Utilitarianism and the Art School in Nineteenth Century Britain

By Beech, Dave | Art Monthly, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Utilitarianism and the Art School in Nineteenth Century Britain


Beech, Dave, Art Monthly


As with all productive activity, in order for artworks to be produced, the apparatus of art must be reproduced. Artists make art but not before artists are themselves produced. Malcolm Quinn's book, Utilitarianism and the Art School in Nineteenth Century Britain, which is a historical study of the birth pangs of the state-funded art school, interrogates the politics of art's reproduction within the context of Victorian Reformism. Quinn's tight emphasis on the 'art school' and the focus on Jeremy Bentham's writing, rather than Henry Cole's administrative role, is unprecedented.

Several radicals were elected to Parliament for the first time in 1832 and a Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures was set up in 1835, leading the way to the establishment of the School of Design in 1837. Bentham was the avowed mentor of key members of the select committee responsible for advising the government to release funds for the first of Britain's art schools. Along with James Mill, Bentham was the leading intellectual of the middle-class radicals who spearheaded the utilitarian assault on aristocratic power, its ideology and institutions. As Brian Simon put it in his 1964 book The Two Nations and the Educational Structure 1780-1870: 'It was the activities of these two men which were primarily responsible for bringing education into the mainstream of political life', and their utilitarian revolution in education 'represented an outright challenge to the whole spirit and structure of the old-established schools and universities.'

Rather than tracing the actual bureaucratic processes through which the art school was inaugurated, Quinn discovers in Bentham a 'radical' rationale for state-funded art education. Since Bentham and Benthamism were probably the original referent of the adjective 'radical', Quinn's primary aim - to reclaim the art school as a radical institution - has more merit than the history of institutional critique and the neoliberal attack on art education might suggest.

Bentham is an improbable hero for art education. Thanks to JS Mill, Bentham has a reputation as a philistine. 'He says, somewhere in his works', wrote Mill, 'that, "quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry".' Bentham actually wrote, 'prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry'. Quinn, justifiably, focuses on the conditional clause that Mill airbrushes out: 'The key words in this passage are "Prejudice apart". The practical difficulties of establishing a utilitarian position on taste cluster around the central problem of setting "prejudice apart".' Taken on its own, the crusade against prejudice appears to be a typical Enlightenment preoccupation, but Bentham's rationalism was radical because he identified prejudices of taste with the aristocracy.

Quinn argues cogently that Bentham's apparent philistinism entails a fundamentally liberal commitment to pleasure, happiness and well-being set against the aristocratic hierarchy of taste. In reading Bentham's alleged philistinism through the utilitarian happiness principle, or the 'greatest happiness of the greatest number', Quinn deploys 'the opposition between good taste and good government that was a feature of Bentham's writing' as the basis of a conception of the utilitarian art school.

Bentham's philistinism is not an expression of his personality, as Mill has it.

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