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