We live in branded times. These days, vomit art is sponsored by Doritos, Weird Twitter has been appropriated by Denny's, and plastering corporate logos all over yourself is the new signifier of cool. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that this week's biggest outrage has to do with a net artist using Craigslist erotic masseuses to make penis drawings for an upscale hotel chain—all in the name of critiquing how the art world whores itself out to big business.
The brouhaha started on Sunday night, when artist Ryder Ripps was invited to spend a free night at New York City's Ace Hotel as part of its Artists in Residency program. In exchange, Ripps was required to produce a work of art during his stay. Previous participants made oyster shells, gabber CDs, and charcoal drawings. Ryder Ripps made a shitstorm.
Well, to be more specific, Ripps—a 28-year-old artist who the New York Times called "the consummate internet cool kid" in a profile earlier this year—decided to outsource his labor in order to make a statement. (Full disclosure: I've met and interviewed Ripps two years ago for the Creators Project.)
First, he invited a man and woman offering "sensual bodywork sessions" on Craigslist's Casual Encounters section to his hotel room. Then he asked them to draw whatever they wanted, filming everything (with their consent) with a computer web cam. Finally, he paid them $80 each, titled the project Art Whore, and posted a recap on his Livejournal.
The art world exploded. Popular blog Art Fag City declared it one of the most offensive projects of 2014—criticizing Ripps for calling the masseuses "sex workers," using them to further his career, and throwing around the term "whore" in reference to his privileged position. Art organization Rhizome called the stunt "ethically unsound." Gawker bellowed: "Artist's Scummy Escort Exploitation Turns Art World Against Him." And Dazed Digital concluded, "It's the same old story: a white dude co-opting someone else's labor in his struggle to Make A Point."
It didn't help that Ripps—who harbors a predilection towards trolling—initially responded to the criticism like a petulant child, facetiously claiming to be transgender and declaring that the "Ace hotel not paying me to make shit is more of an exploitation." Rhizome's Michael Connors acknowledged the troll, but still said it wasn't interesting even from that viewpoint. Later, when we reached out to him over Skype chat, he retracted a little, writing, "I regret referring to them as sex workers now. I feel this was an overstep on my part."
Still, the "sex workers" label is hardly the reason why
pissed off so many people. To understand why Ripps got his ass handed to him on a sizzling hotplate, you have to consider Art Whore in context of the larger media conversations surrounding it. Everything from Gamergate to Jian Ghomeshi, not to mention the NFL scandals, sexual assault on college campuses, and even concern-trolling over Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian's butts have kept us talking about all kinds of misogynistic bullshit. Meanwhile, blockbuster exhibitions like Kara Walker's sugar sphinx and the Whitney's Jeff Koons retrospective, as well as ongoing protests at the Guggenheim, have been big ticket news in the art world recently. In other words, Art Whore was hardly the first time that the internet outrage machine has circled around themes of sexism, exploitation, privilege, and race.
Being sensitive to these kinds of issues is obviously important. But the immediate nature of the internet has caused many of the responses to Art Whore to sound more like kneejerk reactions. In its rush to condemn Art Whore as "icky," Gawker wrote:
"Ripps's sex workers… 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."
This statement willfully ignores—or worse, is ignorant of—a crucial part of Art Whore: a two-hour video recording of Ripps's interactions with the Craigslist masseuses throughout that fateful night.
This video was embedded at the end of Ripps's Livejournal post and shared on YouTube. It's impossible to miss. Yet, Gawker's criticism that we learn "nothing else" about Jay and Brooke suggests that they did. Both participants clearly explain their artistic choices to Ripps—"You know why I did the 16? It's a tarot number," says Brooke at one point—in between candid banter about their day-to-day lives. The video's effect is a humanizing and revealing—if somewhat voyeuristic—glimpse into who these people are beyond their Craigslist usernames.
Ripps says he was careful to make the video because "I knew [vilification] would be a possibility if I didn't document it. But I thought I made it clear that everyone was consenting." He also says that he was surprised by how ready people were to speak for others. (The irony that his detractors have accused him of the exact same thing is not lost here.) "I find this really dangerous," he adds. Near the end of our conversation, Ripps reads us an off-the-record email from Jay that (to us) sounds overwhelmingly supportive.
Jay and Brooke's consent is at the heart of what Art Whore is really about. Just as they appear willing and enthusiastic about participating in the project, Ripps, who heads up a creative agency called OKFocus, eagerly sells his cultural savvy to brands like Nike, Google, Red Bull, and even Kanye West. Consent is another subject that's been dominating our conversations of late—thanks to new affirmative consent laws, "yes means yes" is the new "no means no." Art Whore has been criticized by Rhizome for not reminding the viewer of their complicity in this perpetuation of inequality. But I think he does—by forcing us to re-think what "yes" really means. Everyone involved in Art Whore gave their consent, but the glaring imbalance of power and agency remains. This is the most troubling part of Art Whore. But, as a work of art, that's also what makes it so effective.
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Additional reporting by Annette Lamothe-Ramos