Nicholas Stewart

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Nicholas Stewart' MPhil/PhD Art research project

Abstraction and Comedy (2013)

The thesis, consisting of an extended artwork (Toy Zoo) and a theoretical text, aims to explore a concept of abstraction and relate this concept to an affect of comedy. The proposal of the thesis is that abstraction, looked at in a proper way, is funny. Abstraction is imagined not as the absence of ‘content’ or the generalization of form, but as a condition of language occasioned by a categorical loss, the loss of the ground that attaches meaning to a thing.

The work takes this dissonance in language as its subject-matter. In a series of photographic images, representations of mental or conceptual objects whose mode of representation alters the meaning of the term, it presents abstraction not as a formal reduction or the presentation of a higher order but as the historical view of a void subject-position. Its argument is that the view from this position is comic. The text develops a concept of abstraction from Hegel’s description of ‘the abstract work of art’.

This ‘absolute’ abstraction, a condition in society to which art responds, is the premise through which various forms of abstract production, in art and elsewhere, are read. The generic forms of the epic, tragedy and comedy, as analyzed by Hegel, provide models that are applied in the context of ‘real abstraction’ and to certain positions in art.

An analysis of value in capital aims to identify the logic of this form of production with the structure of tragedy. Against this ‘ready-made’ abstraction of modernity, the non-dialectical relationship of abstract necessity and the individual, the text argues for a form of comedy. Comedy, as a genre in art, proposes a subject-position that, recognizing itself in abstraction, recognizes abstraction not, as in ‘real abstraction’, as necessity but as the condition of its own freedom.


  • Dr John Chilver
  • Dr Suhail Malik


  • David Burrows
  • Dr Stewart Martin