27 June 2014 The Arts Show – Michael Leunig and Michael Peck
The following program is produced in the studios of 100.7 Highlands FM.
Alex: Good afternoon listeners and welcome to The Arts Show on Highlands Fm. My name’s Alex McCulloch and I’m joined by my co-host this week, Michael Peck. Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael: Hi Alex, how are you doing?
Alex: Yep, very good thanks. Thanks for coming to woodend today. Our first guest is Michael Leunig. Michael is an Australian cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet. His commentary on political, cultural and emotional life spans more than 40 years and has often explored the idea of an innocent and sacred personal world. The fragile eco-system of human nature and its relationship to the wider natural world is a related and recurrent theme.
Michael: Michael, I think that the first time that people like Alex and I would have been ever introduced to your work was from a really young age. I mean, Alex and I are both sort of around 35, 36 years old and so we’ve lived with your work our entire lives. And probably the first times we would have ever been introduced, would have been from a clipping on the book or… I think I had your Prayer Tree, that book, sitting on my shelf from the time that I was about 10 years old. And I think that what’s really interesting about the work is that even from a young age, your work is intriguing. It’s really playful and it engages the viewer automatically, but at the same time it’s really ambiguous. And, even still as an adult, I look at your work and sometimes I’ll automatically connect with it because of its beauty and sometimes it just touches something immediately with me. And then often I’m riddled by the work. When you start a drawing, how clearly do you intent to communicate your message to the viewer?
Michael Leunig: Yeah Michael, thanks for that, that all makes sense to me. I meet a lot of people your age and they say they grew up with the work and that always makes me smile; in sort of bewilderment. I forget about these sort of things. How do I plan it? It’s sort of not planned. The minute I try to plan anything regarding cartooning or painting, or poetry, anything, it falls apart pretty quick on the paper, or if it’s an intellectual idea, it seems not to translate onto the paper. I have to find it there on the paper or in the moment, I’m finding it and so there’s expiration. And it’s often a very difficult process, it’s not a warm fuzzy feeling, it’s quite a struggle to invent something. And it’s quite a process, which I could elaborate on, of course, but it’s quite a process. And anything worth doing, anything that I’ve ever liked of my work, I think it’s been pretty difficult and painful, but then exhilarating, too, when the redemption comes. When you find something you didn’t know you could make. No matter how small or tiny or simple, it’s still quite exhilarating.
Michael: I think that’s wonderful. Just to hear you talk about the way that work can reveal itself to you is beautiful and I think that that’s the moment that most artists, in their approach to making art, they live for that moment. You know, as soon as you start repeating yourself or plan something too much. And I read a quote from you, and I can only try and remember what it said but it was talking about the idea that seeking something from too much of an intellectual perspective destroys the actual beauty in the work.
Michael Leunig: Yeah, I think there’s this intellectual approach, and of course we adore the intellect when it’s balanced with something else… it’s over-intellectualised approach to art. Which I think we’re currently observing, very planned meticulous kind of artworks that are being made now. Rather than hand-made they’re sort of brain-made in a way. A lot of installations, very kind of fastidious and obsessional, obsessive procedures, which are very brain-ridden and I think… I’m not saying that I don’t respond to that kind of work greatly, but I do love that creativity, this much-used word, is a fascinating profound sort of idea. And how I found it, how I’ve found it to be true in my work, is as I say starting out with just a desire to make something more or less, a vague notion, a yearning or a love of some mental state or some… having a feeling and having intellectual notions as well, I’m not excluding that, but… so you start out with this great desire and wanting, and wanting to maybe express, or communicate, or create something that never existed before to you. So that’s just a state of, a sort of spiritual state if you like, where I set out to do that when I’m working with my art. And I’m really not sure but I’ve got this eagerness to play and I think in the earlier introduction, there was some reference to the playful quality of the work. I like to think that… if you look at the child, the child is kind of exemplary in some ways as being a creator, or the lucky enough child should I say, whose in a good situation. When they’re at play they’re kind of uninhibited, no ones watching them, or they feel that they, they feel free to explore and discover and the world is new to them and there’s this sense of wonder. And I’m not trying to idealise it, but I think it’s true and, I don’t know, I hardly know a painter I respect who doesn’t adore the works of children, the very early paintings and marks they make and they way in which they make them. You know, of course there’s the famous line by Picasso: ‘it took me my whole life to learn how to draw like a child.’ So there’s a great truth in that, it’s cliché, but there’s a truth in it and it’s that innocence of… that innocent state, which is so divine and I try to, well I don’t try to, I look back and I think, ‘well it’s in a sort of state of innocence that I’ve created my best work’, well what I regard as my most useful work. People say, well you can’t be innocent, you’re a grown up man, you know, you’re a senior, how can you be innocent? And I said well, you can, you can have what I call, this sort of mature innocence. In other words, a connection, a very kind of continuous connection back to these first senses of childhood, the sensations of making and discovering and playing and… freedom without being judged, without being evaluated or coerced in your creativity. That’s the beautiful thing and I think… and its not just in the making of art, it’s in the making of lives, it’s in the making of relationship forms. You read so many things making your life, creating your life and then that, of course, that process doesn’t have a methodology particularly except to stay with it, to stay with that terrible mess you get in, that you set out to make something, you realise you’re getting in a mess, it’s not working, it’s falling apart, it’s pathetic, you think you cant do it. You think how come everyone else is a lovely artist and I’m not and etcetera, etcetera and this isn’t up to standard, this doesn’t look like art. And the little words of Lao Tzu the famous, the great Chinese philosopher come in: ‘True art does not look like art.’ So these are helpful little guiding points.
Michael: It is wonderful to hear you talk about that. I think that that’s one thing most artists struggle with. We struggle with, one: we automatically make comparisons between what the person next door is making and the other thing is that we put ourselves through these critical frameworks, which we don’t need to. And I think that if you make art truthfully and if you make it instinctually, then you’re making real art. If you make art, which is directed by what someone else expects of you then you start making, I think, you’re not making art, you’re making something else.
Michael Leunig: Yes, compliance. Yeah compliance, which is the very envy of creativity.
Michael: That’s right. That conversation about the child, it’s so, I think that what your work does is it actually reconnects us with that inner child and, you know, the child is so important within your work. You know, I read this other thing that you’d written, which was about the child always being the one who speaks the truth, when no one else does. And I have three kids and that can sometimes be a little bit embarrassing, but it’s you know for me as a parent. But at the same time, everyone in the group, in the room will often agree with what they’ve just said. Yeah, I wonder at which point it is in life that we actually kind of… that sort of gets stripped away from us.
Michael Leunig: Yes, well I wonder the same thing definitely. So many children draw beautifully, and in this non-realistic way. They don’t draw like little photocopy machines do they? They draw these lines and fantasises and just odd creatures and depictions of house and trees and faces – whatever they’re doing. And then, at some point, they seem to pick up this idea that they’re not drawing it right, they’re not drawing it proper. And what they’ve done previously is so colourful and beautiful and spontaneous, and then they, yes and I’m curious about what is that voice that comes in and says you got it wrong. And as I saif to a little boy… and he said, ‘I can’t get it right.’ And I said, ‘You don’t have to get it right, that’s what you might to with your arithmetic or mathematics or something, you can be free here and you can play and enjoy it and just love the colour and the line or whatever, and just get it down, don’t get it right.’ And so, to get, to recover that state somewhat is such a joy and produces such lovely things. Although, I think the contemporary art world has kind of drifted away from this idea. It’s all about control, it’s become very intellectual, it’s become riddled with fashion and it sort of copies media. It’s about media and it’s about ideas and terrible kind of things. Prizes, terrible art prizes. Which I find appalling and I have no time for it at all. It becomes so dull in the end. I think there’s a lot of incredibly boring art around, and sort of lifeless. We’re talking about vitally and some sort of radiant spirit, it just comes off poetry or art, you just sense that something very truthful and profoundly, often very mysterious, ambiguous is a beautiful thing, ambiguity; not trying to lecture to you. A lot of contemporary art is always trying to make some damn point, trying to shove it down your throat. I love the evocative art that is kind of a mystique and a mystery, at the very forefront of consciousness etcetera. You’re coming to something you have not known, you’re wandering in a strange world, and making something of it and there’s delight in that. God, I think the world is so short of delight. It’s been traditional. I think the musicians do it well. The musicians have always done it well. And, no one ever says to them, what does that mean? You just hear it, you know, it’s lovely, But I think the visual artists, a lot of poets, have become so inaccessible and of course a lot of good work is not readily accessible but it’s something so kind of removed from the organic human experience now, because of the intellectualisation of things. Which kind of is in step with the growth of technology. These things we don’t understand, these computers. We use computers we wouldn’t have a clue how they work. I don’t know how the electric iron works, sometimes. The art world bothers me; I say that, ‘the art world’ in capital letters, I don’t subscribe to it. I think there’s so much creativity and art made that is ignored and doesn’t get a look in, and it’s all narrowed down. Let’s say look, these are your stand out iconic artists, these people matter, these other ones don’t matter. I don’t sort of, I’m not happy with that. I think Australia is not in a good situation, with the exception of what is happening in the indigenous painting world, if we can talk about painting. What has come out of the central desert and the western desert etcetera has been quite an astonishing miracle – it took everyone by surprise. Untrained artists – people often quite old and in rather difficult and extraordinary circumstances – have produced this wealth of what you might call great beauty and delight and wonderment. Which has flowed into the world very prolifically, to the point where it’s almost silence the rest of the art world in… I mean it’s been embraced but at first it was shocking, it was so beautiful and so prolific… and all coming out of, not a new intellectual position as we would know it, but out of some spiritual state. That’s been a fantastic magical for me. I would love to think that the white society, the white culture could have an equivalent awakening.
Alex: Michael, many of your cartoons deal with melancholy and depression. Freud notes in his essay on mourning and melancholia that a depressed person can see into the truth of things in a way that others cannot. Does a view like this inform your cartoons when dealing with melancholia?
Michael Leunig: I Well, I think it’s a very interesting state. Possibly the reason why I have dealt with it is because it’s so prevalent. My first work as an artist… see I never grew up myself as an artist, I just started doing cartoons in response to the Vietnam War. And so the other… my first, my work was to look at society and see what’s going on. What is bedevilling it, what’s troubling it etcetera? I noticed there’s a lot of repressed melancholy; hidden, people ashamed of it. And people being, kind of, ostracised because they might be a bit miserable or something, things like that. Or have been drugged away etcetera, etcetera. So it just was an immensely interesting topic and once you go into it the more, why? What is this melancholy state or the sad state? What is grief, grief without reason? Etcetera, etcetera… it’s just hugely complex and then the Freudian kind of psychoanalytic view. Looking at the psychoanalytic from the psychoanalytic perspective. Politics for instance, why are we doing it? Why the heck, what is an economy? What’s it for? Who does it serve? Are we creating a society that very hard on people in all of its kind of striving and wealth, technology and warfare? It’s incredibly hard on people and destructive to the spirit in some ways. So this is just terrifically interesting to look at. Peoples say, ‘oh, you must be depressed, you’re talking about depression.’ And I say, ‘well, you know, I’ve had my moments…’
Alex: Haven’t we all.
Michael Leunig: But, haven’t we all, and so we should. I think well, what’s the problem with going into the darkness, you’ve got to be a bit gutsy to go in there and look at it and turn it over and stay with it. And it’s okay; it’s a blessing in some ways. Getting back to what Freud said, yeah of course, from the darkness one can see astonishing things and feel profound things an awaken to things. And one can be really crushed by it, but in those times of being crushed and hovering in nowhere, in a place, you know, in a terrible dark place, comes some change and you’ll seek and grow in that darkness, I think. And it often is a turning point in a person’s life and it’s often a very tragic turning point, but it’s often the awakening time as well. So it’s just the human condition.
Alex: Speaking of politics Michael. You’re work has always had a political edge. It’s a particularly depressing time at the moment, as we can see through your cartoons, but what period in Australian history during the time you have been an artist, was the most fertile in terms of providing material for your commentary and your work?
Michael Leunig: Well, yeah, it’s interesting. Look, I was just thinking the other day, I was thinking about the Abbott government and Tony Abbott and… everyone, every street corner I’m on, I’m talking to someone saying, ‘yes its terrible.’ And you said it yourself, you said, ‘this is a particularly depressing time.’ I’ve never known Australia to be so kind of at the folk level, you know, in the ordinary people level, the conversation in the street across a huge range of, from young people to real seniors, they’re just kind of appalled and shocked and bewildered about something. I think there’s really observable and very interesting, and about Tony. They’re saying, well who is this guy? It feels so odd. And I started to think; hey, I remember the time when Gough Whitlam came to being. That was the same, this big folky sort of feeling across the board. Which was the opposite, it was kind of, oh the exuberant, the exhilaration and the joy that there was going to be this change with someone. Gough was loved so universally, and such hope there. And I’m thinking, we’ve got to very opposite end of the spectrum with Tony, I think, it’s just the direct opposite. And there was this wonderful saying, ‘it’s time,’ and there’s this time of hope, maybe it was delusional, but it happens. And it was sort of intoxication through the nation. Now, time again, it’s a terrible time it would appear, it would appear… the strange Senate, the Palmer party. I mean how odd that a political party is named after a man, Palmer United, this is just seen as normal but I think it’s pretty bizarre. Anyways, and then, the times of the wars are always particularly disturbing for me. The Vietnam War was a time of great hurt and, of course, I was in the firing line in the sense that I was in the generation that were conscripted and were pretty… well you know, they were sent away, my friends were sent away. I was conscripted but rejected on the grounds that I was deaf in one ear and, but I was gonna fight it, there was no way I was going to… I was all head up about it. And then the time of the Iraq war, I couldn’t, I couldn’t… I just lost my Australian citizenship in a way. I just didn’t want to belong to this country anymore; I don’t think I’ve ever quite accepted that I’m an Australian in some way. There’s a point when you leave your nation, and you grow beyond it, no, I don’t want to belong to this sort of set of appalling values, so I’m not a good Australian in any respect. I love the land, I love the… what I have been exposed to and I understand a lot about that, but I don’t think I can to relate to this flag and this sort of government.
Alex: It’s hard to like the country when you’ve got the Prime Minister sitting in a jet that’s costing 42 billion dollars or whatever it was and then cutting welfare.
Michael Leunig: Yeah, all those things, those many things and that sort of madness of the law. I think you have to be a bit mad to go for that job, don’t you. That’s the sad thing, it’s a terrible system somehow, I’m not sure exactly. What I’ve seen of politics and politicians, they’re immensely strange and stressed and distressed and kind of slightly unhinged people. They have to be. I would be if I was doing their job. And so, it doesn’t deliver us a great kind of system, I don’t think. But, yeah, its funny, ah look. I think you get to an age, when things like national pride or anything just don’t matter to you. You want to leave these banal matters, and they’re mostly got up and trumped up ideas of national pride and it’s all silly after a while, and you realise that there’s a much bigger story. But I think at the time of the Iraq war and all the constant… because…why we must…these people must be bombed into the ground and killed? I grew up with war refugees, all my friends, so many of my friends when I grew up in the 1950s were the children of people from Germany, Russia, Poland. They all… all my teachers, so many of my teachers were war refugees. So, war… I have a different view of war. I’m not patriotic; I think it’s a great misfortune. But I just can’t stand this nonsense spoken about why we have to go and do that to Iraq, why etcetera. It just, it angered me, too. It depressed me and angered me and I can never quite come to terms with my feelings on that… I just do not understand where you learn that it is necessary to launch cruise missiles against a city; this is a civilised country.
Alex: And Michael…
Michael Leunig: And America, and these civilised people who enjoy fine restaurants and beautiful art and lovely things, and they’re doing that and saying, yeah its necessary. Where do you learn that? I went to a working class high school; we didn’t learn it there. Maybe you learn it at a very posh school, I don’t know.
Michael: Michael, I think that what you’re saying though is that the success in your work is… I think that what a lot of people probably feel is that work does something where it actually allows us to be able to feel like we’re not the only people who feel the way that we feel. That we see your work and we see a connection with it and its joining. And I think it’s this idea that your work as a cartoonist, your work starts to say the things that are on the tip of our tongue. That we’re afraid to say or we’re not sure if we say it then it becomes something else and, you know, and so there’s always this feeling with us that we’re kind of poking around in the dark feeling like we’re not really sure whether we fit into everything, but your work seems to bring us together. I think what I like in your work is this idea of what you’ve posed as – I think you call it the divine fool – in the work. And I find that really interesting that we do, e sort of feel, we all spend all of our lives kind of feeling slightly out of place and your work allows us to feel a little bit more included in everything.
Michael Leunig: Yeah, well that’s right and that’s very traditional. The work of the artist is to express what is repressed and that’s a simple sort of thing to say, but there’s so much truth in it. And this is what the bards, you know, the poets, the playwrights who write it, the people who don’t represent big power or big wealth they only represent the human spirit or the soul. Or even better still, forget the humans, they represent nature, you know. The natural order and they care for the creatures on the earth quite often as much as they… they’re not humanists, they’re just naturalists or something. So I think humans are becoming incredibly conceited as a species and so the artist is often speaking for what is repressed or ignored, or what is unpopular or unattractive or something and speaking the unspoken grief. There’s a lot of grief, not just about that we’ve lost a loved one, but we’ve lost much and we’re always losing and that’s nature, it’s the life and death cycle of things of beloved places, of nature, you know. To grow older in this country for anybody, or any country in the world, is to watch the divine and beautiful places of childhood desecrated and become heresy to the state. This is a kind of, this terrible, you know, what would the Germans say… weltschmerz, the pain of living, of life, of the state of the world. This is the pain of watching it. So, artists are often reflecting and saying it out loud what people don’t have the opportunity to, you know. This sort of semi-conscious or subconscious in people, so these people, these artists, it’s just a kind of a function of the artists, to do that; an intuition of the artists. And sometimes it’s the musician that makes the most glorious piece of music that brings people to tears and they don’t know why, but something’s happened, there’s some astonishing movement within a person when they hear some music. This is all about health and life and truth, and it’s just what artists do, but yeah, to make people feel okay, I guess. All those voices from outer and inner voices, it represses from having our feelings, from having our intuitions, our… you know, to always liberating…always want to be a voice of liberation. And I think the history, political history is sometimes political forces come down hard on artists and… from time to time, they’re rounded up and dealt with, you know. Intellectuals too, the ones that right true, they resist power structures.
Michael: Maybe that will be something to look forward to next year.
Michael Leunig: What, that we’ll all get rounded up? (Laughs)
Michael: We’ll all get rounded up and shipped off to somewhere.
Michael Leunig: (Laughs) well, yes. Yes we have been in a way, because you have to live a bit in exile. This is not the time of governments understanding why art could be a healthy thing and is not being vilified all the time as some sort of elitist nonsense.
Michael Leunig: I think we’ve returned to the, kind of, philistine kind of situation, which was more prevalent in the 1950s. But the new kind of philistines…it’s not that they don’t like it, they just don’t understand it, they don’t get it. It doesn’t seem to add up, they don’t understand this ecosystem of the spirit.
Michael Leunig: And why a nation or a culture needs to feel vibrant and alive to the mysteries. This makes good economic sense, too. I think more evolved countries understand that you’ve got to look after this troupe. That’s why into the broader system, it would appear that the government we have, there wouldn’t appear to be anybody who shows any understanding or sympathy or valuing of that creative life and that art. And of course, there’s been a lot of bullshit art around and I don’t blame a lot of people for being wary. Because there have been some incredibly pretentious and pompous sort of things done in the name of art. So, yeah, but I would love to think we could understand the value to the vitality of the nation.
Alex: I wanted to talk about the angles in your work. Man and woman, we are told as we and him both the beast and the angel. Which of the side of the human being do you think dominates in our world, the angel or the beast?
Michael Leunig: Oh yeah, I don’t know what… I would like to think the angel and the beast could get together and hold hands. (Laughs) And I think it misses the work of integration, that there are the beasts and the angels. And I would like to think that every beast has a bit of angel in him and the angel has a bit of beast. I mean, it’s nice to have a bit of beast. There’s a kind of a creaturely person in us all. I’m not an either or kind of a person I don’t think. I think I’m not sure that there’s a domination. It would appear that, of course, we’re living in pretty dark times were greed is rampant and corruption is kind of ignorant. The war impulse seems to be strong, the militarisation of culture is gradually happening around the world and there’s a dark kind of beast, I guess. And what is angelic is not being there… that it’s kind of in exile somewhat. You know, we’re in this conversation for instance, in talking of other things. That’s going on too, that it’s in an organic slightly subterranean way, I guess. I guess we’re in a bad part of the cycle, maybe, and it might be utterly disastrous…I’m not hugely hopeful about the way it’s all drifting, but then I don’t know, too, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be the first guy getting old who thinks it’s all in a terrible irredeemable mess, you know. Old fellas have always said things like that.
Michael: To ask, then, where do you see hope or where do you see redemption?
Michael Leunig: Well, don’t know, there’s something in this spirit, like a child born tomorrow is pretty much the same as a child born maybe 5000 years ago. In some way, there’s part of them, this innocent quality, and it just always gets this capacity towards health – and when I say health I mean being alive to things, balanced to things. Redemption is somehow the recovery of nature and the… and human nature, too. And this modern, mass-minded kind of technological man with all these delusions about prosperity, just totally delusional… and opulent, flash kind of idea of modern humanity. We are clever; we are the cult of cleverness and opulence. And the appalling ugliness that comes with that, and maybe that just falls away in time, too, given the right disastrous circumstances. I don’t know, I really don’t know what it does. One doesn’t have much hope, but you live as if there’s a natural impulse, which leads towards a kind of intelligent life.
Michael: Yeah, I think that….
Michael Leunig: And that’s what I mean. To me sensitivity is the definition of intelligence and that we become sensitive to our world and read it.
(34:00) Michael: Yeah, I think that there’s something in all of us, in every single person that hopes for something good and then… just maybe the machine of culture and society seems to get in the way of that, where we get caught up in it and drags us in another direction.
Michael Leunig: Yeah, I would think so. And I think, basically, because it’s so complex, the technology is so complex that the humans kind of managing it and directing it and making policies and stuff, don’t much know what they’re doing.
Michael Leunig: I think it’s … we’ve got to a point worse than ever we know… do we know what we’re doing? And it’s like the generals in the First World War or the Second World War, the generals were meant to know what they were doing, but of course they didn’t. Quite often they didn’t, I mean, there was military incompetence and there was administrative incompetence on a grand scale and we’re floundering along. Does Tony really understand this nation?
Michael: Yeah, it’s almost like… this kinda corporate nature of humanity where no one takes responsibility and hopes that someone else will fix it.
Michael Leunig: There’s something like that, there’s some dynamic that we’re caught in which is very much as you describe. Everyone’s hoping that someone else knows, meanwhile there’s all these structures and systems that seem to be working. Sometimes I wonder how it does work, it’s quite a miracle. I’m looking down from the window and I see this tram going along and cars moving and its all sort of… why isn’t everybody crashing?
Michael Leunig: It’s wonderful if people get up in the morning and go to work and make things work, it’s still a miracle and they get food into shops and people are fed, whatever, not very well necessarily, but it’s an attempt.
Alex: Are there, in your view, areas of discourse, politics, religion etcetera, which should not ever be spoken about or subject to humour?
Michael Leunig: I don’t think so. I think you’ve got to be careful with that one. I think there’s a few things I’ve go to tippy-toe around more than ever. There are a few issues where you’re only get yourself into a lot of trouble. It’s not as if I’ve repressed myself, but you’ve got to think of more sort of skilful ways of talking about things. We’re not as open as we used to be or tolerant. You know, there’s a lot of issues that I can’t touch on and I don’t want to because all hell will break loose. I’ve been through a lot of that stuff, I’ve had a lot of condemnation and hostility on a grand scale and it becomes extremely wearing and sometimes very worrying and kind of dangerous. And when you are the object of sustained hostility, it’s just very depleting and grinding and so I’ve had my fair share of that and I think people are very quick to condemn these days. I don’t think that the latitude in the discourse… we’re not as easy going as we were as a nation, as a culture. We’re kind of uptight and vigilant and sort of a bit punishing to each and try and catch each other out. It’s this divided society you know, it’s nonsense we now have the left and the right. It’s a great struggle, always in these columns who are condemning the lefties and blah, blah, blah. When I was… in the 1950s it was the Catholics and the Protestants, it was that sort of sectarianism, which was just absurd, but it was very real and these bad Protestants or those bad evil Catholics. You know, you read certain columns in the paper; they talk about the greens and the lefties as if they’re evil. So, we’re very un-integrated, we divided society to… or some people have – certain columnists and commentators. And they can’t bear the totality of life, that we…that life is a broad spectrum of humans, you’ve got to hold them all, take them all into account, they all have rights and you’ve got to sort of integrate it within. But, there are these columnists going, they’re saying, ‘the left are evil, they’re bad.’ It’s like… it’s the first stage where let’s get rid of them, that’s the first state. It’s so futile, what’s happening and the way we… and so one is always trying to integrate and bring things together, the angel and the beast, bring them together, bring them together. Bring the left and the right that don’t like this division, such hostility. So, therefore, getting back to the point, it’s hard to say something because there’s a lot of people watching, just wanting to pounce and to punish and to have people make public apologies because they sort of in a moment of silliness or misjudgement said something… and I think look, we all do that. It doesn’t mean to say we’re necessarily a racist or a misogynist o whatever, whatever, whatever, whatever. While I think that these are important issues, I think just being a punitive puritan about it, you’re not going to help, it’s going to drive things underground. So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff it’s better to sort of be… tread carefully, don’t give those kind of embittered hostile observers too much stuff to work on, you know, just sort of… humour is a beautiful thing. To outflank a lot of these things… I don’t whether it’s as easy to be funny. I feel I grew up in a slightly funnier world, conversationally funnier world. People are good at it in their natural self around the kitchen table, you know, they do it well. And I don’t know, public… it’s all sort of professional comedians now, the ordinary, the ordinary comedy between you and I is not as prolific I don’t think.
Alex: I mean, your characters, and I’m sure everyone’s wondering this, they’re very specific in their lines and the world at large are endeared by them. Can you remember when this character first emerged in your drawings that you knew that it was a stayer and he has continued to exist over a vast collection over time?
Michael Leunig: No, not really. Look, I think it was organic thing. I think it first started when I was at school in a way, just drawing this funny profile kind of create, this thing, vaguely representing the human being, but only vaguely. It was kind of more like an animal and it was neither a child nor an adult or a male or a female it is the spirit I suppose. And so, it was comical and through the comical character one can speak all kinds of improbable ideas and then they’re forgivable coming from something that looks idiotic. If I was to draw explicit, well-crafted, you know, proper looking human beings it would look a bit banal and dull. But you have this child saying it all the time, but I didn’t work it out like that. I’ve only realised that in retrospect, I’ve realised that oh that’s… see I wasn’t trained to draw. But I was happy to draw just this simpleton. So, it is the holy fool as I said, the holy fool from the mouths of babes comes wisdom and comes appalling things and nonsense… all part of the fun. Yeah, so it just occurred and then it was working and I had affection for that character. I actually… when I’m drawing that character I think, ‘I love this little person, I love him.’ I’m very careful what I put in his world, what I put on his table, you know, I want a duck beside him I don’t want a wolf. You know, I look after him and he looks after me. So, you go into … I go into a little creative delusion quite spontaneously. It’s like kids building a little fairy garden, you know, they really care. Or building a cubby… they get all… they love it, they respect it and that’s how one works. You create a little world, which you love and then you speak through it or it speaks through it and it has its integrity. And once you draw it you can’t alter it because you respect its integrity and without sounding too pompous, it’s a plaything and you can say political ideas through those silly, wretched little forlorn, inept, weak characters, you know.
Michael: I think it’s beautiful that your character is, I mean, in a sense your character is your own child, but your audience has also adopted that character as it’s own. So, you’re kind of like the guardian of that character for us. So yeah, if you put a wolf next it taking a bite, we’re all going to be hurt in some way. (Laughs)
Michael Leunig: (laughs) that’s right.
Michael: I mean, how old is that character do you think?
Michael Leunig: Do you mean how many years has it been around? I guess it’s been around for about 50-years. Something more or less like that. It’s evolved a bit and… but it’s utterly ridiculous, all its posture is wrong, you know it’s far too big and its eyes are too wide. But in those little emotions… it’s a hieroglyph, you see, like a hieroglyph, a symbol, which I can readily put on an emotion on its face of fear, of wonderment, of wicked delight. And it’s just a few strokes of a pen, and it’s very much like writing, you know, you make the eye that way, or the mouth that way, or the posture that way and instantly it says a lot, which is a mood, a sensibility. And this, of course, is classic in the humour of Charlie Chaplin. You know, Charlie Chaplin was a little fool kind a thing and then he was suddenly confronted by a huge appalling ugly situation. Then you get this wonderful tension between the huge ugly thing confronts the small innocent thing and you get there, in that moment, huge tension. What can then happen, you’ve got a tragedy or extreme wise comedy. And so, it’s a lovely form, and when I draw in a newspaper I just draw a little box around it and so that’s like a little stage, …. [KW1] It’s like a little stage and I put those characters on and they move around and they say this and they say that. And sometimes they’re not very clever they’re just dopey. And sometimes I like drawing these traditional old cartoons of two tramps on a park bench; it’s kind of traditional. And the dumb, sort of failed tramp, which we’ve all got a bit of that, whose really the lowest in society, just a failure, a drunk. But sometimes, they have an observation. The Czechs, in Czechoslovakia, the famous part in their folklore, The Good Soldier Švejk and Švejk was a lovely book by Jaroslav Hašek and he was just sort of a dumb, funny, robust, frolicking guy but sort of very, very wise. And he was a beloved folk character. So yeah, I reckon that’s what cartoonists have always done, created characters that speak for parts of us. They’re sort of always running against extreme earnestness and trudinism of… and power structures, just funny little outsiders streaks, which is kind of benign, it’s benign and healthy. I think, look, if I confess, I always want the best for my world and I don’t want to be a cynical bastards who just tears it to shreds and sees through it all. You sort of want to build something big.
Michael Leunig: … construct something a bit. That doesn’t bring great favour from the intellectual tradition, which can be a little bit cynical and get embarrassed by that. It should be just wit … and detached is the way a lot of those would have it, they vision Oscar Wilde or something. Who was great but… too many imitators of Oscar Wilde when I was growing up. But I want to try and… you yearn that it be better and maybe your work might be part of that, and so there I lapse into some corniness or sentimentality, which good heavens. The intellectual friends of mine were so embarrassed by sentimentality and corn, and so that it almost goaded me, that provoked me into serving it up to see whether they were strong enough to handle a bit.
Michael: That’s great.
Michael Leunig: And also, remember, I grew up in a kinda working class culture where your grandmother snag you a sentimental song. It was the folk language of the people a bit, nothing to be too embarrassed at. It didn’t mean you were an intellectual cripple or anything like that.
Michael: That’s right…
Michael Leunig: It was something enjoyable and sort of fun and you knew it was a bit sentimental, so you know, a bit like country and western or something like that, not that I’m a huge country and western fan, but there’s a sentiment in there that’s something… a lot of it is appalling though…
Michael: On that note, this might be a nice way for you to end up with this in the interview, thinking about what you just said about your grandma. Do you think you could leave us with a poem for today? Is there something that you could say to us that we could wrap up on?
Michael Leunig: Oh, oh, no. But I could think of my grandma when she said something we’ve all heard. And she said to me when I was a little boy, she said all… you know this thing, ‘all the world is bad, except for you and me, but even you’re a little strange.’ Yeah. (laughs)
Michael Leunig: I heard that when I was very young, I‘ve heard that a million times. That’s what comes to mine when I think of my grandma.
Michael: Michael, thank you so much for speaking to us today. It was an absolute pleasure to hear you talk.
Alex: Yeah, Michael, thank you again for joining us. We could really chat for all day, but we’re actually running out of time now.
Michael Leunig: Oh good, yeah, we’re all running out of time, exactly. I like to think of my voice going out on little wirelesses up in that part of the world to the little garden out the window.
Alex: Pleasure chatting with you and hopefully we’ll have you on again sometime in the future.
Michael Leunig: All right, thanks so much for the time, I appreciate it.
Alex: Thanks Michael.
Michael Leunig: Goodbye.