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Utilitarianism and the Art School in Nineteenth-Century Britain


Malcolm Quinn


London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013

Hardcover. ix+205 p. 978-1848932982. £60


Reviewed by Anne Brunon-Ernst

Université Paris 2, Panthéon-Assas & Centre Bentham (IEP, Paris)



Malcolm Quinn from the University of the Arts London writes a compelling study on the Art School in Nineteenth-Century Britain. It is a study of Utilitarian thought through the development of the publicly-funded art school. In a 205-page discussion, Dr Quinn describes the debates and experiments surrounding the creation of Schools of Design, set up to compete with the British Academy of Arts. The book’s chronology spans from George Berkeley’s essay The Querist (1735) to William Stanley Jevons’s comments on The Querist in his Political Economy (1871). The book looks into the theories of Adam Smith, David Hume, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jeremy Bentham, William Hazlitt, J.S. Mill, John Austin etc.

The book investigates the creation, development and fall of the Art School in the 19th century from the point of view of the legislator. This means Dr Quinn’s research is neither interested in the well-mapped study of the arts curriculum, which centres around the genealogy of beauty and utility from Shaftesbury to Kant, nor in the study of the usefulness of objects produced, nor in the issue of the relationship between capitalism and industrialisation, but he focuses on how a laissez-faire economy could accommodate politics of interventionism in art education. By considering taste in terms of interests, the legislator acquires legitimacy to act in the field.

On account of its subject and its focus, the discussion revolves around Utilitarian theory, and more particularly Bentham’s ideas on the political economy of art. Bentham’s comments on the subject of aesthetics are often presented as boiling down to the following comment: ‘Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnishes more pleasure, it is more valuable than either’ (Bentham, The Rationale of Reward, London, 1825). Dr Quinn makes a convincing reassessment of Bentham’s position towards State intervention in the arts, by contrasting the push-pin comment with Bentham’s other writings on State-sponsored art education (among which ‘Time and Place in Matters of Legislation’, 1780-2). Through a reform of language, taste can be disambiguated to function in a Utilitarian economy. Bentham accommodates taste with other social practices and arbitrates between practices regarding their ability to maximise utility.

The other interest of Dr Quinn’s approach is to distinguish Bentham’s theory from the ideas of Benthamites (among whom Bentham’s secretary John Bowring) in the 1835 Select Committee on Arts and Manufacture, which led to the creation of the School of Design in 1836. The differences between the philosopher and Utilitarian reformers were found in the diverging strategies related to taste. For Bentham taste was the sinister interest of elites to maintain and impose supremacy over other groups. For Benthamite members of the Select Committee on Arts and Manufacture the aim of an art school was to regulate public taste in accordance with economic Utilitarian standards.

Henry Cole, the first director of the School of Design, was a member of Utilitarian networks and influenced by Bentham’s thought. He wished to find a synthesis between art and industry. Cole created a government standard of public taste which was viewed as more important than individual judgements on taste made by manufacturers, craftsmen and consumers. In 1852, in Marlborough House, a display offered an opportunity to educate the eyes of the people. Cole’s work as the head of the Schools of Design (to become Department of Practical Arts and the South Kensington Museum) emphasised the importance of educational utility as a democratic programme.

However in the 1860s, with the advent of Gladstonian Liberalism and thinkers such as Jevons and Edward Poynter, emphasis was increasingly laid on the museum curator as the agent of authorised pedagogy of art. This advent heralded the end of Cole’s perspective, which could be seen in the Balkanisation of the South Kensington system and the replacement of government management of the South Kensington Museum with a board of trustees on Cole’s retirement. This shift meant that there was less room for manoeuvre when art education was managed by art professionals rather than by the State. There was also increasing criticism about the ‘turnstiles of civilisation’, where the civilising utility of the museum was assessed by the number of visitors. Jevons reconsidered Bentham’s pleasure to assign them to a proper place within an order of being. Dr Quinn argues that the main threat to Cole’s system did not come from the Royal Academicians, who welcomed in 1895 the new director of the renamed National Art Training School, but from the shift from Bentham’s place of pleasures in Utilitarianism, as a foundation of the utility of taste, to Jevon’s concepts of pleasure combined with cultural exertion controlled by aesthetic technicians.

The book ends with a reassessment of the present political economy of art education, 175 years after the foundation of the School of Design. The last chapter looks both into the philosophical shifts away from Bentham’s philosophy of utility to eudaimonia and nudge theory, and into the justification and the uses of Art Schools which have changed from public taste and manufacture to some form of educated professionalism. Dr Quinn makes proposals for an imaginary 2010s Select Committee on Arts and Manufacture to return to choice architecture in Bentham’s utility in order to found an ethics and an aesthetics, which would lay aside the prejudice of the old academy and create a new language for the new art school.

Dr Quinn’s book is a well-informed and persuasive study of the links between art and commerce in nineteenth-century Britain. His book is a must-read for all scholars interested in Utilitarian or art issues.


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