Does Commodification Corrupt? Lessons from Paintings and Prostitutes

56 Pages Posted: 26 May 2020

See all articles by Stephen Clowney

Stephen Clowney

University of Arkansas - School of Law

Date Written: April 27, 2020


Markets in sacred goods — things like organs, sex and surrogacy services — remain taboo. One central worry is that commodification of such priceless materials may corrode important norms and long-held ethical values. Many commentators, for example, intuit that an active market for human parts could lead to thinking about individuals as fungible objects rather than as entities worthy of moral regard. These arguments are widely accepted and remain deeply influential in law and policy circles. But are they correct? The purpose of this paper is to test empirically the effect of commodifying sacred and seemingly incommensurable goods.

This project takes as its central investigative tool, a series of extensive interviews with participants in active markets for goods that many people regard as “priceless.” Specifically, my research focuses on the work of high-end art appraisers and male escorts. I broadly explore how these professionals attach dollar figures to unique things. And, more importantly, I investigate how the process of constantly commodifying sacred items transforms the texture of their inner-worlds. Does someone who spends all day estimating the value of art have difficulty appreciating paintings other than as objects worth a certain amount? Do individuals who spend all day selling sexual services eventually struggle to understand sexual acts as part of the realm of love and intimacy? Are there some things that shouldn’t be bought and sold?

From the interviews, one dominant finding emerged; The prevailing view that markets inevitably infect the meaning of sacred goods is wrong. Contra anti-commodification theory, the data demonstrate that commerce is not an inherently corrosive force. Rather, objects can have multiple stable meanings — sometimes commodified and sometimes not — depending on the context and circumstances. Appraisers do not view art as a fungible commodity stripped of its sublime properties. And prostitutes do not regard sex in their personal lives as a chore. In short, this Article makes the argument that the intellectual ramparts defending our transcendental ideologies are strong—stronger than legal scholars have previously recognized.

Keywords: Commodification, Prostitution, Art, Valuation, Markets, Organs

Suggested Citation

Clowney, Stephen, Does Commodification Corrupt? Lessons from Paintings and Prostitutes (April 27, 2020). Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 50, No. 1005, 2020, Available at SSRN:

Stephen Clowney (Contact Author)

University of Arkansas - School of Law ( email )

260 Waterman Hall
Fayetteville, AR 72701
United States

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