"There’s this idea that it’s great to be a poor artist," Molly Crabapple tells Co.Create from her Manhattan loft. "It’s bullshit."
The whole starving artist thing—that you don’t need money to create art or sustain yourself, that poverty is ennobling—is "a lie," she says, "something perpetuated by trust-fund kids."
Crabapple is an artist, entrepreneur, and activist—vocations that are all present in her new show of paintings called Shell Game, a "love letter" to the global financial meltdown, set to open on Sunday in New York.
The show is long in research—she talked to Tunisian bloggers, a Spanish documentarian, a British journalist, and an American hacker to name a few—and epic in scale—nine of the paintings are six by four foot, weighing about 50 pounds and wrought in her "hyper-detailed representationalism."
And since experimental, large-format, hyper-detailed poetic documentarianism isn’t something that big galleries are clamoring to get onto their walls—"(they) just want you to repeat the same piece of work that sold well last time until you die"—Crabapple has used business sense and social savvy to circumvent those gatekeepers.
Reorienting our conversation, Crabapple turns to the side and gestures to a painting: a ghostly, burlesque, open-armed muse with her body made of red, white, and blue balloons, floating above a fray of grinning and green-furred fat cats and innocent little mice. It’s beautiful, hilarious, and horrifying.
"This is a picture about Goldman-Sachs—its title is Great American Bubble Machine, after Matt Taibbi’s article on the subject, and in fact, I might have a collaboration planned with Taibbi," she says. "(I have) my vampire squid whore-goddess of the market inflating and then popping bubbles while my little banker cats wield their machines."
"The creative disciplines are so fame-driven."
The painting—and the whole of the new show—is an outgrowth of her illustrated journalism: This is an investigative artist who sketched her way into a Turkish jail and Athens riots. The paintings of Shell Game are documents of the blooming and wilting of change in 2011. They’re like votives, she says, big signs saying "don’t forget, don’t forget."
Crabapple has grown up with the Internet, and so has her business sense.
Her first company, a burlesque drawing class called Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, took off from her LiveJournal. She once put on a show as a reward to fans for her getting up to 4,000 Twitter followers (she now has more than 25,000). And she’s kicked ass on Kickstarter: Her last campaign raised $25,000 over a $4,500 goal and Shell Game raised $64,000 over a $30,000 goal. And she goes hard on Etsy, having made around $20,000 in the past 12 months through print sales there.
It’s all a part of how Crabapple monetizes her work: selling originals, selling prints, licensing images out for iPhone covers, scoring reprint fees when publications run them. And all that hustle adds up: At 29, Crabapple is making six figures a year—and she has for the past three years.
"The creative disciplines are so fame-driven," she says. "The reason that people get big book advances is not because they are shining literary lights; it’s because that their book is going to sell and make money back for the publisher."
It’s not even necessarily wrong—that’s just how it is."
What an artist needs, then, is platform, that strange 21st-century word for audience. And as any fan of Louis C.K. knows, if you have a powerful enough relationship with your audience, you’re no longer beholden to the gatekeepers.
It’s not just talent; it’s distribution. As she once told the Times, what you get in this world doesn’t come from how much you "cultivate your talent" but how much you "cultivate your name."
That was a sound bite, she admits, but it rings true: To think that success in art is purely based on talent is a "really damaging lie to feed people," she says, because it suggests that if you aren’t making money, you aren’t talented.
Such a sense of a one-to-one correlation between the two is "incredibly dangerous and status-quo enforcing," she says.
Another myth is of the artist as hermit, living only by his (always his) artistic virtue alone. Crabapple lists the contradicting cases: Vincent Van Gogh—he was supported by his brother, Theo; Ernest Hemingway—supported by his wife Hadley’s trust fund; Diego Rivera—supported by the Mexican government. If you consider pure art to be the work of a noble hermit, Crabapple says, there’s probably a trust fund somewhere.
If you aren’t blessed with independent means, you gotta get paid. And, Crabapple notes, there’s precedent: Rubens wasn’t just a painter; he was an art dealer. Instead of begging for patrons, Da Vinci acted like the Renaissance form of a creative consultant.
"He was like, ‘This is bullshit. I’m fucking Leonardo da Vinci. I’m not going to be begging,’ " she says.
You must have a "consciousness of power," Crabapple says, a lesson she learned young. She remembers being 7 and having her dad—a Marxist political science professor—explaining to her the nature of capital and she saw her mom—an illustrator—cultivate her talent and work hard her whole life and make sacrifices and trust that financial security would follow, which it never did.
This, Crabapple decided, would never happen to her. Born in Queens, she finished high school early, lived at a Parisian bookstore, backpacked through Morocco and Turkey, came back to New York. She attended a "blue-collar school"—the Fashion Institute of Technology. She saw her friends working too hard at day jobs to have energy to make art, so recognizing an opportunity (granted, one that’s not going to be available or palatable to everyone), she became a "professional naked girl" and took a stage name (she was born Jennifer Caban), so she could save startup capital to become an artist.
Which she has. And to do that, she had to become an entrepreneur.
The artist shares with Co.Create a few tricks of the artist trade:
- Be opportunistic: "I’ve always looked at the world looking for blank spaces that could have a drawing on them and then thought that drawing should be mine," she says. That’s why you can find her work on the walls of amazing places, like the Box, a mega exclusive (and mega weird) club in London.
- Form bonds: "Build friendships with people that you respect in a variety of fields," she says. "My friendships with journalists and activists and performers have been some of the most fruitful, creatively inspiring, and just personally nourishing things that I have."
- Be skeptical of authority: "The powers that be have, in general, no interest in helping people," she says. "When you’re dealing with power, you have to look out for yourself rather than pleasing them, because to power, you’re only a functional cog."
- And get ready to suffer: "Being a working artist isn’t scalable," she says. "It’s not something where you can offer an easy, three-step 'follow this program and fame, and riches will be yours.' It’s actually this incredibly hard, bloody path that takes tons of luck, tons of randomness, and tons of toughness to get through."
Molly Crabapple’s Shell Game opens on Sunday, April 14, at Smart Clothes Gallery in New York.