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How Occupy Changed Contemporary Art

Molly Crabapple's 'altarpieces to the revolution'

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

Art collectors keep getting richer, and galleries keep getting bigger, and the arts-loving public is paying less and less attention. “Chelsea galleries used to hum with activity,” the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote last month. “Now they’re eerily quiet.” The formidable critic Dave Hickey, a perennial fly in the ointment to the professionalized art establishment, announced his retirement last October with a scathing critique of the art world status quo. Nowadays, he told the UK Observer, the system revolves around rich speculators who know next to nothing about art but “drop their windfall profits” into it as yet another form of hedge investment. ”All we do is wander around the palace,” Hickey said, “and advise very rich people.” The artist William Powhida characterizes the rise of art oligarchs as symptomatic of “a highly-stratified economy where very few people have most of the wealth, which we must increasingly orient ourselves towards like a plant growing towards the light.”

Against this backdrop, though, many young artists actually are as passionate and individualistic and visionary as the artists of less financially stratified eras. It’s just that they’re operating outside the big-collector system, building followings and funding their work with a lot of hard work and ingenuity, often partly through sites like Etsy and Kickstarter. As Reuters Finance writer Felix Salmon puts it, “the shiny art selling for tens of millions of dollars is so dumb” that a lot of talented artists “don’t even want in any more.” Instead, these artists are dedicated to a more democratic art world, and a more democratic world in general.

The 29-year-old artist Molly Crabapple is part of this vanguard. Until a couple years ago, Crabapple, born Jennifer Caban in Far Rockaway, Queens, was best known for her burlesque art and—because of its highly adult content and her background as a nude model for amateur photographers—pigeonholed as a sex artist. But when her Occupy Wall Street images went worldwide, all that changed. Crabapple was suddenly both a graphic artist for the movement and an emblem of the way that art could break out of the gilded gallery. Her poster for the May Day General Strike, for example, depicts a woman, bathed in light like an Eastern Orthodox icon, but solid and human as Diego Rivera’s workers. On her website Crabapple posted photographs of the poster hanging all around the city.  

Courtesy of Molly Crabapple
"Our Lady of Liberty Park" by Molly Crabapple

“Occupy favored art that was populist,” she told me last month, during a wide-ranging conversation at her home and studio, just a block from ZuccottiPark. As she points out, many of the movement’s most iconic images came from illustrators, like poster artist R. Black and cartoonist Susie Cagle. (Cagle won an award from the Society for Professional Journalists for her Occupy Wall Street journalism.) Mark Read’s 99 percent projections became known internationally as the “Bat Signal logo” of Occupy Wall Street. Theirs was art, Crabapple says, “that was passionate, accessible, unironic—art that bled and took sides. It was art out of the gallery and into the streets, into life. I hope it presented an alternative, a good strong alternative to detached, ironic uber-expensive art whose primary purpose is to fill up an oligarch's loft.”

Courtesy of Molly Crabapple.
"Debt and her Debtors" by Molly Crabapple.

A year and a half ago, Crabapple raised $64,000 on Kickstarter to fund her new show, Shell Game, which opens this Sunday at Paul Bridgewater’s new Smart Clothes Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and commemorates the worldwide uprisings of 2011 and the financial crisis. The Shell Game images, like much of Crabapple’s work, are darkly carnivalesque—a fusion of Bruegel and Bosch, with idealized female figures reminiscent of those in Rivera’s Palacio Nationale decomposing into menacing cartoon fat cats and debt-ridden worker-zombie mice. “Exuberant altarpieces for the revolution,” MSNBC talk show host Chris Hayes has called them.

Crabapple was initially resistant to the idea of turning her art to political ends, both because she worried that, as a former nude model, she would be deemed unserious and unworthy by full-time activists, and because having protested the Iraq War, she had the gut-wrenching sense that the left had failed and that using art in the name of politics reduced it to theatre or grandstanding. Occupy changed that: “I realized that both of those attitudes were actually really stupid and counter-productive, and I felt very morally drawn to take a side on where the world was going.”

So she’s been working on the massive Shell Game paintings, but she’s also traveled to Spain and to Greece, and in Vice magazine and elsewhere she has published a series of sketches and reportage that is as alive and expressionistic as Ralph Steadman’s illustrations of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas —except, as an artist who also has a gift for language, she plays the part of illustrator and writer both. These drawings are also as intricately detailed as the illustrated travel works of nineteenth-century explorers. “There’s a real beauty in the flaws that ink gets,” she says, speaking of Steadman, but the same is true of her work. “There’s a spontaneity and violence in it, like ink is a little bit like blood sometimes.”

Courtesy of Molly Crabapple
"The Business of Illness" by Molly Crabapple

Yet Crabapple’s work and story is not just about infusing politics into visual art; she represents an alternative to the mechanism through which many young artists today find success. Crabapple grew up thinking of art not as “something where you had to get an MFA from Yale then schmooze people in New York,” but as a trade that paid the bills. Her mother—a single mom—illustrated toy packaging for products like Cabbage Patch Kids and Holly Hobby. “Being an artist was how my mom fed me. … It was an almost working-class way to make a living."

She’s carried this attitude with her. Although Crabapple is respectful of many who’ve gone through formal, higher training she finds the idea that you can apply credentials to art “morally objectionable. Art is a trade, and creativity and talent is a gift. … What people are essentially saying now, when they’re saying oh, you have to have an MFA to be a legit artist, is you have to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to be a legit artist, and to me, that’s so revoltingly classist." There are many ways to make a living through art, Crabapple says, “and the Internet’s really magnifying that.”

Courtesy of Molly Crabapple
"A New England" by Molly Crabapple

Crabapple’s work, argues BBC editor Paul Mason, who last year wrote about Crabapple, Mark Read, and other young artists, in “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?” speaks to what might “replace contemporary art. … It is of the world of graphic novels, graffiti, posters, body art, cross- genre performance art.” With her graphic reportage from Greece and Seville, he tells me, “Molly bent the genre some more with these impromptu interventions into journalism: blood on the floor in Athens, anarchist run farms in Spain, a grungy court scene in Manhattan.”

Much of the work made by artists associated with the Occupy movement, fellow artist Mark Read has said, “is not concerned with how it will be perceived by a buying public. It’s not designed to be bought, but shared—it’s designed to be made available as widely as possible.” Shell Game, Crabapple’s new show, is an interesting hybrid: political art explicitly associated with the movement, but also exhibited in a gallery and for sale to collectors. What entering this world will mean for Crabapple’s career and for her art will be very interesting to watch.