THERE IS NO MAGIC BULLET
Artist Molly Crabapple on why you should stay weird and never apologize for making money from your work
By Noah Blumenson-Cook and Winter Mendelson on June 26, 2017
Molly Crabapple is a NYC-based award-winning artist, author, and activist. She has managed a number of successful crowdfunding campaigns, notably one of her earlier Kickstarter projects titled Shell Game: An Art Show About the Financial Meltdown where she raised nearly $65,000. This exhibition put her on the “art world map” and she was referred to as “an emblem of the way that art could break out of the gilded gallery” by The New Republic. Her published books include the memoir Drawing Blood (Harper Collins. 2015) Discordia (with Laurie Penny; Random House, 2012) on the Greek economic crisis and the art books Devil in the Details and Week in Hell (IDW 2012). Molly is also a contributing editor for VICE and has written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, CNN and Newsweek. We chat with her here about her journey to becoming a sustainable artist-entrepreneur and how she balances DIY development with institutional success.
Noah Blumenson-Cook: Can you tell us about your experience being raised by an artist, your mom, and how that has informed your own opinion of what art means as a job?
Molly Crabapple: It's not just my mom who's an artist, her whole family are artists. It goes back to my great-grandfather who left Russia and made his living as an artist in the U.S. He would haul his paintings onto the lawn of his little house in Brooklyn every morning and people from the hood would go up and look at them. My mom is a commercial illustrator. She would work nine-to-five jobs as an artist or an art director, and she would do freelance illustration at night. She's an incredibly talented person and because of that I never saw art as something that was super far away and inaccessible for me. It wasn't some fancy, airy thing. It was something very concrete that my family could make a living doing. It was a skill. I saw the way that clients might have screwed over my mom, I saw things that she did that were rewarding to her. I was very, very familiar with the business of doing art and what that meant. And so, I've suffered less than a lot of other artists from worries. For instance, I know other artists who think, "I'm not inspired, I have a block." I don't have that, I get up and do the work.
I saw art as a skill and a trade. If you had a dad who's an amazing carpenter and builds gorgeous furniture, you wouldn't think that carpentry was some far-off thing. You would think, "Oh, this is my family's business." Right?
[My mom] is an incredibly talented person, and so because of that I never saw art as something that was super far away and inaccessible for me. It wasn't some fancy, airy thing. It was something very concrete that my family could make a living doing. It was a skill.
NBC: Yeah, that just seems like such a reasonable and realistic way of looking at it. How might you draw a contrast between your experience and what you see other artists are going through at an early age, as far as their idea of what art as a career is?
MC: Well, a lot of people don't believe that you could make a living doing art. They have no idea how either the art world works — to be fair I don't have that much of an idea of how that world works either — or any other ways that people might be able to make a living and make a space for themselves in this world to do art. They see it as something where either you have a rich daddy that supports you or you starve and live in your mom's basement. Because of that, it can be very hard for them to decide that they want to do art because they don't have a rich daddy and don’t want to be broke. I guess I had a more realistic and practical and close view of it, so thankfully I didn't suffer from that.
NBC: That makes sense. You have crowdfunded a few projects now. Was your Kickstarter for Week in Hell your first one?
MC: No, my first one was where I was doing a live drawing event called Dr. Sketchy’s that was in a bunch of cities, but my first big crowdfunding project was Week in Hell. I also crowdfunded a gallery show called Shell Game, as well as an animation project with my friend Kim Boekbinder and the Australian director Jim Batt.
NBC: Cool. I remember that, it was amazing. So Week in Hell was in 2012, and crowdfunding as an internet thing was a brand new idea. What led you to that as a way of raising funds for something you wanted to do?
MC: I had some friends that I knew who were doing it, and I wanted to do projects that were bigger than the amount of money that I had available. I didn't have a bunch of rich friends or parents that I could say, "Cut me a check for $20,000." To me, the world of getting grants was completely unapproachable. It still is. I don't know how people get grants. I would honestly rather work for a living than fill out all those forms. I know that grants are great, and I'm very sorry that they're getting cut, but they've been completely irrelevant to my personal life as an artist. Crowdfunding was the only the only way for me at the time that I could have gotten money to do big ambitious projects that I wanted to do.
NBC: What did it feel like, the whole process of building and consolidating your community and asking for support for a thing you believed in? Was that a new practice for you or did it feel like a continuation of something you had already been doing?
MC: A lot of people have this idea that crowdfunding is like quasi-charity, which it's actually not. And I already had a community. The way that I was online, in a public facing way, was as a Suicide Girl. So my relation to the internet and social media was literally always as someone who had fans. I never had a time when I used social media the way a regular user does. At Suicide Girls, I was a branded product, who would be hired more often if more people enjoyed her photos or interacting with her.
So, yeah, crowdfunding was a continuation of how I had always been online. Of course it was very exciting seeing all that money come in, very giddy. My stuff would usually get funded within the first 24-48 hours, but the real thing with crowdfunding is, you have to plan it like a military operation. It's so easy to lose money. This is the classic way: there are so many people who will be so excited because they'll raise $100,000 for their project and think, "Oh my god, that's more money than I ever saw," but then they'll have forgotten to do something basic, like factor in international shipping, and they'll end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Crowdfunding is a lot of work and it's a lot of calculation and it requires a lot of willingness to do stuff that a lot of artists, including me, aren't particularly good at. For instance, running a small mail-order business and doing the customer service that that implies.
I know that grants are great, and I'm very sorry that they're getting cut, but they've been completely irrelevant to my personal life as an artist. Crowdfunding was the only the only way for me at the time that I could have gotten money to do big ambitious projects that I wanted to do.
NBC: Yeah. Well, I mean there are these things like Black Box and fulfillment companies that basically take care of that aspect of it for you. Do you think you’d feel differently about the process if you didn't have to deal with all of that stuff?
MC: Yeah, I definitely would. I would still tell people you have to plan it out even if you're using something like Black Box, because they are going to take a higher cut than if you do it by yourself. So many people have never run a business and they don't know the difference between gross and net and they say, "Oh my god, I got $45,000," but then they forget that there's all these other costs that will be subtracted from that $45,000. People will look at these sums and they'll think that someone's suddenly rich because they raked in $100,000, not realizing that their profit might be $2,000. And if you have a successful crowdfunding campaign you get all the hostility that comes with that.
Crowdfunding has given me the opportunities to do things that I've always dreamed of doing. I would never have been able to show in mainstream galleries now if I hadn't had my show Shell Game. Crowdfunding let me do big ambitious work which I couldn't afford to do and certainly couldn't afford to exhibit myself (and that I didn’t have opportunities to show in galleries). Crowdfunding let me completely change my artistic style. Crowdfunding gave me the ability to do noncommercial art. It gave me the ability to do art for art’s sake. It was hard for me to do that before because I was always broke and scrambling and I paid the bills with art. But crowdfunding, because I would get this money to live and create on, let me be creative and just do stuff from my heart and that's the thing that I'm grateful to it for.
NBC: Cool. I like how you mix traditional methods that artists use to get paid, from exhibiting in galleries to publishing to crowdfunding. Where do you find a balance there? Do you want to keep crowdfunding now that you have enough profile to be able to work in gallery world?
MC: Well, I haven't done crowdfunding since 2013. It's funny, before I did crowdfunding, almost no one in galleries or publishing gave a damn about me, and so going to them wasn't an option for me. But I like working better with traditional publishers, honestly, and the reason is that I like having someone else deal with customer service, shipping, registering for the Library of Congress, distribution... There is so much infrastructural work when you are DIY. However, I also realized that when you work with publishers, or galleries, or whatever, a lot of times those places are filled with incompetent people who don't know what they're doing. (I am not insulting any editor or gallerist of mine — I love you all and you are gems and have done right by me. This is a general statement on the field.) Artists like me are not a particularly big fish, because we’re not Stephen King or Jeff Koons or whatever, and so big companies will pawn your project off onto an overloaded young person who has forty other things to manage and nothing gets done. I was very involved in promoting and touring of my book, Drawing Blood, even though I have a publisher with Harper Collins. Not that Harper Collins isn't great, but I had all of these skills I learned because I had DIY'd things for 10 years. Having the skills, infrastructure, and relationships to promote your project keeps you from falling victim to the worst of the sloth, the incompetence, and the indifference that can characterize large corporations. So I'm very, very happy I had the experience funding and managing my own projects top-to-bottom. However, I can't say that I particularly miss having my entire living room filled with mailing tubes.
WM: Is there something at this point in your career that you wish you had learned earlier or that you would tell a young artist?
MC: I think that artists shouldn't feel guilty for looking out for themselves. I had a messed up thing that happened earlier this year. I got bad repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my hand from working too much. I had to get expensive medical treatment for my hand and it was extremely unpleasant. The fact that I had people buying prints, the fact that I didn't have to actually use my hand every day, and the fact that I had savings from being hard-nosed was what saved me. All of the people that try to shame artists for making money don't realize that that money is our disability and unemployment insurance, and none of those people judging you for financially looking out for yourself are going to be there helping you if you get sick. So you need to take care of yourself.
WM: Yeah, why do you think people shame artists for making money? I have a lot of artist friends who experience this kind of feedback.
MC: Cause they're jealous of them, cause they think that artists hang around all day while they're working a grim white-collar job and they feel jealous and resentful. They don't think we do real work. They don't respect or understand what we do. Perhaps they wish that they were doing it themselves but they weren't talented or hardworking or lucky enough. So they think the least we could do in return for our decadent, lazy and insalubrious lifestyles is to suffer a bit of financial ruin. That's my take.
WM: Right. Totally.
MC: There's going to be a time when you're gonna be sick, or someone you love is gonna be sick, or you're gonna break your leg, or your house is gonna burn, and you desperately need your savings because there's zero social safety net for you in America.
As for another lesson learned:I wasted a lot of time trying to do stuff that wasn't particularly “me” because I thought it was what I should do, or I thought maybe I could make a living at it. In this time of crazy flux and instability, when no one knows what's going on, the stupidest thing that you could try to do is hammer yourself into someone else's box. You should be yourself in all of your weirdness. Pursue your weird interests. You should do it with rigor and be hard on yourself so that you're good, but you should try to be as true to yourself as you possibly can because That's the only way to create anything real and lasting.
WM: Definitely. I know this was some time ago, but when I watched your Kickstarter promotional video for Shell Game, you were talking about how you were a little nervous about tackling politics through your art, and now of course, a lot of your work is very political. I’m curious about your experience making that shift and also if you're still ever nervous about covering politics?
MC: Well, I was nervous at first about it because I come from the burlesque and nightlife worlds, and I had swallowed a lot of society's training that tells you that those are superficial spaces. I felt like “I'm a girl that draws sexy girls” and therefore not serious. I guess I had absorbed that idiocy and then when Occupy happened it was a moment where you had to take sides and that's why my work went in that direction.
As for journalism, before every single story I write, I spent so much time researching, learning, and talking to people. It is out of an intense desire to do it right. Because when you're an outsider covering someone else’s world, it's so easy to get it wrong.
NBC: Yeah, from the perspective of someone who was so engaged in Occupy and has been involved in the protests that have gone over the last 10, nearly 15 years, where do you think progressive politics live now? Do you see the same energy that was there during Occupy and where do you think it might be going?
MC: Nothing is ever the same as anything else, but do I see amazing things in DAPL or Black Lives Matter? God, yeah. And do I also see amazing energy in all of the people that went down to JFK and blocked the Muslim ban? These are amazing things. This particular moment, it's incredibly dangerous, but also an exciting moment for the left because a lot of centrist stuff has been discredited. Part of the reasoning for running Hillary Clinton was that she was the realistic and electable candidate, and it turned out that, in the way that our rigged system works, she actually was not the realistic or electable candidate. That that makes space for more radical visions.
Where does that resistance live? It lives everywhere, right? It lives with the antifascist protesters that are shutting down Nazi rallies. It lives with the immigrant groups that are doing solidarity demonstrations and that are setting up neighborhood defense against ICE raids. It lives with Black Lives Matter protesters, water protectors, with feminists. There are so many groups doing so many different types of work and so much work needs to be done.
NBC: What kind of work do you feel like artists are responsible for in that sense?
MC: I try not to fetishize art as a particularly sacred thing. I certainly don't think that every single artist is responsible for doing a picture of Donald Trump looking ugly. I have drawn that picture, but I don't think it's morally incumbent on us all to do that. I don't think that an artist is remiss if they do nothing but beautiful flower paintings and then they're out in the streets. The one responsibility that artists do have is to look at the world with rigor, and with empathy, and to question ourselves, and to question power, and that can be reflected in all sorts of different ways in one’s work.
NBC: So you've written about your experience in your autobiography with burlesque and nude modeling and how you sort of leveraged that into where your career is now. And one thing that I've seen is a common surprise at how you're willing to talk about that. I'm wondering if that is difficult for you and why do you think it is that it's so uncommon to hear the story of how artists gain some sort of sustainability for themselves?
MC: Well, it wasn't hard for me to talk about it because I was public about it while I was doing it and it would be silly to be someone who was dancing on stage in New York and then one day say, "No, never happened, I’m a different person.” You can’t opt out of something that public like what I was doing. It's a part of you.
Women are underrepresented at the top ranks of artists, even though we make up more art students than men. We're shown less than men and then the women that are shown, like the men that are shown, tend to be richer. So you're looking at a pretty small section of women artists who had to work shitty jobs and were cut out of the institutional power structure. That's actually probably a lot of why it's rare and then also stigmatized. So you add these three things together and you get a pretty small slice of women who A, did sex or naked girl work, and B, will talk about doing it.
The one responsibility that artists do have is to look at the world with rigor, and with empathy, and to question ourselves, and to question power, and that can be reflected in all sorts of different ways in one’s work.
NBC: Makes sense. Do you think there's a way to de-stigmatize that conversation or to work toward trying to fix this problem? To promote a realistic story about how to become a sustainable artist, versus people jumping to obtain expensive MFAs and then wondering why they're in debt and don't have a show?
MC: One of the problems is that there's no one way to make it as an artist. There's no one set of advice that you can give it to a class of students and those students are all gonna go and make their living. In reality, this is a brutally competitive field and most people will fail in it and that's how it is. Harsh but true. Also, we're not in Sweden, we don't live in a country that's supportive to people who fail at their dreams, we live a country that viciously punishes them, especially if they don't come from a family that can catch them when they fall. A lot of times when I would give advice to people, I would say, for instance "Don't get an MFA." They'd answer, "Oh, but my MFA was good." And that’s true for them. The problem is that any advice that I could give, or anything that worked for me or worked for some of my friends, isn't gonna work for most people, (and most people’s advice would not have worked for us) and there literally is no advice that you're going to give that's going to work for most people. People have to hack out this brutal path by themselves, in their own ways, with their friends and communities. This is especially true at a time like now, where things change so very quickly.
The important thing is to teach people about critical thinking, skepticism, solidarity, the value of taking care of each other, taking care of their communities, and also of committing to doing the best, most beautiful, most crushing art that they can. Those are the things that will hold constant. But besides that, there's no magic bullet, a publisher is not gonna save you, crowdfunding isn't gonna save you, the internet's not gonna save you. What might save you is, in part, having the sharpness to recognize opportunities, which might be traditional, or might be DIY, or might be a fusion of both.
Molly Crabapple is an artist, journalist, and author of the memoir, Drawing Blood. Called "An emblem of the way art can break out of the gilded gallery" by the New Republic, she has drawn in and reported from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Dhabi's migrant labor camps, and in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Crabapple is a contributing editor for VICE, and has written for publications including The New York Times, Paris Review, and Vanity Fair. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
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