I never know how to rate autobiographies because I feel as if I’m passing judgement on the person. Is that why people read them? I don’t know. For myself, I was attracted to this book by the interesting connection between drawing and journalism, as well as the idea of an illustrated autobiography. I was strongly reminded me of a dear friend who is an artist and writer, and the letters and chapbooks filled with beauty in images and words.
The summary: The book description talks about “the time period between 9/11 and Occupy Wall Street” which is grossly, but not specifically accurate, in that it makes as it sound as though the time period was framed by activism and not just numbers. And that isn’t quite true either: beginning with late childhood, it mentions her parents and divorce, her challenges in high school, her first love. Frustrations with being young and rebellious. After graduation, looking for adventure, she heads to France and the Middle East. She returns at eighteen to begin art classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Having a hard time making ends meet, she takes Craiglist jobs for nude modeling for Men With Cameras. From there, it is her exploration into the world of burlesque as she tries to manage classes and find housing. This lasts some time, punctuated by a trip or two to Europe and the Middle East where she begins to understand her vulnerability as a single female traveler and meets men who help her. Eventually she meets a man, grows increasingly frustrated with school, and expands her work with burlesque into running shows. She has an abortion. 9/11 is just a couple of pages; likewise Hurricane Sandy. She networks her way into an exclusive nightclub and into galleries. We meet her friends. She travels to London. In her late twenties, she starts to become politicized and stops by Occupy Wall Street. She joins a journalist and becomes more political in her art.
The analysis: I loved the illustrations that accompanied the text. Although there was limited color–red, orange, yellow; quite appropriate for a firecracker personality–I loved the detail and the skill. I enjoyed reading her stories and then seeing a drawing that illustrated the image, whether thought, building or portrait.
Alas, Crabapple has a way to perfect writing skill. Much like my summary, much of the book reads like “I did this and then I did that with so-and-so.” Her personality is kept locked away, with very little information about her thinking process or the intimacies of her experience. And I don’t mean sex; Crabapple has mastered the art of displaying what seems private without sharing intimacy. Her passion comes through when talking about drawing, which sadly, is not often enough. As she becomes more politicized, she talks more about composition and what it represents to her. But I wish she had shared more of her artistic explorations. At one point early on, she refers to her style in a derogatory way, which kind of surprised me–I didn’t really feel I had been given a foundation for it, and there is evident skill in her style. In another, she mentions in an offhand manner how she can’t draw a straight line. She doesn’t need to, but again, I wanted to know where those thoughts came from. I would have liked to hear more about her process, about how her style worked–or not–with F.I.T.’s program, and what she actually learned from Fred, the lover who taught her so much. Still, mention of art and imagery twines through the book, and those were always the parts that shone:
“We live in the most image saturated age in history, and a thousand cell phone pics mark the occasion whenever a cop cracks a protester ‘s skull, but I wanted to prove that artists had a reason to leave the studio–to show that illustration had something to say.”
Despite the hype, her politicizing happens quite late in the book. Although she falls into nude modeling for quick cash and mentions safety issues, it doesn’t seem to impact behavior or consciousness. Eventually, there’s a sort of burgeoning feminism out of a website Suicide Girls (an “adult lifestyle brand”), but it is more about money-making and again, less about connections. She mentions other girls’ names but admit she didn’t know any of them well. In fact, throughout her recollections, it’s evident that there’s a lot of jealously and emulation of more ‘successful’ women, which is kind of the antithesis of feminist consciousness. Work at The Box, an exclusive nightclub, begins a time period of more class consciousness, but not enough to eschew $900 shoes when she gets first commission, so take it for what its worth. Occupy first becomes something to participate in and somewhat support. A change in economic status becomes casually dropped into conversation, as in “”That night I was in London, watching Twitter for the inevitable police attack,” so it’s hard to view her as a hardcore member of the movement. And in fairness, she never claims she was–although again the book blurb certainly seems to paint her as such (from the Rolling Stone, no less).
Honestly, I wouldn’t call it a waste of time, but I’d hesitate to recommend it to most people. Her writing lacks more than surface insight. For instance: “by 22, I was disillusioned with modeling and exhausted from the late nights at burlesque clubs.” Fair enough, but she’s quite recast her MWC work from what she termed it earlier–easy money–into something to be ‘disillusioned’ with, and the burlesque work was done for love of the act. It’s most pronounced during Occupy, such as when she criticizes “Even the liberal media figures many protesters had loved during the 2008 election turned against us.” Occupy was extremely problematic by the end, so it’s hard to cast anyone who criticized it as “turning against us.” It’s a theme that echoes, and maybe it’s one we all engage in: events are re-cast in a thoughtful glow, instead of a self-promotional one. When she discusses lay-offs at The Box during the Wall Street Crash: “And it was embodied in this empty night club. After the crash, what would happen to the human luxury goods who worked here, we sparklers illuminating the face of the destroyer?” This is from a place where performers shot fireworks out of their asses and farted Beethoven, so I’ll just assume she meant ‘sparkler’ literally. I’m not saying such work isn’t counter-cultural, but just how much activism in your art are you claiming here? There is often a narrow line between being shocking to be noticed or create a persona, and being shocking to make a statement that causes a jolt in thinking, but that’s a discussion that is sadly missing.
She has a talent for self-promotion, and there’s a ton of name-dropping, although I’m not sure who it is for as much is NYC based. Interestingly, there’s a scarcity of information about those that she remains close to–her family and her lovers. If you want to know more about -isms and art, almost any issue/article of Bitch will give more insight with stronger analysis. However, her art is remarkable, so if it captivates, it might be worth checking out her other work. The first two chapters are available on-line and provide a taste of how it reads.
Another book that fusses the rating system: 3 1/2 stars for the art, 3 stars for the writing, 2 1/2 stars for the insight.