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Michael Leunig reflects on our 'disturbing times'

Creatives have important role to play in partisan times, prominent cartoonist tells Dean of Brisbane Cathedral

PHOTO: Peter Branjerdporn

By Emma Halgren

September 7 2018 

Artists, musicians and poets have an important role at a time when society is “hurtling along” and discussions are often reduced to “them and us”, said Melbourne cartoonist, poet and cultural commentator Michael Leunig, in a conversation with Dr Peter Catt, Dean of St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane.

“An Evening with Michael Leunig”, held at the cathedral on Wednesday 18 July, was the closing event of the three-day Abundant Justice and Prophetic Imagination conference. The evening featured performances by the Queensland Kodaly Choir, including several pieces that had been composed from verses by Michael Leunig. On display were artworks by Melbourne priest and Wiradjuri man the Revd Glenn Loughrey, whose exhibition The Art of Blackfella’s Youngfella was launched at Evensong on Sunday 15 July.

Leunig said that in his cartoons he was “working in a primal way, a childish way… It’s what a child does when they make a drawing or invent a song”. He said that his work was sometimes “looked down upon” in a culture that put a premium on intellectual achievement. But he said that what he wanted to do was tap into some childlike qualities: the “great gift of wonder… they are great moralists. Children have a beautiful conscience…They have a sense of fairness and justice and injustice.”

He said: “I’m trying to work at an unconscious level. You can’t be very elegant or very clever. It’s pretty primal and infant level, but people need it… One of the important roles of the artists is to express what is repressed.”

Dr Catt said that much of Leunig’s work “invites people to simply reconnect with nature and contemplate it”. Perhaps, he said, “the work of the artist and the musician and the poet is actually one of the devices we still have left to be able to unlock that innocence and that sense of deeper purpose”.

One of those things that seems to have been repressed in societies everywhere, Leunig said, was the effect of being involved in wars that were “awful and cruel and brutal”.

He said, “Think of the militarisation of the male mind. All our ancestors, all these males back to prehistory, were being conscripted into war, dragged into war, taught the art of violence and killing in this tribal way… It’s a terrible thing… the history of human brutality”.

In Australia, he said, the brutal treatment of Indigenous people was a “massive wound, not just to the people who were here, but to the people who settled here… it is a wound to carry and it’s often unconscious and that’s what may be repressed. So we’re talking about a wound and what you’re asking is, how do we heal this?”

In their hour-long conversation, Leunig and Dr Catt reflected on how Australia might “re-narrate” its national story. Dr Catt said that at the moment, that story seemed to centre on two major public holidays: “Australia Day, which is Invasion Day, and the other, which is becoming our really supreme religious festival, is Anzac Day, which has changed incredibly in my lifetime.

“I remember in the 1960s when I was a young kid, Anzac Day was on its last legs because the veterans were getting old and dying out, and then suddenly it became this pivotal narrative. It seems to me that it’s become a really quasi-religious nationalistic narrative that is over-simplifying who we are and also attaching us to an act of violence as the place where we discovered who we were.”

Leunig said that a personal connection with a war veteran had been a very moving experience for him.

“I feel so sad for anybody who’s dragged into a war,” he said. “My first headmaster at school was a Gallipoli veteran. He also went to France and was gassed and had life-long weeping sores on his face and his hands, and I remember being sent to the headmaster’s office as a young boy with a message from my teacher and I watched him as he was putting bandages on his hand… He slowly wound it on his hand and he said, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute, boy’. And then he put the bandage on. And I look back and I say, I saw an old Gallipoli veteran bandaging his war wounds. That’s how close it was.

“I was born at the end of the Second World War. There was a great movement amongst those men to throw their medals aside and not go and march on Anzac Day. It was a very strong and principled revulsion and rejection of militarism and what had happened. And they’d lost so many of their dear friends and been brutalised, so I thought that was a very spirited, proud and worthy thing that gave them meaning and was a really good therapy for them to some extent.”

Dr Catt suggested that as time passed and direct contact was lost with people who had lived through events like the world wars, there was a risk that stories could be manipulated or changed.

“It would not have been possible in the ‘60s or the ‘70s to hijack Anzac Day in this way… because there were plenty of people around who had been in the war and they would have told you, look, don’t you dare narrate our story in that way… [Now] the World War Two generation has largely died out and certainly the people who were exposed to the rise of fascism in the 1930s, they’re not our chief storytellers anymore. Maybe there’s something in that, that as we get distant from a story, we have to be very careful that we allow the original voices to be rediscovered.

“We certainly have to do that in terms of the Aboriginal frontier wars, we have to go back and find the voices that will allow us to hear that for what it was.”

Leunig said he was concerned that too many discussions – including those about gender relationships – degenerated into “them and us”.

“The recurrent problem I come to is this question of what I call tribalism… them and us – ‘us good people, them bad people’, or those who are right and those who are wrong. And it seems that this sort of paradigm is woven into our political system, our cultural system, our international system… so many issues seem to come down to that.”

He said he had noticed a “dismissive, snide streak in the Australian culture”.

“It’s very evident at the moment in the media,” he said. “People are very nasty, there’s a lot of vitriol, a lot of hostility in so-called discussions.”

He said, “It seems to me it’s getting worse because we’re going so much faster now as a society. We hurtle along. And when people hurtle along, the soul gets very frightened and our anxiety level goes up. And when the anxiety goes up, the anger goes up and [there’s] this dismissive thing: no time to hear you, no time to listen, to put something on the table and look at it.”

He said that while humans had always been in “some predicament or other”, the present time seemed to be “in the spectrum of my lifetime… a very disturbing time”. He said it was important to “just keep carrying on the work of care… one must keep on with it, there’s no magic fix”.

He said the word “care” was related linguistically to the word “cure”, but that they were both the same and different.

“A cure is seen as the sort of ‘fixing it up’. It is done, it is solved… disease cured. But… care is ongoing and care is attention, intelligent attention, love, holding, caring for.”

Of his work over many decades, which has led to his being declared a national living treasure by the National Trust, Leunig said, “What I’ve been trying to do and what I’ve been asked to do by the newspapers I have worked for is to look at the world and say something in response to that world, which is not the voice of an expert… And it’s an offering, I guess, what I do… more like an artist or a musician or a poet.”

Abundant Justice and Prophetic Imagination was hosted by the Social Responsibilities Committee of the Anglican Church of Southern Queensland, in conjunction with Anglican Board of Mission, the Public Affairs Commission of the Anglican Church, St John’s College within the University of Queensland, St Francis Theological College, and St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane. There will be further reporting on the conference in the October edition of TMA.