By Shivani Bhasin, official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival blogger
The best artists are those who inhabit various disciplines and interpret the world in radically different ways. Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, but he was also trying to discover a means for humans to fly. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita; one of the masterpieces of 20th Century Literature, but his professional training was that of a country doctor. Molly Crabapple joins this illustrious line of multifaceted personalities with her unique contributions to art, activism and journalism. She was a precocious child who ran away at seventeen to sketch portraits in Paris. She has since adopted the roles of a burlesque dancer, Occupy Wall Street protester, journalist and writer. One of her posters for the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2012 hangs permanently in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her unique style of journalism, which involves pairing up text with intimate portraits of people, is winning accolades for its sensitive depiction of life from Gaza to Guatanamo Bay. Here, she opens up to the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blog in a freewheeling chat about art, politics, feminism and her upcoming memoir Drawing Blood.
There’s a certain sense of immediacy when it comes to drawing and documenting people’s lives. Do you find that more honest than writing?
‘I don’t know if it’s a more honest thing or not but I sometimes feel like with all art forms that honesty’s a sort of artifice. I definitely feel like when I write, I’m slaving over it and thinking about how I can even accept what I’ve written, whereas when I draw – especially because I’ve drawn so many times – I’m just stabbing the lines down. When I’m interviewing someone and drawing them at the same time, drawing is much more of the moment, whereas writing is more laboured.’
What were some of your literary and artistic references when you were writing Drawing Blood?
‘In terms of literary references, there are a number of people in New York whose writing I love. Sarah Nicole Prickett (Founding editor of Adult Magazine) is a writer whose writing style I admire a lot. I admire how she can take subjects that mainstream society has said are trivial, such as culture and beauty and art, and bring such keen perception to them. Her writing is so sharp. Chelsea G Summers, who also writes for Adult Mag, is a very good friend of mine. She helped edit my book and was like a whip-mistress. She would take no sloppiness from me. Anytime my writing was weak, or melodramatic or childish, she would tell me, ‘This sentence is as awkward as two teenagers f***ing in a car.’
‘I love people’s work when their references go wild, it can be anything from shitty pop culture to French feminism. Writers use these references from everywhere and make you think very deeply and unconventionally about things you wouldn’t have ever put together before.’
You’re occupying this radical space where literature, art and politics co-exist with your work. How does that make you feel? How does it feel when people use those tags to define your work?
‘As long as I get to be an artist and journalist, as long as no one tells me that you can’t do this, I think this space is a fine space to be in. For years I wasn’t really acknowledged, people would say ‘Oh, you’re not really an artist,’ so now when people say things that are essentially complimentary, that’s great.’
As a resident of New York, have you considered documenting the Black Lives Matter protestors through your art?
‘I’ve done a few posters for it. But I haven’t done actual pictures of the Black Lives Matter protestors. I did this piece this summer which I’m very proud of; it’s about prisoners in solitary confinement at the Dallas SIC. They’re whistleblowers who spoke about the abuse they were facing in prisons. They are currently being charged for felony rioting for the crime of – I kid you not – covering their cell windows. That’s seven years in jail eventually, for this. I spent a lot of time documenting them. I didn’t just document the brutality; I also drew Carrington (one of the prisoners) with his mom. He was having a moment with his mother, Shandra Delaney, who is an amazing woman in her own right.
‘One of my profound regrets was that when Ferguson was happening, I was speaking at this f****ing conference in Sweden. I felt like an idiot for blah-blah-blahing in Sweden when this informative protest was happening.’
You’re a very passionate advocate for the rights of sex workers and adult film performers. How did you feel when news broke about James Deen’s rape and assault of Stoya and other adult performers?
‘Stoya is a very close friend of mine and I knew about it (the assault) very much in advance. It was an intense act of courage for her to come out about that. I think that there are powerful men in every industry who abuse their position and James Deen is no different. He is a sociopath and rapist. I think what’s happening now is that women have stopped keeping the secret. I think Stoya changed the world by speaking out. People make it about the adult film industry, but look at Bill Cosby. He’s the most wholesome man in America but he’s also this serial rapist. I think its eighty women now?’ (Edit: Fifty three women have accused Bill Cosby of rape.)
‘Porn came forward and shut that man (James Deen) out much more quickly than Hollywood or fashion or any of the so-called wholesome industries. It’s not like I think porn is a female utopia but the truth is that people knew Bill Cosby was raping women for decades and because he made people money, no one did anything about it. Stoya went public with what James had done and the entire porn industry rallied around her.’
James Deen was actually one of the few male performers to have a large female fan following and be called a ‘feminist’. Do you think that people are desperate to find a male feminist icon in porn?
‘I think so. James was always a vapid human. There was a shortage for a while, not just of male feminists, but quite frankly of good-looking men in porn. There was a shortage of men who were sexually attractive to women in mainstream porn. James was attractive and a good performer, and because there were so few of those, people put every other title on him. They were so desperate to have a sex icon. The thing is when your entire career is built on being the object of women’s fantasies and you’re a rapist, it turns out that women will very quickly write you out of their lives.’
I had this thought when I was attending your session on your memoir at JLF. You spoke about the influence burlesque has on your work. With regard to forms like burlesque or even porn, where do you draw the line between art and exploitation?
‘I don’t know if there is a line between art and exploitation. I mean, a lot of high art is exploitation. I think the real line is if you’re comfortable with what you’re doing. Are your labour conditions good? Are you being fairly compensated? The lines are more about work and labour than art. Everyone has different acts they’re comfortable with and different limits. Everyone makes different choices and trade-offs in their lives. For me, to talk about exploitation is to talk about labour conditions and people who do creepy things at work. I don’t think you can say ‘Oh, it’s feminist if you wear pasties on your breasts and exploitation if you take them off.’ I don’t think that’s how the line falls.’
The choices you make for journalism are very courageous. You’ve been to war zones in Syria and you’ve reported from Palestine. Where do you draw the strength from to go into these places?
‘I don’t think I’m that strong. I have friends going in to Yemen right now, who are under bombs. I don’t feel like I’m this super strong or brave person at all. The people who live there (Syria, Gaza), they’re the brave ones. I just want to document them. The journalists who report from there, they’re the brave ones.’
What your thoughts on the Jaipur Literature Festival?
‘I have to tell you, I didn’t know literary festivals could be so glamorous. They have nothing like this in America. It’s a completely new and amazing experience for me. I feel really trite for saying this but I feel really drunk on all the beauty here.’