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  • Beautiful Things:Bruce Nauman's Carousel
  • Robert S. Lehman (bio)

This essay examines the relationship between beauty and violence in the taxidermy sculptures of the contemporary American artist Bruce Nauman. It addresses how these sculptures, specifically Carousel (Stainless Steel Version) (1988), succeed in bringing together two incompatible models of the beautiful: the neo-classical beauty of well-ordered bodies, and the beauty of irreducibly particular things. The aim of this project is, first, to make sense of Nauman's intervention by locating it in a longer history of reflections on the politics of aesthetics; and, second (and more speculatively), to suggest the continued relevance of "beauty" as a political-aesthetic category.

Bruce Nauman's Carousel (Stainless Steel Version) (1988)1 is made up of four large, stainless steel arms that extend out from a central motorized pillar to form a rotating cross (Fig. 1). Suspended from the arms by their necks are a taxidermist's polyurethane molds of an assortment of animals: two small coyotes; a large lynx and a smaller version of the same; the front half of one deer and the head of another. All animals appear to have been skinned. As Carousel rotates and the molds drag along the floor (only the deer are fully suspended), the casts recall the bodies of animals hung awkwardly in a slaughterhouse, particularly if one focuses on the dismembered deer. But for all that, the continual circular movement and low scraping of Carousel's passengers is eerily peaceful. If the piece were dangled from the ceiling rather than set upon the floor, it might resemble an uncanny mobile, turning above some monstrous infant's crib. Nauman has stated, not of the piece itself but of the molds from which it was made, that, "They are beautiful things. They are universally accepted, generic forms used by taxidermists yet they have an abstract quality that I really like" (374). So there lies in Nauman's Carousel—at its origin if not necessarily at its end—an aesthetic pleasure, an old-fashioned pleasure in beautiful things.

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Fig. 1.

Bruce Nauman, Carousel (Stainless Steel Version) © 1988 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In the essay that follows, I want to concentrate on the interaction—in Carousel as well as in some of Nauman's related works—between beauty, on the one hand, and violence, on the other. Nauman's artistic fascination with violence has already received a good deal of attention from critics. In a 1987 interview with Joan Simon, Nauman himself describes his aim to produce art that is "just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. I like that idea very much: the kind of intensity that doesn't give you any trace of whether you're going to like it or not" (320). Like getting hit with a bat…. It is unusual to find a critical appraisal of Nauman's work that does not quote (or at least paraphrase) this remark and spin an interpretation out of it. Jerry Saltz describes Nauman's art as "a deliberate assault on the senses, aesthetic and otherwise" (198); Michael Kimmelman writes, "Mr. Nauman's goal seems to be to knock you out rather than win you over" (207); and in a review titled, "Watch Out! It's Here!," Paul Richard warns potential spectators that "Nauman… distrusts the 'lush solution.' His sculptures… never let you bask in transcendental loveliness. He'd rather show up in your thinking space—and club you from behind" (217). These responses to Nauman's art treat its status as art as more or less incidental to its intended (and achieved) effect. Nauman's is not an art that one lingers over, in the canonical Kantian sense that we "linger [weilen] over the consideration of the beautiful" (107); it is, rather, an art of immediacy, an art that hits you all at once and that you hurry to escape. This assaultive immediacy, Nauman has suggested, is both antithetical to "beauty" and integral to his art...

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