Ryder Ripps’ ‘ART WHORE’ stirs controversy in art world

Turns out that paying sex workers to make art during your own residency is kind of frowned upon?

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Ryder Ripps may regret the day he ever took on the Ace Hotel's offer of an art residency. The internet artist has landed in a storm of controversy after he debuted "ART WHORE", the product of his one-night stay at the New York hotel.

While previous Ace artists-in-residence have exhibited photography and taken portraits of guests, Ripps resorted to a pretty unorthodox method for his project: he hired two Craigslist escorts to make it for him. 

"I decided for my project I would go on the Craigslist casual encounters section and hire a male and a female sex worker to draw whatever they wish," he wrote on his Livejournal, noting that the Ace residency only entailed a free room for the night and $50 allowance for art supplies. "The title of this piece is ART WHORE, referring to my own involvement." 

After emailing 60 people on Craigslist, Ripps arranged for Brooke and Jay to visit his hotel room. Both had listed their services as "sensual" masseuses on the site. He documented the whole process on Instagram, filmed them on webcam (with their permission) and then paid them both "$80 for about 45 minutes of their time drawing".

And then shit promptly hit the fan.

When Ripps posted about the residency on his Facebook page, it attracted over 235 comments – many of them attacking the work – before he deleted the thread. Art F City writer Whitney Kimball described "ART WHORE" as being "in the running for the most offensive project of 2014". New York arts organisation Rhizome, which previously supported his work, publicly distanced itself from Ripps, calling his newest work "unthinking, unethical, and dull".

Meanwhile, people are ripping into Ripps for being a "cynical hateful creep". Others – including a staff member of the Ace – questioned why he couldn't have just hired people from an outsourcing site like Task Rabbit, which does not offer sexual services. 

Ripps has responded fiercely to criticism that the work is unethical or exploitative. Before he deleted the comments on his original Facebook post, he posted this riposte to one unhappy commentator: 

"How is it exploitative? I paid her to draw stuff. Ace Hotel not paying me to make shit is more of an exploitation. This work questions the economics of art, the dynamics of gender and the role of the internet in the production of art (...) I am trying to empower people who otherwise would not be in the art world. Anyone opposed to this work would rather not think bout the reality of sex workers in the world, they would rather turn a blind eye and assume an ignorance is bliss standpoint."

"I did not expect to be accused of abuse," Ripps told us. "I don't feel it's just for anyone to call the work unethical. I reached out to the participants and showed them the documentation of the project and both said they were happy with the result and don't feel exploited. I believe what happens between consenting adults is really nobody else's place to judge on an ethical basis besides the adults involved."

So why hire people off Craigslist as opposed to Task Rabbit? "Because I was asked by a hotel to create work for free in a hotel room," he explained. "People often bring sex workers to hotels, they don't bring Task Rabbits." 

The Ace Hotel told us that Ripps was selected as artist-in-residence by by PlayLab, the hotel's curatorial partners for the month. A spokesperson emailed us the following statement: "We do not require artists to make work that necessarily reflects the views and opinions of our company, and let the artists speak for themselves regarding the intentions of a given project."

Ripps said that he wishes that people engaged with the art produced by Brooke and Jay, although it seems pretty impossible by this point to divorce the actual work from its production. And anyway, Ripps' laboriously detailed documentation of the whole project suggests that the two should be taken as a whole.

It certainly doesn't help that he has been tweeting (somewhat) facetiously about the whole thing: 

So is "ART WHORE" unethical? Well, Ripps hasn't exactly frogmarched sex workers off the street and forced them into drawing for him. Unethical? Maybe not. Dull? Probably. 

It's a perfect illustration of the inequalities of the art world at play: privileged brand shits on artist, privileged artist shits on someone else. And yes, Ripps is privileged, even if the Ace has shortchanged him out of his artistic due (or $50, whichever). It's pretty telling that for all his documentation of the project and his insistence that Brooke and Jay were happy to consent, we haven't heard their voices at all. Quite literally – their voices stay muffled even in the hour-plus video of their interaction with Ripps.

In that case, it's the same old story: a white dude co-opting someone else's labour in his struggle to Make A Point. Nothing new about that.

What do you think? 

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