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Leunig, wellness and wokeness

An extract from Dr Robbie Moore's Meanjin Quarterly essay.

Michael Leunig’s journey from anti-war and anti-corporate provocateur to a critic of ‘wokeism’ and cancel culture is familiar and predictable.

We’ve seen other prominent baby-boomer artists, thinkers and entertainers take the same path during the political realignments of the Facebook era. And there’ll be more—journalists seem determined to ask every cultural figure over 70 for their thoughts on Young People Today and their cancelling ways. David Williamson was asked just the other day.

Leunig’s adoption of right-wing buzzwords is notable because he’s such an influential figure. A certified National Trust ‘Living Treasure’, his cartoons are part of the stock imagery of Australian whimsy and alienation. His iconography has appeared weekly in newspapers since the 1980s, as well in musical, theatrical, televisual, and stadium-spectacle adaptations. A Leunig Appreciation Page on Facebook has 213,000 followers and racks up tens of thousands of ‘Loves’, ‘Cares’, and ‘Sads’ per week. Another 43,000 follow his Instagram account. One of Leunig’s many books, Poems (2003), is among the highest-selling collections of Australian verse ever printed. And he has a new (and only partially visible) army of fans among the wellness community.

Until recently, Leunig’s true political colours weren’t recognised. In 2018, Gerard Henderson in the Murdoch press was still describing Leunig as ‘Fairfax Media’s house leftist’ and a ‘Sandalista’. To some of Leunig’s friends and fans, he remains a hero of the left. (Maybe that’s about to change.)

Leunig hasn’t radically transformed himself politically—if anything, his schtick has been the same for decades. But his whimsical individualism, which was never very progressive in the first place, is now more recognisably conservative because he’s started to articulate his ideas using those buzzwords drawn from right-wing media as well as from the more pseudoscientific end of the wellness community.

Things came to a head this month after he drew a cartoon that compared the Tiananmen Square massacre to Covid vaccination mandates, and subsequently lost one of his regular slots in The Age newspaper. In response, Leunig said that his ‘earthy working class perspective and values system’ now seems ‘out of touch with The Age’s cosy, inner-city mindset. … It is not rejection that bothers me. It’s the wokeism and the humourlessness, which seem without courage, good spirit or creative imagination.’

The archetypal Leunig cartoon is a man walking away: a vagrant escaping into nature and the imagination. The wellness guru Pete Evans (who would later become the promoter of a $14,990 light machine which he suggested could treat the ‘Wuhan Coronavirus’) noted this preoccupation with nature in a 2019 podcast conversation with Leunig. ‘A lot of your work is really about bringing us … back to nature,’ Evans said. ‘Appreciate nature, appreciate that time-out … It’s really about understanding yourself, and to understand yourself is to spend time by yourself in nature—maybe with a cup of tea as well.’ Leunig firmly agreed.

The cartoonist sees himself as the vagrant in his drawings, striding out alone. In a revealing essay that introduces his book Holy Fool (2013), the cartoonist identifies himself with the ‘nature loving fool. A sensitive soul. A free spirit. A joyous innocent. A shabby wanderer. A dawdling playful simpleton.’ It’s an identity grounded in his working class roots and his autodidacticism, like that of the Romantic ‘peasant poet’ John Clare, who Leunig quotes in several of his opinion columns. The young Leunig dropped out of uni to work in his father’s trade, as a slaughterman, before publishing his first sketchy cartoons in insurgent satirical magazines (as well as in the mainstream press). He registered as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

The figure of the vagrant emerged in Leunig’s work while he was trying to draw something about the War. ‘I thought Vietnam was such a hideous mess; anything a 23-year old kid said was irrelevant’, he said in a 2005 interview with the National Portrait Gallery. ‘I wanted to flee from the squalidness and I started drawing an optimistic fantasy about the human spirit … a man walking along with a teapot on his head, followed by a duck.’

There’s a counter-cultural streak to Leunig’s celebration of the vagrant: drop out, switch off, don’t join, march to the rhythm of your own curly tuba. His art reflects a post-war moment that recoiled from the corporatisation and systemisation of everyday life and clamoured for personal and social liberation. Leunig’s early work targets urban decay and ecological destruction, the claustrophobia of apartment blocks and the misery of the commute. Corporations are often the villain (‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in fast-food chains’, he quips). The modern world, with its corporate and political smooth-talkers and its glowing technologies, is seductive yet spiritually hollow. For Leunig, the only solution is to conscientiously object to modernity: to walk away. It’s a solution that, in the last decade, has resonated with the lifestyle teachings of Pete Evans and others of his stripe. Leunig’s baby boomer individualism has been given a second wind by Instagram influencers.

Even Leunig’s most aggressively political works, his controversial anti-Iraq War cartoons, retreat into quietism and resignation. In some of his cartoons, Leunig implicates the guilty. There are bespittled war profiteers, generals and journalists with huge heads and wolfish eyes, recalling the anti-war grotesqueries of George Grosz. And there are some brave (if unsubtle) War on Terror cartoons that suggest the relativity of the concept of the ‘terrorist’.

But there are also cartoons of disengagement and escape: a vagrant walking away across a bare landscape beneath the threatening clouds of ‘TERRORISM’ and ‘WARISM’; a man who leaves a dinner party discussion of the war to curl up in a foetal position; a man who places his hope in a bee to rejuvenate life in a world of Hellfire missiles; and a ‘gloomy gentleman’ alone on a hill who perceives ‘the entire, elaborate and irrefutable argument against war’ in the natural vista spreading before him.

These cartoons displace the crisis of war and refocus attention on the crisis of the self. The self, the real subject of Leunig’s cartoons, is forced into a foetal position through the contemplation of the horrors of modern life. This crisis of the self is solved in Leunig’s cartoons, a least momentarily, by mindfully contemplating a bee or sitting on a hilltop—what the wellness industry refers to as a moment of self-care (or a bit of time-out in nature with a cup of tea). ‘With the world in such a horrible crazy mess, how do we keep going?’ asks one of Leunig’s characters in a recent cartoon. ‘I don’t GO. I just BE,’ says the duck (who is clearly familiar with Pete Evans’s Heal: 101 Simple Ways to Improve Your Health in a Modern World). ‘I just let it all go,’ says the dog. The songbird suggests listening to music or flying away. This is the Platonic ideal of a Leunig cartoon: melancholic pseudo-profundity spoken by companion animals.

The affective palette of Leunig’s cartoons and poems—acknowledging the sadness and confusion of modern life and offering a duck or a bee or a homily about love in return—perfectly suits the modus operandi of the wellness industry. That industry, as Mathias Nilges argues, presents a softcore, largely gestural critique of capitalism’s tendency to take hold of all parts of our existence, of all of our time. But instead of continuing down this road and aiming for a systemic critique of the conditions under which we live and work (and under which the former increasingly becomes a matter of the latter), wellness … depart[s] from what is ultimately a social and structural matter and turns it into a matter of individual responsibility and strategy.

Fans who still believe Leunig is a leftist hero point to the softcore, gestural critiques of capitalism that the cartoonist continues to make.

Leunig has increasingly engaged with wellness media in the last few years. He appeared on two wellness podcasts, was interviewed by WellBeing magazine, and was set to appear at the inaugural ‘Live. Life. Love.’ wellness festival before it was cancelled. His cartoons and proverbs appear on countless wellness Facebook and Instagram posts and blogs, and are reprinted with permission in dozens of different authors’ guides to finding joy, forgiveness, mindfulness, spirituality, and financial well-being. Far from critiquing the modern world, then, Leunig’s cartoons are increasingly being used as a weighted blanket to soothe our anxieties. Judging by the comments on Leunig’s Instagram page, his cartoons do provide genuine comfort to some of his readers.

Read the full text of this article in Meanjin Quarterly.

Robbie Moore is a Lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania. His book, Hotel Modernity: Corporate Space in Literature and Film, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021. On Twitter he’s @_robbieamoore