Are commodities always alienated? Sex, arts and their markets

Assia TURQUIER-ZAUBERMAN (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, BA in Social Anthropology.


First and foremost, commodities cannot be alienated – experiencing alienation is the privilege of self-aware beings. We will here assess whether or not the commodification process is always – simultaneously and at all times – alienating for the producer. Since statements of the resolute nature of processes like alienation are often erroneous but too impressive to resolve, we propose studying the above statement through the following topics: commodification of sex through prostitution and commodification of art through the global art market. Both are elements of human interaction and creation that are highly mythologized, thought to possess some essential characteristic that should escape economization and pertain to a moral economy of reciprocity and authenticity. They are either thought incorruptible or entirely contaminated by any exposure to money and supposedly epitomize the relationship between commodification and alienation. Disputing this will disavow the overarching correlation posited by the question. This absolutism also allows us to identify and question an obscured assumption: ‘why is that that in Euro-America we think of money as so impersonal that its exchange transforms the meaning of even the most personal and intimate act?’ (Donnan and MacGowan, 2010: 73). We argue this moralistic conclusion is reached to avoid confronting fallacies like the notion of a disembedded economy and that ‘systems of economic relations becomes increasingly differentiated from other types of social relationship’ (Carrier, 1992: 540). We shall begin by offering our definition of commodity and alienation, outlining the latter’s limitations in postmodern conceptions of subject positioning. We will then introduce our themes, putting forth the dominant discourses on the matter before contrasting these with accounts from their participants. Finally, we will address the question of money’s corrupting influence over a perceived “authentic” essence.

            I. Commodity, Alienation and Subject Positions

 A commodity is a good or service ‘subject to ready exchange or exploitation on a market’ (Merriam-Wesbter). Commodities have full or partial fungibility: their monetary standardization makes them interchangeable with other commodities and available to anyone with the necessary purchasing power, allegedly taking the exchange out of its grounding in reciprocal, interpersonal relations. This fungible property is a source of moral tension in sexual encounters and artistic production, as the abstract qualities of both are part of the “ethno-cultural gospel” of what constitutes an individual being. The traditional discourse would suggest that having been made impersonal through the market, they are alienated from their producers. Alienation, following Marx, is the inevitable process of estrangement of the individual under a capitalist system. It is a collection of four distinct types; alienation from one’s product, alienation from the act or means of production, alienation from other workers and alienation from one’s Gattungswesen (species-essence). It speaks to the agency, self-actualizing capacity and self-representation of an individual vis-à-vis their occupation.

Carrier proposes that the ‘Maussian approach suggests that growing alienation in production is part of the broader differentiation of life into more “purely” economic and more “purely” social aspects’ (Carrier, 1992: 541). This division would lead to the emergence of a new ‘understanding of persons and their work, one that sees persons as having two distinct aspect, a core and a periphery’ (ibid: 551). We challenge this understanding, as this claim and the general Marxist typology rely on modern social scientific understandings of the self. Individuals are thought of as representatives of ‘class, stratum or generation (…) seen as primary “engines” for people’s actions’ (Törrönen, 2001: 313). This was the result of a tautological process as Hall notes, they were ‘staged and stabilized by industrialization, capitalism, by the formation of the world market, by the social and sexual division of labour, by the great punctuation of civil and social life into the public and private’. (1991: 146) Whilst anthropology shifts to praxis, post-modern social sciences have ‘dissolved the actor into a multiplicity of subject positions’ (Törrönen, 2001: 314). The introduction of this dynamism of the self discredits the concept of alienation as uniform state of being, one immovable until relations of productions are altered.

Nonetheless, these “great punctuations”, these infectious dichotomies between social life and “the economy”, market and domestic, private and public, core and periphery, are the dominant template of thought and any affront to their veneer is morally condemned, as is the case with prostitution and ‘art capitalism’.

            II. Distasteful business

The stigmatization of the prostitute coincides with several historical factors. Truong explains how ‘socio-biological explanations of prostitution came to regard the sale of sex either as a ‘moral crime of the individual or as a consequence of the forces of the market that served an excessive male sex drive’ (Donnan and MacGowan, 2010: 75). The rise and awareness of sex-related illness for example, made prostitution seem medically and morally polluting. It portrayed the female as ‘both the seducer and the exploiter’ (ibid) and relied on a static conception of the body as pernicious as the static conception of the self. Marx advanced that sex in prostitution ‘could not yield emotional satisfaction since the provider is never free of the circumstances of exploitation that defined the activity’ (ibid), being alienated from conditions of production, prostitutes become one with a much larger system of oppression.

Regardless of one’s ideological stance it is difficult to delineate how these apply to prostitution in particular, rather than womanhood itself. Cicely Hamilton writes ‘the prostitute class… has pushed to its logical conclusion the principle that woman exists by virtue of a wage paid her in return for the possession of her person’ (Pateman, 1999: 54). This acceptance and manipulation of oppressive structures is what causes the most outrage.

Similarly, for many, art’s ‘aesthetic and spiritual or transcendent qualities seem in painful contradiction with its appearance in the marketplace’ (Walker, 1987: 26). Like sex, art enjoys pretentions of pricelessness. Christopher Burge, Christie’s most experienced auctioneer sold Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet (1980) for $82.5 million. He recalls there being sustained applause for five minutes, and feeling great distaste. ‘They weren’t applauding for Van Gogh, and they weren’t applauding the work of art. They were applauding for money’ (Sooke, 2011). Such “distaste” is expressed even more so by people less responsible in commodification than the Christie’s auctioneer directly liable for it. ‘From conception to completion, the artist exercises an unusual degree of control and seemingly avoids alienated labour. (But) the apparently finished painting is now in an embodying state of become. What it becomes depends on how it is consumed’ (Gimpel, 2000: 51). In some instances however, and increasingly so, the artist takes part in the commodification, aware of its inevitability as Warhol pioneered. ‘In the early 1960s, his iconography encompassed dollar bills. Thus images of money became worth money’ (Walker, 1987: 28), also taking to its “logical conclusion” the fallacy of currency’s inherent value and the mechanisms of artistic “prostitution”. This integration of commodification in artistic process, as will be seen with Aboriginal acrylic painting, does not increase their alienation in the formulaic manner our thesis posits but rather constitutes a complex discourse between disparate moral economies.

            III. Negotiating agency

 Prostitution is often said to personify universal “prostitution” of wage labour as ‘people alienate their body, sexuality or another essential part of themselves for mere money’ (Day, 1996:76). We object to such claims as those who ‘argue that the prostitute epitomizes women’s subjection to men express a reflection of outmoded attitudes to sex, fostered by men’s propaganda and the old world of women’s subordination’ (Pateman, 1999: 55). Prostitutes understand themselves as freelance workers and businesswomen and demonstrate a keen affiliation with ‘a range of contemporary neo-liberal attitudes and entrepreneurial practices’ (Day, 1976: 94). Indeed, in the classical economic sense they are, as their work is cost efficient and lucrative, representative in many ways of the most “rational” decision for a Maximizing Woman. The lack of regulation works in their advantage as they ‘situate themselves in an informal, rather than illegal economy’, adding to the list of distinctions these women blur (ibid: 76). Day’s claim that these self-representations constitute ‘an ideological transformation by representing a site of dependency as a site of freedom’ is equivocal but weak. Its truth-value relies on more general critics of the capitalo-patriarchal nomos: it reintroduces notions of false consciousness and by doing so becomes applicable to a range of other occupations, from investment banking to poverty entrepreneurship programs (Day, 1996: 87). Their alienation remains contingent on overarching structures applied to all, not the commodifcation of their sexual activities.

Carrier diagnosed a growing tension in the dichotomisation of life into social and economic spheres, equitable to alienation from the means of production. In his view, people’s yearnings for less alienated relationships transpired through their mention of the ‘instruments of labour and products thereof as their “own”’ (Carrier, 1992: 541). Inarguably, the prostitute’s “instruments of labour” are hers as she ‘does not sell herself, as is commonly alleged, or even sell her sexual parts but contracts out use of sexual services’ (Pateman, 1999: 54). This relies on constructing the woman as The sex, making the vagina inalienable from her, and hence, accessing it equivalent to accessing her entire being, which is false.

There is undeniably a ‘high price to pay in the physical and emotional management of the commercially sexed body’ (Donnan and MacGowan, 2010: 75) but London prostitutes adopt practices that ‘restore agency and transform risk into safety (Day, 2000)’ (ibid). This ranges from multiple towel systems to draw a physical and mental distinction between clients and partners, strict use of condoms, etc. Women strive to ‘maintain two bodies, one pubic and the other private’ (ibid: 76). Referring again to subject-positions, these methods appear to be the materialization of this multiplicity. The truly alienating events are not always in the scope of moral condemnation: instead of being most affected by their sex work, the prostitutes interviewed by Day were most vocal about the ‘criminalization of their private lives than their work’ (Day, 1996: 84). Adults living on a prostitute’s income are susceptible to prosecution for ‘living off immoral earnings’ (ibid). This has triggered further “materialisations” as the prostitutes ‘frequently possess two legal identities to segregate working affairs from state records’ (ibid). It seems then that the hypocritical criminalization of the informal sector, infused with moralizing politics, has more to do in the alienation of the prostitute from her species being than the commodification of her sexual services.

The Bindibu people, acclaimed by the Guinness Book of Records as ‘having the simplest material culture of any people on earth (…) are now accorded international appreciation as producers of “high art”’ (Myers, 1991: 27). Displaying the same sort of conscious differentiation between their subject positions, they produce acrylic paintings on canvas that are made exclusively for sale and not ritual use. Nonetheless, they imbue it with meaning, drawing ‘on stories embedded in indigenous religious activities and this constitutes – for aborigines and probably for whites (albeit in different ways) – a major part of their value’ (ibid). Their control over the “meaning of their meanings” ‘as they move into the wider cultural area in which they are displayed and sold’ is controversial, echoing Gimpel’s claim that commodification occurs predominantly upon market entry (ibid). This has led some to see the ‘marketing of contemporary Aboriginal art as a form of soft neo-colonialism’ (ibid: 46). Once again, more general criticism needs to be addressed. It is true that neo-colonialism exists and dictates to many forms of subject positioning that coincide with the White imagination. On the neo-colonial art scene, it can be said that the Aboriginals benefit at least from some space for discourse where others don’t, as the “white market’s” orientalism places value on their subjectivities. Rather than alienating them further than general socioeconomic conditions would, ‘painting production has provoked growing self-consciousness’ (ibid: 27) as the product of their labour comes to represent more than a commodity, and is viewed as a token of self-esteem and cultural reproduction. ‘It is good that the youngsters see that, that they work and they get paid’ (ibid: 34). In our view, the Aboriginal’s ability to market supposed “tokens of authenticity” to a white audience, capitalizing on orientalism like the prostitutes do on the patriarchy, should not be taken as the ultimate form of emancipation, but does not further the pre-existing alienation in any way. Saying otherwise would be paternalistic as by their own accounts, these paintings are advantageous as sources of ‘income, cultural respect, meaningful activity with regards to indigenous values and assertions of both personal and socio-political identity and rights to place’ (ibid: 38).

If Polanyi shows that ‘man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships and economic systems are run on noneconomic motives’ (Polanyi, 1944: 48), analysis of the commodification of art and sex reveal the opposite: Man’s social relationships are submerged in economic motives. This should be no means be indecent, it is the natural implication of “substantive” views of the economy: since the “economic” and the “social” are erroneously separated, they are symbiotic. Some believe that this leads to a corruption of authenticity.

There is a ‘frequent assumption that like everything else related to capitalism, sex is somehow diminished by being commodified, and compares unfavourably with romantic attachment’ (Donnan and MacGowan, 2010: 87). We disagree, using Bernstein who identifies new desires of “bounded authenticity”, a contained but nonetheless “sincere” connection, ‘reflecting broader socio-economic transformations of late capitalism and the acceleration of the consumer age and the reorganization of social life’ (ibid). Sex commodified does not corrupt sex for free, they exist alongside each other and for different reasons. In art, similarly, ‘critics usually regard commodification as retrogressive because (it) inevitably alters its character for the worse, causing a loss of artistic integrity and quality, tending towards standardization, pseudo-individualism, stereotypes, passive consumerism etc. (Walker, 1987: 30). Jenifer Isaacs objects with the view that European platforms for Aboriginal art is ‘not loss of authenticity (but) hybridization representing an explosion of creativity breaking the bounds of restrains for cultural “purity”’ (Myers, 1991:38), which would leave the producers ‘unable to enter the 20th century, doomed to extinction’ (ibid).


 For art producers to have more control over the eventual commodification of their work once it exits the studio gives them more agency. As Walker writes, what a certain conservatism would see as ‘selling out’ is in fact ‘a new level of frankness about the reality of culture within capitalism’ (1987: 30). Similarly, some consider that the commodified exchange of sex has the merit of being clearly unambiguous, sometimes even ‘superior to gift exchanges of sex in romantic relationships since unlike the latter it noes not mask dishonesties and deceitfulness’ (Donnan and MacGowan, 2010: 89). Commodification and alienation are correlated but not causal, believing otherwise grants money too much power, adopting its fetishism from those that revere it. It is also a simplification. Commodities don’t alienate, what does is the criminalization of prostitute’s non-professional lives, the dangers which result from working illegally, cultural appropriation more than willingly shared culture, the exoticisation of Aboriginal identities through their work and an overarching racist, patriarchal, neo-colonial, neoliberal system.


Carrier, J. (1992). ‘Emerging Alienation in Production: A Maussian History’, Man. Vo. 27, No. 3, Pp. 539-558

Day, S. (1996). ‘The Law of the Market: Rhetorics of Exclusion and Inclusion among London Prostitutes’, Inside and Outside the Law: Anthropological studies of authority and ambiguity, Routledge, pp. 75-97

Donnan, H. MacGowan, F. (2010). ‘Erotic Economies’ The Anthropology of Sex. Oxford, NY, pp. 71-92

Hall, S. (1991). ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, In A. King (Ed.) Culture, Globalisation and the World System, Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Gimpel, R. (2000). ‘Art as commodity, art as economic power’, Third Text

Myers, F. (1991). ‘Representing Culture : The Production of Discource(s) for Aboriginal Acrylic Paitings’, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 6 No.1, pp.26-62

Pateman, C. (1999). ‘What’s Wrong with Prostitution?’, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol.27 No.1, pp.53-64

Polanyi, K. (1944). ‘Societies and Economic System’, Great Transformations, Cambridge University Press

Sooke, A. (2011). ‘The World’s Most Expensive Paintings’, The Telegraph, Available at:

 Törrönen, J. (2001). ‘The Concept of Subject Position in Empirical Social Research’, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, Vol. 31 No.3, Blackstones Publishers, Oxford

 Walkers, J. (1987). ’Art Work as Commodity’, Circa Art Magazine, No. 32, pp.26-30

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