Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple
Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple. New York: Harper Collins, 2015, 338 pages.
Drawing Blood, a new memoir from artist, writer and activist Molly Crabapple, opens on a tense scene: Ms. Crabapple sits behind a thick barrier of soundproof glass in a Guantanamo Bay courtroom, while on the other side sits alleged 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the subject of the military tribunal in progress. Denied a camera, she has only her sketchbook to record the proceedings. “To draw is to objectify,” she writes, “To go momentarily to a place where aesthetics mean more than morality. I shaded the alleged murderer’s brow bone. I rendered the curls of his beard so they would fall across the page in an interesting sweep.” Above this passage sits one of the book’s many colorful illustrations: The man known to some security agencies as KSM is depicted five times in various states of agitation and proclamation. “The prison may have had guns, razor wire, and oceans of redactor’s ink, but I had pictures….With each brush stroke, I thought about drawing the man back into existence.”
It’s a heady moment, and one that nicely combines some of the main focal points of Crabapple’s incisive attention, among them justice, authority and politics, with her ethos, namely a belief in the power of art to fuel movements and inform society about itself.
Crabapple, who has written for Vice, the New York Times and the Paris Review, and whose work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, is still remarkably young (32), but, as this book proves, she has lived more than enough in her few years to justify and carry a memoir. Drawing Blood is the story of her artistic awakening, in the way that she learns to experience and mediate the pain visited on her by the world, and artistic development, in the way that she leaned to hone her craft through brute repetition and force of will. (It should be said, as the highest compliment, that Crabapple is no mercurial genius for whom success was easy and ordained—all that she has achieved has come to her through monkish dedication to her craft, dogged determination and a staggering work ethic.)
We see her as she moves from her years as a precocious and sensitive teenage goth, imbued with a strong sense of social justice from her father and artistic craftsmanship from her mother, into starving art student studying at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. In between, she travels to Paris and bunks among the stacks at legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Co., fishing coins out of the wishing well in the back to buy cheap wine. The bookstore, she writes, “Showed me another way to live…. Will and eccentricity were all one needed.”
After outgrowing art school and moving from the dorms to the Lower East Side, she drops out (which is, after all, the real art school graduation ceremony, this reviewer wouldn’t be the first to joke) and began to make money using art in whatever ways she could, including taking commissions via Craigslist, while unlearning everything she had been told about the career of an artist. “Artists are told that we’ll be discovered. That there is a meritocratic Yahweh on high, and if only we’re good enough, he’ll reward us with magazine spreads, collectors and a white-cube gallery in Tribeca…If I stayed humble and waited for my work to speak for itself, I’d never have the opportunity to do good work at all.”
While still practicing her art and plying her trade as much as possible during this period, Crabapple entered the world of quasi-sex work, or what she calls the “naked girl” business. “It was money that drove me to the naked girl business. But I also wanted to test myself. I wanted to see if I could work in a field as fraught and stigmatized as sex work, and emerge unscathed.” She began as a nude model, both as the “legitimate” kind for art students, and later for “GWCs” (guys with cameras) who paid her for one-on-one photo shoots in motel rooms. Soon, she became a featured model on the fledgling Suicidegirls.com, and watched it grow from a pioneering operation that bestowed its models with a high level of personhood to an “alt porn” empire that demanded total control. “For my friends and me,” she writes, “…money came from transgressing societies norms.”
Throughout this all, as we watch her gain more respect as an artist and renown as an activist, a moral begins to emerge, a kind of cynicism toward the capitalistic artistic-industrial complex twinned with a perhaps slightly ironic faith in the power of assertive determination. “Artists are not supposed to care about commerce. The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women: Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet…but make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore…Talent is essential, but cash buys the opportunity for that talent to be discovered… I am good, but it was never just about being good. It was about getting noticed.” The book is also a work of visual art—interspersed throughout the text are original pen-and-ink drawings situated in interplay with the story. Cats lounge on top of paragraphs; bugs skitter through them. When a close friend is introduced, their inky portrait appears soon after. The result is both an effective amplification of the pleasure of reading the book and an apt metaphor for Crabapple’s wide-aperture view on both art and life—art literally seeping into the story of life, life propping up art as on a scaffold. It’s hard to properly describe Crabapple’s visual art, although one knows it when one sees it (and one often sees it in the most interesting places in New York—when I mentioned to a friend what I was reading over a beer at a dive called Library Bar on the Lower East Side, she raised her hand to the mural on the wall depicting Mary Shelley holding a kind of locket containing the image of Frankenstein, and told me that we were in fact sitting under some of Crabapple’s work. In better lighting, I might have known). There is the bold, splattered inking, a playful lack of gravity in her idea of space, and a recurring thematic interest that often combines the human and animal for allegorical effect. But what is most unifying is also most ineffable—something possibly sinister creeping in from the margins, a bar of Coney Island pump organ carried in on the wind. Sex and death, the potential for either humiliation or apotheosis, danger and desirability all intertwined into a single silken strand. Which, all of this, also happens to serve just fine as a metaphor for capitalism itself.