On November 9th, 2014, a New York painter made a provocative statement about the supposed “whoring” of artists taking place across the United States. The conceptual and digital artist known as Ryder Ripps accepted a residency from the Ace Hotel located in downtown Manhattan. The term artist-in-residence refers to a scenario where some business or similar entity provides time and space away from an artist’s normal work environment to create an artwork. More often than not, the business will cover expenses for food and housing though it is not always so. In this particular case, the Ace Hotel could do nothing to prevent or even prepare for what Ripps would ultimately do.
Ripps was given a free room and a mere $50 for any supplies he might have needed. Meanwhile, the Ace Hotel immediately set to work using his presence as a marketing tool while also affirming that whatever he created would remain in their possession (he was only given permission to make photocopies). Upon arriving at the hotel on November 8th, Ripps promptly went online to Craigslist. He hired two prostitutes, one male and one female, who advertised themselves as “sensual massage therapists.” Needless to say, Ripps requested no sexual acts; on the contrary, he invited them both to his hotel room as part of his project. After explaining his intentions, the trio agreed on compensation in the amount of $80 each for the night.
In contrast to what the workers were probably used to, Ripps asked for just one hour of their time to simply draw. Collectively, 24 drawings were produced. Some were very childish and cartoonish in nature while others seemed to be much more detailed and meaningful. The woman, Brooke, produced sketches of words like “ILLUSIONS” and “FEAR” in black oil pastels. The man, Jay, created several drawings of breasts, penises, and even a collage of words related to his profession. These included “condoms, lube, vodka, oil, and mouthwash.” Ripps was completely hands-off in the project. Both Jay and Brooke spoke with Ripps about their lifestyles as they drew, and he recorded the conversations with their consent. The next morning Ripps posted photographs of the drawings to Instagram and Facebook along with a description of the purpose of the artwork. The world did not receive it well. Art F City writer Whitney Kimball described Ripps’ piece as “in the running for the most offensive art project of 2014.” Ripps titled his creation ART WHORE to reflect what he perceived as outright exploitation of artists and creativity in general. To him, the economics of art had been distorted. Businesses and brands were more concerned with being able to slap their name on something rather than actually respecting and fairly compensating an artist’s work. The general theme of the criticism Ripps received was that he was a hypocrite as he had apparently exploited two prostitutes to make his point. However, Ripps paid them for their time and did not hide any information about the project or what he had planned to do with it. Was that really an example of exploitation?
Others felt he embodied the “white savior complex.” Ripps is a successful digital marketer and director of the design agency OKFocus in New York. Both of the workers he hired were African American, and after the backlash he received over the project, he started to fire back with claims that he was doing a public service to under represented peoples who are often exploited in daily life. While Ripps definitely tottered along the line of right and wrong, nothing he did was explicitly criminal, and his artwork definitely brings many questions to light. As mentioned earlier, Ripps was supposed to leave the original copies of whatever he produced with the Ace Hotel. He ended up keeping them. It wasn’t clear if an official contract was signed as part of the residency, but either way, he certainly went back on his word which most would see as a great offense. Additionally, prostitution is illegal in New York City. Ripps did not pay either worker for sex, but he obviously made use of them to stray into that gray area. Lastly, Ripps successfully sparked a discussion about ownership and the process of creating art. The Ace Hotel planned on him making an artwork which they would be able to claim indirect responsibility and ownership of. Similarly, Ripps then outsourced the project to two “massage therapists.” Though he was open about their involvement, he still got to claim responsibility and sign his name. Neither Brooke nor Jay were contacted after the reveal for comment. So, who is the true “creator” here? Ace Hotel, Ryder Ripps, and the hired artists all played a role, and a degree of exploitation occurred at each level. Does exploitation at one point justify its use at another?