To Have or To Be
Collecting, living and re-reading Erich Fromm
As 1980 dawned I turned 20. That year Erich Fromm was 80, a New Left mystic living in Switzerland. 1980 was the year I read Fromm’s book To Have Or To Be. It was also the year he ceased to be; the Frankfurt School veteran died in early spring.
To Have Or To Be is a remarkable and powerful book, a humanist sermon that connects Meister Eckhart and Spinoza, Freud and Marx, and mounts a radical critique of late-20th-century life. For some – for me, certainly – it’s been attitude-forming and life-changing.
I’ve been re-reading Fromm’s book with the art world in mind, because it strikes me that it’s possible to see, and to live in, the art world in two very different ways: as the epitome, on the one hand, of what Fromm calls ‘the having mode’ (a place of objects, collectors, acquisitions, profit, auctions, investments) and, on the other, as a place where it’s possible to be entirely post-materialist – a succession of experiences, relationships, sensations and activities entirely untroubled by the question of ownership.
As someone who’s never owned a single work of art, and who’s made installations, interventions and performances without selling them, I certainly fit the second category better than the first. But I wonder to what extent they’re symbiotically related. Does ‘being’ in the art world depend on the infusion of money which is rooted in ‘having’? Could there be the free experience of wandering through all the art galleries in New York’s Chelsea district if those galleries weren’t touting their work for sale? What would a purely being-oriented experience of the art world resemble in a world where the having-oriented structures suddenly collapsed (shaken, say, by a cataclysmic financial crisis)? Would being lose some of its perverse appeal if it became the obligatory mode, and if ‘experience’ became the only possible way to interface with art?
Let’s look a little more closely at what Fromm says about the two modes of being. In Chapter 4, ‘What Is The Having Mode?’, Fromm lays out the basic binary. ‘We live in a society that rests on private property, profit, and power as the pillars of its existence,’ he says. Following economist R.H. Tawney, Fromm traces the derivation of the word ‘private’ to its Latin root in privare, meaning ‘to deprive of’. Private property involves someone depriving someone else of something which already exists.
Already I have some doubts about this; the system of ownership is also a system of production – the structure of ownership can bring things into being that previously didn’t exist. In the art world, we’d call this ‘commissioning’. Materials can be paid for in advance, and an artist’s basic security can be assured by the fact that his work will be owned. What’s more, owned works are often shared; many are sent out on loan for regular public display, where they become ‘experiences’ for all to enjoy for little or no money. On the other hand, episodes like the 2004 warehouse fire that destroyed a large part of Charles Saatchi’s collection show the downside of hoarding, and of concentrations of ownership.
For Fromm, some forms of ownership are more toxic than others. Once, he says, ownership meant taking care of things, and keeping them. Now, in accelerated consumer societies, possessions are sold quickly on, dumped, discarded, replaced. Once something is owned, no further effort is required for the property’s upkeep or its productive use.
The ‘having’ mode can be worse than irresponsible, it can be neurotic. Fromm connects ownership to Freud’s anal-erotic phase of psycho-sexual development, to ‘the character of a person whose main energy in life is directed toward having, saving, and hoarding money and material things as well as feelings, gestures, words, energy.’ In the mind of the stingy, stubborn, excessively orderly individual who never graduates from Freud’s late-anal stage, there’s a peculiar connection between money and faeces – gold and dirt. Fromm pulls no punches here: ‘The person exclusively concerned with having and possession is a neurotic, mentally sick person; hence it would follow that the society in which most of the members are anal characters is a sick society.’
So what of the ‘being’ mode? Asceticism isn’t the answer: ‘In the very attempt to suppress having and consuming, the person may be equally preoccupied with having and consuming’. Chapter five lays out – with some difficulty, because this mode is somewhat utopian – what the healthy being mode might consist of: ‘The mode of being has as its prerequisites independence, freedom, and the presence of critical reason. Its fundamental characteristic is that of being active.’
Reverting to Marxian language, Fromm tells us that being is about an active productivity that manages to overcome alienation: ‘Nonalienated activity is a process of giving birth to something, of producing something and remaining related to what I produce [...] I call this nonalienated activity productive activity’.
Mapping this, again, to the art world, it’s tempting to see collectors as neurotic people stuck in the world of having and artists as free, healthy and productive creatures liberated into pure being. But Fromm won’t have this interpretation; he specifically tells us that being, ‘is not the capacity to create something new and original, as an artist or scientist may be creative. It might take the form of “productive passivity”.’ In other words, doing and making nothing might be the most effective way to be active and productive.
Here we encounter the mystical, paradoxical side of Frankfurt School thinking, the Eckhartian streak apparent also in Adorno (‘In the end soul itself is the longing of the soulless for redemption’). But Fromm gives us an escape route from the endless slippage set up by the possibility that his having / being binary is a paradoxically symbiotic relationship; he tells us that being isn’t just the opposite of having, but also of appearing.
And with that Platonic thought all comparison with the art world must end because, for the visually-oriented – slaves of the retinal image, trapped in our pan-global Plato’s Cave of endless exhibitions – being and appearing are necessarily the same thing.