The relationship between art and politics is ambiguous at best; if we see a vast majority of people admiring art for being objective and above politics, we can also find a strong argument for the undeniable dependence of art on politics.
Molly Crabapple is one such artist who does not just rebel against society by means of creative art, but draws inspiration from the very politics she finds oppressive. Her seemingly cartoonish drawings are surreal satire on the corruption and hypocrisy of society. If you take out their political context they lose their larger-than-life stature, as art and politics go hand in hand for Crabapple. Her memoir Drawing Blood, an apt illustration of this juxtaposition, is a record of her journey as an artist and activist. Embellished with raw, compelling drawings and splashes of paint, this is probably the most beautifully illustrated memoir I’ve ever read.
However, Drawing Blood — just like its author who exhibits an artist’s idealism and an activist’s struggle as well as a sex worker’s sarcasm — defies classification. When the book starts Crabapple is drawing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay naval base — she went there to research the story of a wrongly imprisoned man and it was easier to visit the base during a commission for the infamous Mohammed. From the very first pages it is evident that drawing is much more than an objective fine art for her: “To draw is to objectify, to go momentarily to a place where aesthetics mean more than morality.” Guantanamo Bay, we are told, is built on erasure, but for Crabapple, “art is a slippery thing. The prison may have had guns, razor wire and oceans of redactor’s ink” but she has pictures, and that means something to her.
From the age of four she knew she would be an artist as she came from a family of artists; her great-grandfather and her mother were both artists. However, art for them was “neither exotic, nor unattainable” but instead something as prosaic as family tradition and a way to earn money. It won’t be wrong to say that art was in her blood, hence the title Drawing Blood.
Molly Crabapple tells her story — the story of a creative mind inspired by the machinations of the modern world
As a child Crabapple hated being considered a child and could not wait to grow up; she loved reading as much as drawing and also fell in love with punk rock before entering her teens. Not very popular in high school, she found her friends online at a time when the internet was mostly frequented by geeks and loners. Her knowledge of the internet and understanding of it would come in handy when later on she decided to brand herself in an unconventional way, without having to sell her work to the fancy galleries which represented the inaccessibility of art and its patronisation by the rich — the very factors she was protesting against through her art.
After finishing school she travelled to Paris on her own, but before she left she made sure to burn all her photographs as a child, marking her entry into adulthood. Due to lack of funds she could not pay for the elite art school in New York City which she really wanted to attend, and instead had to settle for the Fashion Institute of Technology, a blue-collar school where she felt suffocated and did not agree with their idea of art.
The year after 9/11 she was so disillusioned with everything that one day she decided to visit Turkey after seeing a picture of an old castle in the Eastern region of Turkey in a book on the history of Islamic architecture. After spending one month in Istanbul she fell in love with the city and developed a “shaky grasp of the language”. Later, she would keep returning to the city and paint murals on the walls of schools for refugee children. After Turkey she decided to travel to Morocco where she lived on little money, but as always kept drawing and sketching frantically. Here she also learned basic Arabic.
If, on the one hand, Crabapple flaunts her strong-headedness and knack for causing trouble, on the other she does not shy away from showing her weak side. When she is harassed in a forlorn eastern town in Turkey she is both brave and fragile in her handling of the situation. This strange amalgam of strength and vulnerability becomes more evident when, to buy art supplies, she finds herself working as a nude model for amateur photographers and an edgy website that claims to empower women. However, she does not try this just for the sake of money; she does it to push her limits and find out if she can work in a field as stigmatised and still emerge unscathed — she wants to burn off her childhood.
For her, “art was obsession at first sketch. Each drawing was at once an escape and a homecoming. The pen was a lock-pick, the paper a castle I would hide within. To draw was trouble and safety, adventure and freedom. Art was a stranger making eyes through the smoke of a foreign dive bar. Art was my dearest friend.” Nevertheless, after her first desperate but doomed attempt at an exhibition she realises that creating good art is not enough to be successful: “Artists are told that we’ll be discovered. That there is a meritocratic Yahweh on high, and if only we are good enough, he’ll reward us with magazine spreads, collectors, and a white-cube gallery in Tribeca.” She is not afraid of admitting to the fact that if she didn’t have the nude modelling money she would never have been able to do the work that got her noticed.
Crabapple has been accused by some traditionally inclined artists of blatant self-promotion, but when you read Drawing Blood you find a talented artist repeatedly thwarted by traditional outlets, but so determined to make it that she never gives up. Even when she is lying in bed delirious with fever after an abortion, she does not accept defeat. Instead, she is even more determined to fight a society that forces a woman to feel shame for not wanting a child.
A large chunk of Drawing Blood is focused on Crabapple’s experience of the burlesque scene in New York. She started dancing in burlesque shows when she was 20 and stopped when she turned 24. In addition to providing her with the money she needed, dancing was an entry into the world she wanted to capture: “All through this time, the image of curtains kept reappearing in my art. They marked boundaries of space, of truth and falsity, of time.” She also learned that “glamour is armour. With feathers and bling, the queer, broke, and brilliant rigged themselves for battle”. But all this time she felt more an outsider than a performer because she was best at observing from the margins and giving new life to what she saw through her sketches. Her portraits of the many dancers she met depict women who are more akin to exotic, powerful goddesses than the helpless, lonely women traditional morality would have us believe.
As the student protests against austerity started in London followed by the Occupy Wall Street movement in America, Crabapple came to the realisation that in her pursuit of success she had become a stranger to herself: “How many times can I put this mask on before I have no face left?” Therefore, she decides to drop the ruffles and “draw something more violent and vivid”.
She remembers the powerless girl she had been: “I had beaten a treacherous system, but the system was still broken, and my hold was precarious at best.” She closely followed the Occupy movement which inspired her to create some of her best known works, but when she talks about Occupy there’s an unmistakable hint of nostalgia coupled with disappointment: “There is no one story of Occupy. There is her story, my story, and those of all the others who joined the movement, with their traumas, hopes, and aching disappointments. When I talk about Occupy, I’m still unsure whether to say we or they.”
Drawing Blood is an engaging story of a young artist and her struggle with an oppressive reality which aesthetically inspires her defiant imagination. Crabapple is aware of the fact that “pens can’t take on swords, let alone Predator drones” but for her “art is hope against cynicism, creation against entropy. To make art is an act of both love and defiance.” In prose as compelling as the accompanying drawings, Drawing Blood would be a fascinating read for those who appreciate the close affinity between art and politics. However, those who believe in the infallibility of traditional morality and conservative art should stay away unless they approach it with an open and forgiving mind.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic.
By Molly Crabapple
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2016