Celebrated cartoonist Michael Leunig released his latest collection this week, Ducks for Dark Times, and our own Jan Kershaw caught up with him for a chat, asking what it was that made the times dark.
“There were many factors with some of the more obvious ones being President Trump, North Korea and the more general incivility and hostility which permeates public discussion and politics,” Leunig said, admitting that he can’t bear to watch the news as it seems to be deliberately dark. He emphasised that we live in a time of great anxiety and he thinks young people, in particular, are reflecting this view.
Michael Leunig’s cartoons are open to a range of interpretations. He explained this was part of the “tradition of art, such that the artist must be true to him/herself to capture the reader and yet express feelings which may appear to be deeply personal but are actually universal.”
In discussing his work on the fascination we have with materialism and often gimmicky new products, Leunig made a telling comparison between today’s ‘technological trinkets’ and the ‘beads and mirrors’ early explorers gave to indigenous peoples to ingratiate themselves when first encountering them.
As he had mentioned ‘technological trinkets’, he was then asked his opinion in general on the huge range of technologies now available to us.
“People seem to be more sleepless and exhausted and many labour saving devices are just the opposite and many people think they have to be connected all the time or they may miss out on something,” he said. “The parade of humans showing off – my wonderful holiday, clothes, meal etc – on social media platforms puts a lot of pressure on young people and, while it’s good to share your experiences, it has become more like a game of one-upmanship. ‘Likes’ and ‘friends’ on Facebook are not the same as in the real world.”
On hostile comments on social media, Leunig suggested “the stupidity and regrettable comments on social media come about because people don’t have, or take the time to think before they ‘speak’. There are a lot of disturbed people getting about and social media gives them the opportunity to be hostile.” He went on to say this is a time of acrimony and hostility, which he related back to his earlier point that it may well be due to being tired all the time.
Leunig continued, asserting that “the incivility we see in parliament and wider public debate raises questions of our general emotional health. Many ‘debates’ now attack the person rather than the issue and the loss of manners and formality since the 1960s, has been at the expense of common courtesy.” He spoke of the lack of interaction between people when they walk along isolated from each other, each plugged in to their own device and not attuned to others around them. He believes a lot of the ‘social glue’ which contributed to social cohesion, such as people being more open and friendly, has been lost.
In thinking about social interaction, Jan asked what he thought about families going out to eat and each of the children focussing on an electronic device. He deplored the apparent need for children to be stimulated and gratified at all times and wondered where patience, sociability and just focussing on the people they were with had gone. Leunig was concerned that while we’re not yet seeing the full consequences of these changing behaviours, there is already an increase in childhood anxiety and depression and queried what this might mean for society as a whole.
To wind up the interview, Jan told her guest she had seen him described as ‘dark and sad’ but disagreed. Appreciating the observation, Leunig said he wasn’t dark, sad or gloomy as he needed to be spirited to draw his cartoons. He agreed with Jan that his cartoons are uplifting in that they showed us how ridiculous people and life can be and made readers aware of other possibilities and interpretations. By taking matters to the absurd, he aims to demonstrate that we should stop trying to be perfect and winning all the time but rather work towards more positive ethical values such as compassion for those who are downtrodden.
Ducks for Dark Times was released on 30 October 2017 and is distributed through Penguin Australia. Read our review here.
Interview by Jan Kershaw