Interview with David Blumenstein
by Anthony N. Castle
Artists across the country were shocked when Senator George Brandis suddenly announced a $104.7 million dollar cut to the Australia Council on last year’s budget night. The diversion of funds gave the Minister for the Arts upwards of $80 million to fund a new national programme to prioritise works of ‘distinction’ and ‘excellence’, quite possibly crippling the independent arts sector in the process. The following outcry resulted in a Senate inquiry and a call for submissions. Cartoonist David Blumenstein- known for his satirical graphic essays created in the alter ego of a fictional little brother called Tristian- contributed a text submission along with Squishface Studio. The submission also contained a piece by ‘Tristian’ which prompted an interesting response from the secretariat of the Senate…
“I submitted the comic along with a text submission,” Blumenstein says. “The people in the Senate got back to me and asked ‘is this from your brother? Once I said ‘no Tristian is my fake, non-existent little brother’, they said ‘oh, you’re not actually allowed to put in a submission that’s purporting to be from a person who doesn’t exist. If you try to do that, you could be considered in contempt of Senate. I did want them to take the text submission seriously, so I left out Tristan’s comic in the end.”
This isn’t the first time Tristian has caused trouble. The character has become something of a Pucklike figure in online media and the graphic essays now feature as a regular column in Daily Review.
“The first one I did was about Andrew Bolt and, as written, it came off too much as lecturing the reader. It sounded like a high school media analysis project, so I came up with the character of Tristian and made it appear as one. When people mistake it for a real essay, which happened early on, you get fun reactions.”
While Squishface Studio supports itself through workshops and membership, some personnel have had experience with arts funding in the past. Overall, this situation raises the question as to how much Government funding actually aids Australian comics.
“Literature, which comics come under for arts funding, is not very well funded by the Australia Council at all,” Blumenstein explains. “In the end it’s not that there’s a great deal of funding going to the comics industry but that for the little that does, there’s a lot that comes out it. For instance, I didn’t realise that Gestalt, the only real proper comics company in the country, had early work funded by an Australia Council grant. Tom Taylor, who’s the best-known Aussie comics writer at the moment, had funding too. Pat Grant’s been supported by funding as well. I think Aussie comics give you good bang for your buck. It might be damaging to only think of the financial side though, which is probably all politicians think about. The funny thing is that this Minister for the Arts is actually into particular kinds of art.”
George Brandis has indeed often spoken about his admiration for poetry and opera, forms of art which Blumenstein’s graphic essay described as art by ‘dead people’.
“Yes, it’s art by dead people,” Blumenstein clarifies, “but it’s an industry of art by dead people being performed by living people. That’s what George Brandis wants to protect, all the opera companies and the ballet companies and the orchestras. It’s important that we have those industries, so good on him for wanting to keep them strong. I’d also ask why aren’t we innovating by funding people who are making new art? Why aren’t we propelling new Australian artists out into the world?”
The Government’s aesthetic preferences are clearly revealed on this decision. Brandis’ rhetoric has been peppered with adjectives like ‘distinction’ and ‘excellence’, implying a conscious decision to support high-brow classical art over new independent work.
“It’s hard to know what to think about that because different art forms weren’t always necessarily high-brow,” says Blumenstein. “Opera was for a long time considered the art of the people. It became the interest of wealthy people over time. I’ve got nothing against opera. It’s just one of those art forms that has been claimed by wealthy people who want to seem cultured. There’s no reason to think that in 100 years from now comics won’t be as upscale as opera has become. And people will be looking at the funding and thinking ‘Oh God, it’s another old graphic novel!’ I imagine these kids in the future wanting to focus on their own kind of art, which I assume by then will be digital holograms of people’s testicles, and they’ll be forced to read Tristian’s graphic essays.”
While Tristian’s work was almost in contempt of Senate, it has gone on to feature in Crikey where its publication has further critiqued the funding changes. Upon reflection, the greater contempt might be that shown for independent artists operating across the nation.
“There’s not much we can do.” Blumenstein admits. “There’s not really anything the Opposition or the crossbench can do about it. This is something the Minister for the Arts can simply choose to do. If the decision is incredibly unpopular then he might pike on it, like he did with altering the Racial Discrimination Act. He’s kind of screwed this up as well. He doesn’t seem to know the affects the funding change will have on various art forms. I don’t think he even cares. I’m more concerned that an alternative government wouldn’t reverse it or even increase arts funding. In my mind, this is an opportunity to let regular people know the benefits of making independent art. That’s what Tristian was trying to say. It wasn’t to risk contempt of Senate. The arts, all types of art, need support in this country.
For more info on David’s work, check out http://www.nakedfella.com/