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Molly Crabapple: The Best Path Is the One You Build Out of Your Own Dysfunction

The prolific illustrator on the benefits of college, why you should always ask other people what they make, and other career advice for creatives.

Matisse once opined that “Creativity takes courage.” Part artist, part journalist, Molly Crabapple has both in spades.

The New York-based illustrator has reported from war-torn Syria and Guantanamo Bay, among other places, with a unique blend of gonzo-esque essay writing paired with raw portraits of humanity’s lowest lows and highest highs.

The result has been a career that might serve as a blueprint for the 21st-century artist. Crabapple has the freedom to speak truth to power while satisfying her creative itches through essays in Vice, an upcoming memoir titled Drawing Blood, several illustration jobs (including art for Matt Taibbi’s bestselling The Divide), and a slew of one-off projects—like locking herself in a New York hotel room drawing for a week uninterrupted for Week in Hell.

I spoke with Crabapple as she took a break from writing her memoir to talk with me about why she’s down on art school and how the “Uber-ization” of the workforce is impacting artists. 

When did you first become more politically active and start speaking out about social issues?

I’ve always been a political person. My dad is a political science professor, and I grew up being taught to question authority. But for a long time after the failure of the anti-Iraq War protests,

I hadn’t really felt right bringing my politics into my work. It felt like a preachy lie if I was very explicit about politics. But then Occupy happened. It felt like a moment where it was incumbent upon people to publicly take sides. So I started doing work about Occupy.

Molly Crabapple in Week in Hell.

How did that flip to going overseas to these dangerous areas like Syria and Guantanamo, things that take more courage than covering Occupy?

There is nothing brave about going to Guantanamo, except maybe a small amount of moral bravery to see the horrific things that your country did. You are just going to a military base. I like to use my art to go places where I am not supposed to and show people things they usually can’t see.

Some people are afraid of voicing politics because of backlash or the fear of not knowing all the facts. How have you grappled with that?

I am continuously aware of my own ignorance and also of the limits of what is actually knowable. Guantanamo was my first experience working in an environment where the truth was hidden under so many layers of classification. For instance, at Guantanamo I spoke to a defense attorney for the prisoners. I tried my best to learn everything about the camp. But then, recently there was a CIA report that conclusively proved everything Guantanamo was accused of was true—even things that no one but its most scathing critics dared say.

You just have to be aware of your own ignorance and of your own capacity to fail. I don’t think there is ever going to be a point when you’re going to conclusively know everything, or even know what is important about a chunk of reality. So you just try your best.

Crabapple at work. Credit:

Crabapple at work. Photo:

In a previous interview you mentioned that you regretted attending the Fashion Institute of Technology and that it was not a good experience. You said that art school might not be the best idea for some people.

Art school is, what, $40,000 a year? Think about the trade-off. I could get an education, but I’d also pay $160,000 for the privilege. Do I think there is a better way that you can develop yourself for $160,000 than going to art school? With $160K, you could live in a cheap city for years and hone your drawing all day and not have a job. There are all sorts of ways you can spend $160,000.

College is pushed on every middle class kid (the way that poor kids are barred from and dissuaded from education is a different story). I think it’s better to look at the resources you have access to, and think of how you might use them to get the life you want, to develop yourself in accordance with your desires.

I didn’t have $40,000 a year to go to a good art school, so I went to a cheap one that was terrible. Even so, I had three good teachers at FIT. I was also forced to take classes in archaic mediums like airbrush. I had teachers who I suspect were in the early stages of dementia. Instead of teaching, they just had us watch movies.

There are some amazing people who teach in art school. Some of the artists I most admire teach. I just resent credentialization of art. There are certain fields like accounting or engineering or medicine where you need credentials. You need outside authorities to assure that you’re competent, because if you fail, you can kill people or cause bridges to collapse or land someone in jail. But art? Making a college degree standard for artists just creates a barrier of entry for people who can’t afford them.

I just resent credentialization of art.

What effect do you think that has on young artists?

A lot of young artists end up in a lot of debt and that can shape your life in many ways. If you graduate with $50,000 of debt, you are forced to take certain types of jobs and may not be able to take certain risks because you have loan payments due.

You’ve advocated that artists be cutthroat about making a living off their art. What did you mean by that? 

I don’t think that people should be cutthroat about their actual art. When you’re making art, you should be idealistic. Your art should be your heart, your tears, and your blood. I was more talking about the commercial aspects around art. Be practical about those. There are a lot of aspects of the art world that make no sense at all. Like the gallery system…it is kind of ludicrous: We will take your piece and we will put in a white box in Chelsea with very, very, very expensive rent. So, the prices of all these pieces have to be really high. They have to cover both the rent on the white box and the gallery owner’s cost of living and your cost of living. Because the prices are really high, only certain types of people can afford to buy those things. So you have to make art that caters to really rich people.

It’s not that some art shouldn’t be expensive. A lot of work costs huge amounts of time, money, and skill to make. But the model of selling that work through a gallery that takes half, and that has to make rent in one of the most expensive cities in the world may not be the best model and it certainly isn’t the only one.

Speaking of companies rather than galleries, a lot of times when corporations want artists to work for them, they do what I can only describe as “negging,” like a pickup artist would do.

Your art should be your heart, your tears, and your blood.

What is negging?

Negging is a technique where a pickup artist will try to insult a girl. For example: “You’re cute but you have messed up nails.”The idea is to lower the girl’s self esteem, so she’ll sleep with the guy insulting her. Companies do the same thing. They say, “You’re okay but we are only going to pay you $200 bucks…” and it is really about lowering your self-esteem so that you accept an unfair price.

I think that one of the best realizations an artist could have is that the amount of money they get paid has only a passing relationship with their talent. Talent is its own reward, but this world is not a meritocracy.

Do you think there is such thing as a collaborative relationship with someone who is paying an artist?

Definitely. I cherish relationships with certain editors and art directors. But once a corporation is involved, it’s best to be cynical about it. Even if the art director working for Disney is a really cool person, and even if you really understand each other, Disney does not give a fuck about either of you. You should be utterly cold to Disney even if you think your art director is kind and brilliant.

The cover of "The Divide" by Crabapple.

The cover of “The Divide” by Crabapple.

Have you ever been financed by a large organization?

I work for Vice. I work for Fusion. My book is being published by Harper Collins. I’m proud of the work I’ve done at all of those places, but I’d be delusional to think the parent companies of these outlets cared about me or any of their other employees in any deep way. I am lucky that I have an agent I adore. She just deals with all of that. But earlier in my career, I got kicked around by some companies I worked for.

When you don’t have an agent, you kind have to be “artist Molly” and “agent Molly.”

Exactly. I think one of the best things you can do is to talk about what you are getting paid with other people in your field. There is a gif where Meryl Streep is saying that her lesson to young people in acting, especially working women in acting, would be to always ask people their salaries. Because when she did it, she always found out that men were getting paid more than her.

One of the reasons people should talk about their salaries, or how much they’re getting paid, is to avoid gender discrimination because that is how that stuff gets hidden. I’ve found that over and over again. Early in my career, I found out one guy who was offered ten times the amount of money I was for a cover. Other times, people will come to me and ask me about a company that’s paying me fairly, but is lying to them about their standard rate. 

It’s not that I think all artists or all writers should be paid the same. But if there are differences, there should be a reason, not fuzzy feelings that often stem from unarticulated prejudice.

Crabapple’s XOXO talk: Is the Gatekeeper dead?

How has the internet played a role in all of this?

The internet has turned massive quantities of Americans into precarious workers. The government needs to acknowledge this. We need to decouple benefits like health insurance or unemployment from jobs. They should be for everyone. We should stop calling them “benefits.” Getting treated for cancer should be a human right. I don’t think the Uber-ization of the workforce is a good thing.

That Uber-ization of the world is happening, but at the same token, you have a degree of freedom in your career that other people don’t.

The Uber driver is still going through a corporation that is in control of many aspects of his labor. A lot of the sharing economy is about rebranding precarity as entrepreneurship. My career wasn’t like that. I wasn’t having one platform profit off my labor—I was cobbling things together myself.

A lot of the sharing economy is about rebranding precarity as entrepreneurship.

Do you have any thoughts for someone who is making that freelance shift maybe against their will?

This is kind of a cruel paradox. If you are constantly hustling from one gig to the next and you make all these little things, you seldom produce work that is lasting. You get in this rut where you’re forced to hack things out. Because of all your previous hackwork, people think “this person is a hack.” They will never offer you the chance to do those big transformative pieces of art that burn people’s eyes. It’s a hard balance to strike between doing truly great work and doing the work that will support you, especially at first.

I devoted everything to my work. Even now, I often work 14 hours a day. I don’t have a kid. I never plan to. All throughout my twenties, I pushed everything aside, so that I could do art. I was mostly healthy, and didn’t have sick parents or immigration issues or many of the struggles others deal with. Life is hard and complicated. Maybe the best path is the one you build out of your own dysfunction.

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (2)
  • tseib

    Though I would likely differ from her view of how to improve and democratize healthcare, kudos to Molly for being a hustler and iconoclast who sees the business world and the human beings behind it as they really are, not as she wishes them to be. As the multi-generational tide of interchangeable corporate slot-filling that dominated the US labor market for most of the 20th century begins to recede, folks like Molly help us revive and rediscover our self-reliance and pioneering roots in an inherently unstable economic and tech landscape that offers no guarantees, only freedom to till our own little creative acreage and build our own little creative cabins.

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