On Sunday, the artist Ryder Ripps spent the night at the Ace Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The hotel offered him a free room and $50 stipend to make some art—a deal he's since called exploitative—so he hired two "sensual masseuses" from Craigslist to make it for him, dubbing the project ART WHORE. Condemnation from the art world was swift.
Ace Hotel hosts an "artist in residence" every Sunday, putting up each for the evening in exchange for the work they make while there and some good PR. Ripps' piece was evidently intended as a critique of that transactional approach to art-making, and of his own participation in said transaction—on his LiveJournal, where ART WHORE is documented, he wrote that the title refers to "my own involvement" in the process. To subject an artist to the indignity of a free night at a boutique hotel in exchange for his work, it says, is no different from hiring a prostitute.
According to the LiveJournal post, Ripps emailed roughly 60 people advertising their services on Craigslist and invited the first two who responded—a woman named Brooke and a man named Jay—to come to his hotel room and draw and paint whatever they wanted, emphasizing that there would be no sexual encounter. Each agreed, and each produced a series of drawings and paintings, some of which were given to the hotel and some of which Ripps photographed and kept for himself. "I ended up paying each $80 for about 45 minutes of their time drawing," he wrote.
We regret that Ryder Ripps' newest work, which is unthinking, unethical, and dull, is part of a practice we just recently celebrated.
— Rhizome (@rhizome) November 11, 2014
On the surface, ART WHORE's analogy seems to work. Art, like the human body, is precious, and there's something inherently icky about reducing either to a commodity. But when both parties consent—as Ripps and his Craigslist hires did, and as countless other artists and sex workers do all the time—an uneasy balance can be achieved.
Go one level deeper, however, and the metaphor starts to break down. Even if Ripps feels exploited by Ace, he's still given agency: as a successful—and often brilliant—artist, he has a platform to guide the narrative surrounding the work. And judging by the email exchanges with hotel representatives that he published on his blog, Ace isn't even particularly interested in taking that narrative away from him. "Any background on why you chose [Craigslist] as opposed to, say Task Rabbit? Any thoughts on why the project required sex workers specifically? (or, maybe it's not relevant?)" one reads. "We want to understand that aspect so if asked, we respond to people in a way that's informative." Ripps' nose-thumbing response: "I choose sex workers because great art is like great sex."
Ripps' sex workers, on the other hand, get no such voice. The artist writes that they "really enjoyed the experience" on his blog, but ultimately, those words are his, not theirs. We learn their first names, but nothing else about them, and they're given no forum in which to give their drawings context. The work, for all intents and purposes, belongs to Ripps. In an attempt to critique an unequal power dynamic—and to be clear, brands treating artists like content-making wind-up toys is a dynamic that deserves critiquing—he created a situation even more unfair than the one he was targeting.
The most thoughtful critique I've seen of ART WHORE came from Michael Connor of Rhizome, who contrasted the work with conceptually similar performances by Andrea Fraser and Santiago Sierra. The Sierra work Connor references—titled Nine Forms of 100x100x600cm Each, Constructed to Be Supported Perpendicular to A Wall—involves a group of paid laborers hired to stand in a gallery and hold a heavy sculpture on their shoulders:
Sierra's work and Ripps' both involve paid workers, from sectors of the labor force that are undervalued and not infrequently in harm's way, in the production of a work or exhibition. Both make the economic transaction behind this involvement explicit. Both reveal the bodies of the participants. Both reveal the specifics of the underlying economic transactions.
One central proposition of Sierra's work is that the gallery visitor is prompted to confront his or her own role in the perpetuation of inequity and oppression: What cause could there be for imposing such discomfort on the workers, except to present this situation to an audience? It's not just the institution; the visitor is the root cause of this exploitation. In order to do this, Sierra not only foregrounds the economic transaction, he also makes it explicit that the job required will be painful and is only available to people of a more marginalized racial group.
In contrast, by playing down the role of race and downplaying the potential negativity of his participants' experiences, Ripps makes it less obvious to the viewer that inequity is in fact being perpetuated, and many have argued that his actions were not unethical. Thus, the work can't be defended on the basis that it reminds the viewer of their complicity. If measured by the standard of Sierra's work, it is a miserable failure.
In other words, to make the point he's trying to make, Ripps should be making the people whose work he's co-opting as visible as possible. Instead, he's speaking for them. In a long, contentious Facebook thread about the work screencapped by Art F City, he wrote:
How is it exploitative? I paid her to draw stuff...Ace hotel not paying me to make shit is more of an exploitation. The work questions the economics of art, the dynamics of gender and the role of the internet in the production of physical art about it.
And I'm drawing attention to the fact that sex work is real. At the end of the day I lost $240 through supplies and fees and they made $160. Whos being exploited? I am, by the hotel to advertise their shit for free.
Of course Ripps is exploiting Brooke and Jay—that's the entire crux of his metaphor; what is ART WHORE about if not exploitation?—but instead of opening that exploitation up for inspection, he hides it, making his sex workers into silent players in a drama about the aggrievment of Ryder Ripps.