You don’t trust authority just because it wears a suit: Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Molly Crabapple is an artist who is as comfortable painting burlesque dancers in New York nightclubs as she is capturing everyday life in the heart of war-ravaged Syria. As a journalist, she has fostered a unique method of circumventing censorship by using her brushes and pencils to document places where cameras can’t go. Well on her way to becoming one of the defining voices of her generation, her work is spellbinding in its craft and consistently speaks truth to power. Crabapple is a guest speaker at The Hindu Lit for Life 2017. Excerpts from an email interview:

I was reading ‘15 Iron Laws of Creativity’ you wrote for the website Boing Boing, and it struck me that most of your laws had to do with everything but the actual creation of art... dealing with agents, businesses, money men and insurance agents, and generally surviving as an artist. Can you describe some of the experiences that gave rise to these laws on your way to “making it” as an artist?

My mother is an illustrator (and an extraordinarily talented one at that), so I grew up knowing that art was a trade that adults could use to pay the bills and put food on the table. I’ve been a working artist since I was 18. I got my first commissions by hanging flyers in corner stores offering to draw people’s pets for $20 apiece, and since then have worked in most corners of the visual arts, from animation to theatrical design to drawing caricatures at parties. Art is a trade, passion, skill, dream, torment, and staggering privilege to get to do every day for a living.

Do you ever worry about becoming gentrified; part of the establishment? Of not being able to see the world through the lens of the desperate hungry artist that got you your success in the first place?

I was never one of those people who got a single big “break” that sorted everything for me. I worked and struggled and little by little that wall of indifference started to chip away. Perhaps this gave me some perspective. Having the money for good materials and ambitious projects helped my work immeasurably — it also meant I had the time to make the art I wanted to, rather than doing a million tiny jobs I didn’t care about just to pay the bills.

I started working as a journalist four years ago, and this has given me immense luck and opportunity to see the world from perspectives I never could have dreamed of.

You’ve described yourself as being a “professional naked girl” at 18, your first big gig as an artist was drawing porn. How does one go from there to being labelled “Occupy’s greatest artist”?

My father is a Marxist Latino studies professor who was visiting Cuba since before I was born. I grew up with him standing in his workshop explaining the theory of surplus value to me, using his hammer as an example. Our house was political and feminist, filled with books by Black Panthers and the anarchist Emma Goldman. In school, I was exiled from my morning classes because I refused to stand during the pledge of allegiance. I protested the Iraq War and was involved in doing art for sex workers rights organisations. Occupy didn’t “make” me political, but it did open a space where I felt I could draw art about politics and conflict. It was a participatory space, momentarily free of the usual vicious infighting that characterises the Left, and we lived every day with this intense urgency that fuelled my drawing like some sort of impossible drug.

In your role as a journalist, you’ve travelled to and reported from several strife-torn places… Gaza, Guantanamo, Syria. How do you deal with the idea that the worse their suffering, the better your story is going to be?

Any journalist, if she is honest, admits their industry is an industry of vultures. A war journalist makes her (generally meagre) living from the tragedy of others. I was recently investigating a story on refugees in Greece after the EU-Turkey deal. I was in a miserable camp — worse than an Iraqi camp, despite the many millions of dollars of funding — and a young Palestinian man asked me, with proper scepticism, if my article would do any good. This is something I struggle with. Much of the world has utter contempt for journalism, but I earnestly believe that without watchful eyes, governments and groups behave even worse than they do now. People have a right to know about their world, and that history needs a record. That’s what keeps me in a field as fraught as this.

Sometimes, journalism seems like an epistemological fight rather than one over column inches. How do you know what you know? Who is playing you? How can you be sure? How many sides can you ask to pin down an event you cannot see? You ask and fact-check and learn and study languages and watch leaked videos and sue for documents and read reports, and sneak into places you should not go... you don’t trust authority just because it wears a suit and serves nice canapés. In our new, demagogic, post-truth age, these skills are important not just for journalists but for everybody.

The Internet has been primal to your work. As an artist, you’ve used it to promote your work; as a journalist, you write primarily for Vice; as an activist, movements like Occupy would have been gone nowhere without the Internet. However, as a counterpoint to each of those, the Internet also stands formemes,listicles and unprecedented worldwide surveillance. Is its dark side of the Internet rapidly catching up with the good side?

Is the Internet bad? Only so far as the real world is bad, and, as the elections in my country and many others might show, the real world can be very bad indeed. The Internet was once an exclusive place, a walled garden for geeks and nerds. Now it’s for everyone, with all that this implies in terms of cruelty, bigotry and surveillance. Half of the humans on this planet have a smartphone. Meatspace has long since merged with digital life.

If — and this is a big if — we can use the Internet to find information, learn and meet people across borders, while protecting our data and avoiding manipulation by algorithms, we can access near unlimited cultural riches.

I want to quit Twitter every week. Every week, I keep coming back.

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 8:33:02 AM |

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