From HQ magazine, July/August 1998
LEUNIG ON THE LOOSE.
ďThere is nothing more menacing sometimes than a happy enough person.Ē
ďThere was a time when I was getting too much criticism and I became too cautious and censored myself too much,Ē says Leunig.
I have to be a bit more outrageous in myself.Ē
For more than 30 years, Michael Leunigís spin on life has delighted, moved and, lately, enraged. Here he talks to HQ about cafe society, socks & the usefulness of despairÖand invites us up to se his latest etching.
Interview & photographs by Chris Beck.
How did it feel to be named one of 100 Australian living treasures?
I can remember being told this and I kind of smiled. I was a bit touched.
Was there a change in you after the recognition?
No, no, no. I had arrived at a point already. Iíd said Iím not interested in being just an outsider any more. There is such an industry made of outsiders, tough loners, sensitive loners. While these are lovely people, they have become produce. So I think in this time itís more interesting to explore a kind of civic world-weíve got to make all this work.
Once, it seemed to me that I was living in a world that was dominated by a status quo. Solid immovable, dull and dreary. Now I see the world as all shook up. Nothing is steady except dull habits of corporations and things. Whereas once I would rock the boat, now I am also interested in steadying the boat.
Do you consider yourself a theologian?
Yes, I suppose I do. Thatís a loaded way of describing me because people think of some kind of holy man or something. See, itís about Theos, God, some meaning to life. Some invisible quality to life that you are really interested in exploring.
Well, as society becomes more pragmatic, do you embrace the more fantastical nature of religion?
Yes, there is some truth beyond what can be measured. The human what can be measured. The human spirit gets tyrannised by technology. There is an illusion of freedomÖI think we live in a time when we are overwhelmed and repressed.
Freud might have said that sexuality and sexual attitude oppressed people. I would say now motor cars, traffic, oppress people. Corporate procedures and culture oppress people. They have lost confidence to be authentically human with all the rough, strange bits.
You watch children now, they donít get enough time to be feral little animals. They are being educated and civilised far too early. The spontaneity of life is oppressed.
Teachers of meditation say you can be happy despite unhappy situations. Do you believe that?
I do. In fact, people are often very happy when things are going bad because they have got something to struggle with. Happiness is something about vitality, whether itís a struggle or whether itís lying under a palm tree. Happiness is a great world. Happiness. Contentment enough. In fact, I think there is a great persecution of happiness. There is nothing more menacing sometimes than a happy enough person. Sometimes I think the very powerful men who want to downsize and sell off and get everyone more competitive are profoundly envious of those people who have found some simple contentment.
Do you ever enjoy the feeling of depression?
I have, I have. A truly depressed state is nightmarish. But if you can just hold onto the knowledge that it passes, itís cleansing. Some new growth comes out of the rubble of disillusionment. Some of my better work as far as Iím concerned-has been done by working in it.
What sort of work was that?
It was inclined to be poetic. It was inclined to be sensitive and emotional and tender work, if you like. Clinical depression is deadening. But there is another depression, a state of despair which is sensitising and makes you tender and feel lifeís wretchedness. Sometimes thatís a really interesting perspective.
Much of your work comes from your inner worldÖ.
Yes, very much. I suppose it dates back to an early childhood feeling that people werenít really saying what they were thinking. I think a lot of children grow up thinking, ďHang on, more is going to here, but people arenít saying it.Ē I wanted to know what they really though, what they were saying to themselves that they couldnít say out loud. People lie constantly, we all do. I think we suffer from the absence of the personal. When society lapses into the personal it gets all maudlin and inept and clumsy. Because we are not used to incorporating spontaneous, natural, truthful response.
Did you have a liberation of your inner world?
I think I did. Itís trying to tell the truth as you feel it.
Why donít you still do cartoons about sexuality like the early days?
I was doing that in a different time, when sexuality was repressed in the media. I was arrested on three occasions for obscenity. That doesnít really happen any more. There was a point in toying with it in a healthy kind of way. I donít like what pornographers do, but Iíve always liked people who could touch upon the ribald and erotic. I was just being cheeky and naughty. But these days maybe I donít because, in this time, sex and pornography are becoming a bit large and dark in society. We didnít talk about paedophiles once, we though of sexuality only as a healthy kind of thing. Iíve heard Richard Neville expressing some sense of shame that he was involved in some sexual liberation which has now turned into a monster. Sometimes, I think, in the broader interest of society you go a bit soft on that because some people arenít as healthy about it as you might hope. But, still, I think I should. One could make some pretty funny jokes about peopleís sex lives. I must say Iíve got a store of what we used to all dirty jokes. I used to think they were funny. Iím afraid I still laugh at these kind of jokes.
Have you got an example?
I often come up with them spontaneously and I always distance myself by saying this is purely an anthropological joke. I donít know. Oh, two guys walking down the pub. One guy says, ďWhatís that bruise on your forehead?Ē And the other guy says, ďOh, I was doing it doggy style with my wife the other night and she ran under the house.Ē But if I say that as a joke people would say, ďWhat a grubby mind.Ē And itís the women as the repressed sexual object and stuff. But there were some pretty funny dirty jokes. I like these jokes. See, human sexuality is also the area where people are very human and vulnerable. This is precisely where truths emerge-and sensitivities and fears. All the stuff that humour is made ofÖ.I think people who lead very boring lives feel the greatest need to dress up as an ostrich or what ever they do.
No, I never did that. I think the strongest aspect of my sexuality was that it was fairly relentless. It was keen. I found woman to be very adorable and creatures of great beauty and interest. It was strong. It is strong.
Do you think expressing views from the heart detaches you from responsibility?
And, yet why do I feel so entirely responsible?
You donít have to make the country run.
I do. Itís not just economists who make the country run. People think artists have nothing to contribute to the vitality of the society. But they have absolutely everything to contribute. Not just to the political situation but to the economic are starting to understand this. They call it sentiment. You can have everything set in place, but unless people feel this impulse towards life as a going concernÖ. You canít say Mozart didnít make the economy run. There is some mysterious vitality that we take so much for granted. People live in buildings that inspire or depress them and they donít even realise it. It would be great if town planners had the same sensitivity as a poet.
Recently, you have been fairly judgemental in cartoons depicting the cafe set and hoonsÖ.
I have, I have. I enjoy a cup of coffee in a coffee bar. Iím criticising the media, not the people who do it. Iím criticising the mediaís obsession with this being important in life. The availability of good coffee has become more important than the availability of democracy. Itís a kind of corruption. And I think, ďCome on, humans, you can do better than sit around in coffee bars drinking coffee.Ē What sort of appalling, pissy sort of life is this? And yet this is glamorised. This is selling a really nasty lie to the peasants. Life is a bit buggered, but youíve still got your coffee.
Did your cartoon ďThe SockĒ, depicting a character hugging an enormous sock, have a particular meaning?
That was a bit of a visual mystery. I love the way pictures work. Why is it that some photographs touch us profoundly, but you canít articulate why? This is truly an icon. Icons were originally aids to a prayerful state. An icon had a function: it brought us into a deeper contemplative state, to some truth. Just as a piece of music might bring us to tears.
Where did ďThe ShockĒ bring us?
That mightíve brought us to this lovely thing called absurdity. Simple delight. There is a lot of vaudeville in what I do.
You produced a cartoon depicting your Australian flag which was full of stereotypical Aussieness with thongs and beer guts and the ďold bitchĒ down the road. Why would that image be on you flag?
Because I think Australia has a lot of that truth in it still. And there is something charming and funny in that; the aesthetic of Australian is so profane. Nothing is sacred, itís all made of plastic and garish colours harsh building materials and slapped together. Itís as if nobody reveres anything. And the sad thing is, this always hurt me deeply, that people have no tender reverence for all the little domestic things of their lives. So often we make suburbs that are so appallingly hideous that we canít admit to it so we make light of it. Itís very materialistic and consumerist, everything comes out of a packet.
Sometimes you think, my God, weíll take anything the modern world is dishing up to us; whatever the machines are making for us. There is a harsh quality in Australian life. And itís pretty triumphant. If they are going to build a shopping centre, you know itís going to look pretty bad.
Do you care about the idea of a republic?
No, I donít think in the long run itís going to matter. Iím not a monarchist but I like the Queen. I was brought up with the Queen. She went by in Moonee ponds.
You created controversy with your disapproval of working mothers expressed in a cartoon depicting baby in a creche. You hurt many of your fans.
Hurt is not terribly worrying. There are hurts and there are hurts. These things are something I believe in for better or for worse. Iím not against working mothers, but I am putting the childís needs above those of the mother. I watch a drift in society where children are being increasingly neglected in the name of economic rationalism. I canít make a mother feel guilty. I can awaken a guilt which might be lying latent in her, but I canít make her feel guilty.
Were you hurt by the angry response from people who had been fans?
No. I had massive support from young women who feel strongly about this too. And they feel that they are being outcast for taking this attitude. They said, ďAll we see in the paper are women who are careerists getting praise for being good feminists. We are being told we are old dorks going brain dead at home. You have given us some dignity back.Ē Massive support from psychologists, psychiatrists, creche workers who talked about the appalling pain they feel watching the distress of the children. And lots of old women who are at war with their daughters doing this to their children. I didnít want to persecute a group of (working) women, because I view what they have to do with sympathy and pity. And I respect that. But Iím saying: this way lies madness. Thatís all Iím doing.
Why didnít you involve men in your review?
Because it was about the mother-child relationship. The mother gives birth to the child, it grows out of her, it comes to the breast of the mother. Just about every culture respects and protects the state. The man must create a setting which is secure, he must provide everything that is needed for the first early months. We are getting (to the stage) now where a mother has a child and then puts it into the creche the next week. I even heard of a case where a mother put the child in a creche on the way home from the hospitalÖ I think whatís at stake, once this becomes culturally acceptable, is the happiness of society.
How do you know itís damaging?
I know it all from my own experience. I learnt from my primitive memory of childhood where I was mothered, but everyone knows the moment of terror when mother is not there. I grew up surrounded by lots of women. I listened to many aunties and grandmothers, sisters talking about child-raising. Thatís what women talk about, they argued about it. Itís the great subject. Then I became hugely interested in the subject in am academic sense. I read a lot of psychology. Then I started speaking to people who are specialists in the (child-rearing) area.
Maybe itís dangerous to do stuff that is a real bugbear of yours?
I understand. One could become obsessive. But I must include that in my work also. I think itís great that contentious things are brought to life. That is my function too. I offer my two bobís worth. This wasnít legislation, this was a cartoon. Isnít it astonishing that a little drawing can provoke so much reaction?
About four years ago I did a piece; there was a populist, pernicious, feminist kind of story going around, written about in the papers in many shapes and forms, to the effect that men were an inferior life form. They were a bit stupid, not sensitive, they left their dirty socks on the floor, blah, blah, blah Ė ďIf you canít find a good man itís not your problem, itís the fact that there are no good men.Ē This was going on and on. I did a cartoon off the top of my head about, ďWell, you think youíre clever, donít you? But look at yourself in the mirror. Youíre a boring bitch, men wouldnít touch you with a forty foot pole, anyway.Ē I was saying the things men say when they sit around Ė ďIím not sick of all this, weíre not all rapists.Ē Itís pernicious. It dose nothing to help this ancient difficult about the relationship between men and women. Itís meant to be difficult. Instead of giving up, I was saying, ďStay with it, youíve got to struggle, heís not inferior, heís just different.Ē This provoked the greatest outrange amongst women. I got a lot of angry letters. Then I got this letter about a year ago from a woman saying, ďIíd always liked your cartoons bit I hated you for this. It even provoked an argument with my boyfriend and we went our separate ways. But I cut the cartoon out and months later I put it on the fridge. I looked at it and looked at it and, anyway, I want to tell you that me and my boyfriend are back together again and I want to thank you because there was a lot of truth in what you said.Ē
How do you respond to criticism?
There was a time (in the past five years) when I was getting too much criticism and I became too cautious and censored myself too much. I thought, ďThe forces of the rationalists are getting too strong for me.Ē They donít appreciate whimsy and intuition and delight and humour. They donít understand where it comes from, basically, and they call you childish and a dreamer.
I donít think being dismissed too much, you know, I feel that Iím on about something that is kind os serious. So I pulled my horns in a bit. I have to be more outrageous in myself. If youíre going to be yourself you may as well go the whole hog.
Do you think there was a time when there were fairies and elves?
I like the idea. There is a story that I read to my daughter. There is this goblin who loves fairies. He is told if he wants to see fairies he should wash his eyes with the dew from a four-leaf clover. He spends years searching the world for a four-leaf clover. He comes home in despair. He starts weeding his garden and he finds a four-leaf clover, then washes his eyes with the drew. He hears a voice and itís a fairy sitting on his gate. He says, ďWhere did you come from?Ē and the fairy says, ďIíve been here all the time.Ē Suddenly he realises the four-leaf clover was at his doorstep and that the fairies were there all the time. They are there, you just have to get the eyes to see it. A fairy is like a nature spirit Ė the nation that spiritedness is available but only if you can see it. In that sense, I believe in fairies.
Permission was sought from HQ magazine to reproduce this article on Curly Flat and as yet they have not seen fit to respond.
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