Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Middle Class Desire: Ornament, Industry, and Emulation in 19th-Century Art Education

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Middle Class Desire: Ornament, Industry, and Emulation in 19th-Century Art Education

Article excerpt

In Practical Education, first published in 1798, Maria Edgeworth, an early 19th-century British author and educator, described the arts as "tickets of admission into society" (Edgeworth & Edgeworth, 1835/1798, p. 120). At the beginning of the 19th century, the arts were ornamental subjects in the education of young ladies and gentlemen.I Artistic accomplishments were for display in pleasing social performances that appeared effortless but demonstrated good taste and ideal values, knowledge and skill.2 Art education was one component of a process of vernacular refinement that spread from the wealthy to the middling sort and included the beautification of houses, churches, and eventually school buildings (Bushman, 1992). As drawing and the feminine art of embroidery became leisure activities for the middle classes, both in England and, slightly later, in the United States, these arts became both signs of personal refinement and means of self-discipline (Bermingham, 2000; Parker, 1984). Within a few decades, American educators were writing of art in terms of industry rather than ornament. As an American middle class emerged in the contexts of industrialization and urbanization, education in the arts was positioned as work for self-improvement, not as social display. This change coincided with the institutionalization of schooling as a technology for class and gender reproduction (Stankiewicz, 2002).

In this article, I will examine the emergence of the middle class in early 19th-century Massachusetts as a precondition to formal arts education. I will argue that art education affirmed traditional social hierarchies, aligned young people with emerging cultural values, and contributed to the construction of the North American middle class. In order to develop my argument, I will examine the function of art as ornament in early 19thcentury education, especially in academies and in female education. I will discuss industry as a goal and metaphor, as an expectation for student behavior, and a model for school organization. In ornament and industry, we find art education for social advancement and art education for social control. Both of these ends relied on the dynamics of emulation, a process through which members of the emerging middle class sought to equal or exceed their aristocratic exemplars in genteel refinement while encouraging members of the lower classes to imitate their middle-class behavior. To begin, I will address four prior questions: What was the middle class? When did it emerge? What did the middle class desire? How could art education meet middle class desires?

Defining Middle Class

Five aspects of life define the 19th-century middle class (and apply to social class differences today): 1) how people worked, 2) what they consumed, 3) where they lived, 4) the groups with whom they associated, and 5) their family values (Blumin, 1985; 1989). Members of the urban middle class initially came from traditional professions such as the ministry or law. In the early 19th century this old middle class was joined by small-scale entrepreneurs and salaried employees engaged in non-manual work (Blumin, 1985). Men of the rural middle class "were property owners who relied on their own household labor for production" (Beadie, 2001, p. 256). How a male head of household worked was the principal factor that defined his social status and that of his wife and children.

Consumption was the second marker of middle-class status. By the end of the 18th century, the cramped, dark houses where families lived, ate, and slept in one room were being remodeled to reflect desires for a grander and more comfortable way of life (Bushman, 1992). Emulation of the urbane, refined gentry spread inland from east coast cities. The upper classes in Boston might strive to emulate the British in their architecture, household furnishings, clothing, manners, education, and taste. Prosperous nativeborn citizens in small towns sought to emulate the genteel, civil ideal they saw in Boston or Worcester by creating special rooms for formal entertaining. …

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