James Elkins- Real Disquietude (1998)

Real Disquietude

James Elkins

(Essay written for Pablo Helguera’s exhibitions Estacionamientos/Parking Zones, presented at Tallería espacio cultural, Mexico City, 1998) 

Obra de Ramiro Yáñez Virgen, 1998

Obra de Ramiro Yáñez Virgen, 1998

Artistic practice in the Duchampian tradition [has] come to provide the most important venue where demanding philosophical issues [can] be aired before a substantial lay public. –Thomas Crow



What the historian Thomas Crow has to say about the “Duchampian tradition” applies very exactly to Pablo Helguera’s recent work, where two different kinds of philosophic questions come together in a way that is only possible, so far, in visual art. On the one hand, Helguera is interested in questions of identity: specifically, how identity is wrested from a person, so that his own innermost self seems to belong to someone else, or even to a collective of people’ and how identities are built by collections of the most trite and conventional objects, like plastic, dirt, and childhood toys. On the other hand, he is concerned with the artistic tradition, and how it might be possible to balance the art world’s continuous demands for newness against its equally stringent requirement that an artist develop a recognizable and reliable signature style.


            These are complicated matters, and it may help to set out the essential questions as clearly as possible. There are two questions of identity, and two of artistic style.


1 When it comes to seem as if your own innermost self is alien, as if you don’t think your own thoughts, then how do you continue to think? When you begin to wonder if you are really comprised of several alternate identities (“heteronyms,” in Fernando Pessoa’s work, or even “multiple personalities”) then what does it mean to think or say anything, to claim any thought or emotion as your own?


2 Can this be solved by looking at trivial things, by concentrating on your appearance, or on the facts of your resume? What kinds of deliberate evasions are we involved in saying that we know someone by how he looks, or what he remembers from a certain British hospital, or what has happened to him on the number 7 metro line? How frightened are we, as Jacque Lacan would say, of the real disarray of our psyches? Frightened enough to think nly of clothes, and toys, and places, and names, and never really of what we are?


3 The second question, of artistic style, also has two aspects. Despite the fact that many contemporary artists disavow it, the artworld is still very much run by the demands of the avant-garde, and as Clement Greenberg insisted, the avant-garde is always moving. Though postmodernists and pluralists deny it, there is new work and old work, revolutionary work and bourgeois work, and the avant-garde exerts continuous pressure on artists to reinvent themselves. No one is free to do what he wants, unless he wants the art world to leave him behind; and for the same reason, no work can merely repeat what has gone before. Even Sherrie Levine’s sculptures, paintings, and photographs are new: incrementally but decisively different from what came before them.


4 Yet, it’s also necessary for an artist to have a recognizable style. An artist has to be consistent enough, to stay put just enough, so that people can see what concepts, influences, tendencies, strategies, and forms tend to characterize his work. Without that stability, an artist’s work won’t be perceived as such: it will be seen as a collection of different people’s work, and it will fail to find a place in conversations about important art. This is a high-stakes game: Nietsche once remarked that if he hadn’t signed Also sprach Zarathurstra, no one in a thousand years would have realized it was the product of the same author that had written books like the Gotzendmmerung. The same could be said, in the twentieth century, of the works of Duchamp, Yves Klein, or George Brecht.


            These four issues are tangled together in the best recent work on identity, such as Helguera’s Estacionamientos. I set them out this way, school-book fashion, so that it is possible to see how they work against one another. If you feel strongly dissociated from yourself in a single position–say, the front of the avant-garde (the third issue). If you don’t trust superficial things like appearance (the second issue) then personal style (the fourth issue) is a sham, a “desperate lie,” as Spinoza said of ordinary confident self-knowledge.


            Part of what Crow means by saying artists can be “public philosophers” is that a visual art can bridge, or at least juxtapose, concepts that don’t yet fit together in a philosophy. Of the four issues I have named here, the first two normally belong to philosophy and the last two to art theory or aesthetics. Yet Helguera’s work shows how they fit together. Although philosophy and art theory do not countenance the fact, identity (the first and second issues) is indissolubly wedded to artistic style (the third and fourth issues). In fact–I have argued this elsewhere–it is impossible to understand one without the other. In Estacionamientos, artistic style is personal identity, and when one is absent so is the other.


            Successful artworks can make unexpected connections between philosophic ideas, and they can also do more: they can break down the distinction between philosophy and non-philosophy, and they can refuse to see the differences between the two. Philosophers tend to divide the exposition if ideas from the display of ideas: Wittgenstein said a work either shows concepts or it tells them. But interesting visual art declines that opposition. We shouldn’t forget that the original act of self-alienation, Arthur Rimbaud’s “I am another,” was uttered by a poet. Philosophic texts like Who Comes After the Subject? Which has contributions by Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, and monographs like Paul Ricoeur’s sober and thoughtful book Oneself as Another, are the products of lucidly reflexive writers, people who have been largely untouched by the schisms they describe. If there is a weakness in Crow’s approach, it is that the artwork might come perilously close to being identified with philosophy: interesting contemporary artists might become interesting by virtue of their position in relation of some avant-garde, or some philosophic problem.


            If there is a weakness in artistic production that leans toward philosophy, it is when the artist seems not to be creating or experiencing as much as philosophizing. There is a moment in Pessoa’s book of Disquietude – an odd moment, a moment that made me stop reading altogether and close the book. It’s an early fragment, dated 24 march 1930, but it comes after some amazing passages in which Pessoa – under the literary pseudonym of Bernardo Soares – reveals how little he knows, how little he knows, how little he feels, how little he wants to feel. Those passages are as honest ad open as in any literature – or so it seem. I believe Pessoa when he says things like “My soul is impatient with itself… its disquietude is always increasing and always the same.” But then there’s the entry for 24 March 1930, where Pessoa has Soares say “I passively re-read…those simple lines by Caeiro that naturally result from the smallness of the village… Lines like these, than seem to sprout of their own accord, cleanse me of the metaphysics that I automatically tack onto life.” When I first read this passage, I went cold. Here was an author exploring his inner life with astonishing precision, someone full of insights and unforgiving honesty; and then he claims to be re-reading lines by Caeiro, who is none other than himself! Suddenly, the entire Book of Disquietude becomes a lie: I can no longer trust a single insight, a single perception, a single confession. It doesn’t help that the book is supposedly by Bernardo Soares, because Soares is nearly forgotten after the first few pages: obviously this is a book by a man named Fernando Pessoa. And it won’t do to say that Pessoa knows that he cannot really get away with pretending to passively “re-read” lines he himself has written, or that he is using this entry in order to distance his Book of Disquietude from himself, because nothing in the passage, or in the many similar ones throughout the Book of Disquietude, ever hints that the book is anything but perfectly honest. The passage breaks the entire book, breaks it apart from all of its experiences and perceptions, and tears us from Pessoa in a way that Pessoa himself did not comprehend. Pessoa has fooled himself, deeply, and out of a deep need. Il est un autre, so much so that he does not see it clearly himself. This passage is also the saddest in the book, because it shows how desperately Pessoa needs his “heteronyms,” and how rooted his insecurities were: they reached even deeper than his most trenchant philosophic confessions about disquietude, pessimism, and meaninglessness. His needs went under his philosophy, beneath the metaphysics he “tacked on” to his life.


            This is a fragmentation of the self, a stylelessness, a lack of identity, that is profoundly at odds with simple consciousness and simple art. Pablo Helguera’s work raises the same troubling questions. Of course Helguera made this exhibit: if you’ve read this far you have seen that. But why? This is not an exercise in philosophy, like Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another. Ricoeur knew full well he was only finding words for experiences he had not had, experiences which were outside philosophy. With artworks, it is different. The questions do not exist as such, because the work is tangled in them. If Estacionamientos could be made into a series of questions, it would be philosophy: but it is Helguera’s life, and he is still in the middle of it. That is real disquietude.



James Elkins is Associate Professor, Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His books include The Poetics of Perspective (Cornell University Press); The Objects Stare Back: On the Nature of Seeing (Harcourt Brace); Our Beautiful, Dry and Distant Texts: On Art History as Writing (Penn State Press), as well as many other essays and articles.




Crow, Thomas, “Critical Reflections,” Artforum (9c.1997): 104–105.


Elkins, James, “Style,” article in Dictionary of Art (New York, Grove Dictionaries, 1996).


Elkins, James, Our Beautiful, Dry and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1997).


Ricouer, Paul, Oneself as Another.


Pessoa, Fernando, Book of Disquietude.


Who Comes After the Subject? Edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York and London: Routledge, 1991).



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