London/New York, July 2012: Molly Crabapple is an artistic Molotov cupcake. Both she and her art first appear sweet and delightful as decadent confections but they are each subversively explosive. Her intricate illustrations resurrect the saucy, surreal exuberance of Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancehall drawings, Bonnie MacLean’s psychedelic posters mixed with a Busby Berkeley number. At the same time, her mesmerizing material is loaded with political commentary, literary references and personal significance.
Along with loaded art-work, Molly has made art-making approachable and fun for thrill-seeking nightlife audiences with her Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-ArtSchool, where live burlesque models pose for figure-drawing sessions. Her own illustrations have appeared in the pages of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playgirl and Screw magazine. She harnessed Kickstarter for her Shell Game series of nine giant-size paintings comparing our current financial crisis to the Great Depression. The project yielded $50,000 in donations and the support of Occupy Wall Street's protesters.
This interview is an introduction to the rich range of work that Molly makes accessible to everyone. We conducted our conversation live for an audience on the interview couch at London’s infamous Groucho Club, where Molly was promoting her new monograph Week in Hell, which records her project decorating every surface of a Gramercy Park Hotel room. Here is the interview, printed for posterity.
Molly Crabapple, Week in Hell, installation view; Courtesy of the artist.
Ana Finel Honigman: I love your sentiment that the "new zeitgeist is sincerity.” Why do you think irony turned to apathy and how can satire stay sincere?
Molly Crabapple: Caring makes you vulnerable. It makes you risk being gushy and human, risk falling for the wrong woman, holding the wrong sign, being wrong wrong wrong. Caring is literally uncool. So we have a generation of artists filling white cubes with sterile, self-referential work. At some point, irony as Hitchens described it--skepticism, humor, sense of the absurd--turned into this generalized shrug.
But after three years of watching the world burn, to hell with that. Artists are people, not castrated one-man cottage industries. If we don't care, if we don't take sides, we're shrugging our responsibility to be fully alive.
Satire is subversive. Dictators have fragile egos. Pointing out their poorly done botox is one step away from pointing out torture and theft. There's a reason Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat had his hands smashed by the regime. But if satire is going to be kept honest it has to be used against people who deserve it. Otherwise you're just in the playground, repeating back what a kid says in a funny voice.
AFH: Is the vampire squid today's Fat Cat?
MC: Tentacles are nature's design element. I like to think that squids and fat cats can peacefully coexist in their pools of lucre.
Molly Crabapple, Poster for the May Day General Strike, 2012; Courtesy of the artist.
AFH: I pitched your book to a few chic and trendy fashion/art magazines and received "we don't cover illustration" responses from editors. What is the prejudice against illustration?
MC: Illustrators are the whores of the art world. We're the grasping mercantile black sheep who hint that, maybe, fine artists are just workers too.
In a lot of ways, the prejudice against illustrators is classism. If you're a broke kid and want to draw for a living, you draw for the people who will pay you. A studio, an MFA, the materials for big art--these are expensive things.
AFH: And why do you think that a project like Week in Hell would be snubbed?
MC: Just like with the sex industry, once you've worked as an illustrator, everything you do is defined as illustration. Whether it is actually an illustration or not. Week in Hell was my most personal, deeply felt, no-fucking-client-in-sight project, but because I've also drawn t-shirts, to many people it's not legit.
AFH: What do you think of the established art world's values and why certain work succeeds within it?
MC: I don't understand the established art world. I don't know why some artists are shown. Best I can see, it's about hiring assistants to make something huge to fill an oligarch's loft.
Fortunately, the amount of people who love visual art is so much bigger than any ivory tower can serve. Thanks in large part to the internet, it's possible to be a working, loved, paid artist while telling the gallery system to jump into a lake.
Molly Crabapple, Poster for the Montreal Student Demonstrations, 2012; Courtesy of the artist.
AFH: How can artists best contribute to the political causes which matter to them?
MC: I don't think visual art changes minds per se. What it can do is convince the sympathetic to take action. It can fight the "dirty bongo-playing hippies" brand the media loves to foist on protest movements. But when you're doing art specifically to help a cause, please, God, think about being useful. Slapping your naked body with a fish doesn't cut it, even if you say the fish represents the patriarchy. I did a ton of work around Occupy Wall Street, but I also marched, donated, brought them clothes and tarps, and bribed my fans into coming out by doing free drawings.
AFH: How can the polemic history of cabaret and caricature be best harnessed and revived for today's political battles?
MC: Cabaret has always been the theatre of subversion. One of my formative books is Explosive Acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Félix Fénéon, Oscar Wilde, and Art and Anarchy in the Fin de Siècle. It posits Lautrec as a secret anarchist radical. It's probably wrong, but God, what a vision. A universe where radical journalists and poster artists and dancing girls are all crowding around the same dinner table.
One of my favorite moments of Explosive Acts concerns the Moulin Rouge's star can-can dancer, La Goulue. Here's this woman who comes from poverty, becomes famous doing these porny, athletic dances, is utterly arrogant. The Prince of Wales comes in to watch her show. She kicks his hat off.
That's how the theatre is transcendence. 'Cause in this one space, the poor woman can say to the richest man, "Forget the world. In here, you're beneath me."
AFH: How did the narrative across the walls [of the Gramercy Hotel room] progress? What changed from the characters and stories at the start through to the finish?
MC: I started over the bed, with a giant face vomiting girlthings. Girlthings are the capering id of my drawings, and I figured doing so many of them might give me interesting dreams. I filled the walls near the bed with stripey animals and a "Pity Party" (or representation of the most unattractive selves of my best friend and I, bitching over poisoned tea). On the far wall I drew my muses Dante Posh and Stoya, and then the whole surreal thing spilled over to the second room of the suite. There, I did a twenty-foot mural capped with trees and tree-dachas, that included surreal references to WikiLeaks, war, and Arab Spring. The rooms went from the personal to the political.
Molly Crabapple, Portrait of Dante Posh; Courtesy of the artist.
AFH: How can artists balance surviving and sustaining their work with serving a greater good?
MC: Be utterly mercenary with anyone who has money, but utterly generous to your comrades-in-arms. It's futile to try to make your living squeezing a few hundred bucks out of broke artists. So cultivate your high-paying clients, and use that money to fund creating work with your broke, glittering comrades-in-arms. Or at least that's how I do it.
AFH: How politically motivated was your work before Shell Game?
MC: I stayed away from political work for a long time. While I was always out about my beliefs, turning them into art seemed preachy and trite. Then Occupy Wall Street happened outside my window. It was a rare and fragile thing. As an artist, fuck, as a human, I knew I had to take sides. So I started doing protest posters. And in doing these, I found my voice.
—Ana Finel Honigman
ArtSlant would like to thank Molly Crabapple for her assistance in making this interview possible.