The Sublime, the Disgusting and the Laughable - HART6640

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2023 to 2024.


This module aims to introduce second and third year students to the key aesthetic concepts of the sublime, disgust and humour, and to their application in the analysis of art and visual culture. Through a sustained focus on these key theories and a range of case studies, the module will also facilitate the development of students' subject-specific and key skills.

The module will be typically be divided into three parts which focus separately on the sublime, disgust and humour; although general issues confronting the study of experience in art history and theory will be discussed throughout. The first part of the module will focus on the historical origins of the concept of the sublime in the works of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. Their theories will be discussed in relation to eighteenth and nineteenth century visual culture, and in relation to instances of the sublime in modern and contemporary culture, including representations of nature and the cosmos, religious experiences and ascetic practices. The second part of the module will examine theories of disgust, including Charles Darwin’s evolutionary approach and Julia Kristeva’s account of 'the abject’. The vogue for the disgusting in contemporary art, beginning during the 1990s will be critically discussed, and the relation of disgust to shock and horror will also be considered. The third part of the module will examine theories of humour, including the ‘incongruity’ and ‘release’ theories, and Sigmund Freud’s theory of jokes. Various uses artists have found for humour, from Marcel Duchamp to postmodern irony, will be discussed. While focusing on the visual arts, the module will also consider case studies from literature and popular visual culture, including film and television.


Contact hours

Contact hours will include a one-hour lecture and two-hour seminar each week. The remaining hours will be dedicated to private study, and the development of subject-specific and key skills through carrying out the learning tasks. Total study hours: 300.

Method of assessment

1. One short essay, 1500 words – counting for 35% of the final grade
2. One long essay, 2500–3000 words (45%)
3. Seminar preparation (20%)

Indicative reading

Edmund Burke, A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful, Oxford and New York, 1990 (1757).
Immanuel Kant, The critique of judgement, tr. J. C. Meredith, Oxford, 1952 (1790).
Paul Crowther, The Kantian sublime: from morality to art, Oxford, 1991.
Bill Beckley (ed.), Sticky sublime, New York, 2001.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the contemporary sublime, New York, 1999.
Charles Darwin, The expression of the emotions in man and animals, Chicago and London, 1965 (1873).
Julia Kristeva, Powers of horror: an essay on abjection, New York, 1982.
Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: a user's guide, New York, 1997.
Noël Carroll, The philosophy of horror, or, paradoxes of the heart, New York and London, 1990.
Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their relation to the unconscious, Harmondsworth and New York, 1976 (1905).
Ted Cohen, Jokes: philosophical thoughts on joking matters, Chicago and London, 1999.

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

As a consequence of taking this module, students will:
1. develop skills of visual, critical and historical analysis, together with generic intellectual skills of synthesis, summarisation, critical judgement and problem-solving, that will allow for the construction of original and persuasive arguments;
2. develop the key skills of communication, improving performance, problem-solving, and working with others, to a level where a substantial degree of autonomy and self-reflexive awareness is achieved in these tasks;
3. communicate effectively, using appropriate vocabulary and illustrations, ideas and arguments in both a written and oral form;
4. read critically, analyse and use a range of primary and secondary texts;
5. locate and use appropriately a range of learning and reference resources (including visual resources) within the Templeman Library and elsewhere, including museums, galleries and the internet;
6. employ information technologies to research and present their work.


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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