Many people claim that commodification, transforming a good or activity into a commodity bought and sold on a market, corrupts that good or activity. As Michael Sandel puts it:
Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.
But few people have tested this idea which is why I loved Stephen Clowney’s Does Commodification Corrupt? Lessons from Paintings and Prostitutes. Clowney does something simple. He interviews art appraisers and male escorts, people who live with commodification, and asks them about art and sex. In short he uses the “lived experiences of those affected by commodification” to test whether commodification corrupts.
Does appraising art, for example, reduce the appraiser’s appreciation for art the way working in a pork factory might reduce a worker’s appetite for bacon?
Scott Altman, a legal scholar who has studied commodification, perfectly captures the standard market skeptic position: “[s]omeone who spends all day estimating the value of art might eventually have difficulty appreciating art in any way other than as worth a certain amount.”
What does Clowney find?
Of the twenty assessors interviewed for this study, not one reported that market work disfigured their ability to enjoy the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities of artistic masterworks. In fact, most appraisers insisted they can easily and completely compartmentalize their professional duties from their private encounters with art. This finding challenges the panicked rhetoric of many anti-commodification theorists who continue to insist that commerce diminishes the meaning of sacred things. Contrary to the predictions of market skeptics, the appraisers in this study spoke with joyful enthusiasm about their experiences viewing exceptional works of art. Even the most senior appraisers—those who have monetized thousands and thousands of objects—remain passionate consumers of art in their personal lives.
…Jane C.H. Jacob, an appraiser with thirty-five years of experience, explained, “[the appraisal work] does not corrode my enjoyment at all. I never get tired of looking at art. Never bored. I love art more now than I did 20 years ago.” She continued, “[f]or me, the joy is being able to experience it and inspect it. Listen, I don’t love art because of the price, but because of the way I respond to it. When I see [Monet’s] Water Lilies I never don’t get excited. A tear comes to my eye.”
In fact “a majority of the assessors stated that ascribing values to art actually increased their admiration for paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other creative work.”
But how could that be so? Given the widely reported dangers of commodification, how could non-instrumental values blossom in the hard soil of the marketplace? Anti-commodification scholars, it seems, have failed to appreciate that market work is a powerful educational agent that breaks the stale cake of ignorance, turns apathy into understanding, and nurtures new insights about the sacred. Imagine, for example, an appraiser confronted with attaching value to Mary Cassatt’s painting, Young Mother Sewing. Anyone attempting to price such an object must, at the outset, become well-versed in the artist’s career, the provenance of the work, and the ethos of the larger impressionist movement. Then, the appraiser must probe to explain whether the painting is a “good, better, or best” example of Cassatt’s work.
… Arch-anti-commodificationist Elizabeth Anderson even suggests that those who engage in ranking and valuation of art are “philistines, snobs, and prigs, precisely those least open to a free exploration and development of their aesthetic sensibilities.” But that is quite wrong. Commodification does not render these artworks flat and fungible. And it is not carried out by Philistines. Just the opposite. Putting an accurate price on sacred objects demands education, rigorous training, and cultivation of the eye. Appraisers must understand the objects on an intimate level in order to properly evaluate their quality and make suitable comparisons between seemingly disparate works. Such knowledge only enhances appreciation for the way that creative work can exhilarate, sooth, baffle, enlighten, and uplift.
See also Tyler’s classic In Praise of Commercial Culture on these points.
What about sex?
In a sprawling literature, commentators have argued that exchanging sex for money “commodif[ies] sexuality,” degrades intimacy, “impedes human flourishing,” and foments attitudes that undermine the sacredness of the body. In short: market skeptics believe that prostitution corrupts the meaning of sex.
Clowney interviewed male escorts because he argues that the market in male escorts is freer and more developed. Male escorts, for example, are less likely to be abused by the police or pimps. Some will question that choice but for the purposes of the commodification theory it should still be the case that commodification degrades sex for the male escorts. Does it?
…the escorts I interviewed insisted that selling physical intimacy did not corrupt their understanding of sex. While the physical demands of the job often left the interviewees feeling exhausted, each of the prostitutes revealed that they continued to experience the loving (and joyfully profane) virtues of the sexual act. Indeed, a majority of escorts confided that their market work positively impacted their private lives—commercial sex honed their sexual skills, boosted their confidence, and deepened their understanding of other men.
… For these men, sex remained a joyful and cherished activity, even after years of selling their bodies.… A strong majority of the escorts reported that engaging in commercial sexual activities actually improved the quality of their private lives and their appreciation for sacred things.Just as appraisal work revealed new insights about the creative process, prostitution taught the interviewees about the complexity of desire, gave them a deeper understanding of the sexual act, and enhanced their ability to satisfy a private partner.
… Thus, far from turning sex into a flat and interchangeable commodity, market work deepened the escorts’ understanding of physical intimacy. Sex work instilled the importance of honest communication between partners, revealed that men have many different (and often colorful) needs, and showed that not all fantasies can be met by working off the same script. On these points, the market is an exacting teacher.
Clowney’s paper is a highly original, major new work in the commodification literature and contains much more of interest. Read the whole thing.