, publications need to demonstrate editorial oversight and/or commentary as part of the collection of works. You can find more complete program guidelines and eligibility criteria here:

    In our Visual Art program, all professional visual artists, regardless of medium, are eligible if they meet two criteria: firstly, they have produced an independent body of work (e.g. not commissioned) and have had their work presented in a professional context such as a curated exhibition. You can find the program guidelines and eligibility criteria for this program here

    The Canada Council recognizes that art forms are constantly changing and evolving. Our programs and prizes are frequently reviewed and updated to stay in step with the arts sector.

    Tara Lapointe
    Canada Council for the Arts

  6. I appreciate the outreach, Tara. I still would like to point out two things: first, "not commissioned" inherently excludes illustrators, and second, there's a bigger issue with the systemic bias to contemporary "fine" art among the peer reviewer pool, who are invited to juries basically by word of mouth when I last checked into it (2006). I suggest this based on what people I know who have served as reviewers have told me, and on my own experience as a gallery artist in the artist-run-centre part of the art world. I expect things are changing, but really - if a cartoonist submits editorial cartoons and there is no one on the jury who has that background, let alone three (or whatever the current quorum is to admit something), do they really have a chance? The policy is one thing in writing, quite another in practice.

  7. In the Publishing program, criteria under ineligble titles:

    illustrated non-fiction publications that do not include a narrative text with a minimum length of 10,000 words, unless they make a significant contribution to visual arts or literature

    publications commissioned or paid for by an individual, group, political party or company where the applicant publisher does not have complete and independent editorial control

    collections of previously published articles, of letters, journal or diary entries, transcripts of broadcasts and conference papers, unless they make a significant literary contribution (as defined above for eligible literary non-fiction)

    I'm assuming these are the three main reasons collections of editorial cartoons are refused support by the Canada Council?

    An editorial cartoon, by its very nature, is in a sense "commissioned," the 10,000 word requirement is abitrary and, of course, editorial cartoons are "previously published."

    Given the importance and significance of editorial cartoons in Canada's ongoing social and political dialogue, the Council needs to re-visit these criteria and ask itself whether it is unfairly excluding cartoonists by applying these criteria blindly.

  8. In my experiencing the any word count is more or less waved for comics under the Creative writing grants, but there is a built in bias there for new works over collections because it's a creation grant, meant to support you while you make the book. But that does not exclude editorial cartoonists, just their previously published editorial cartoons?

    Still I think making a home category for all sequential art and comics is something i'm all for.