Utopia, not Dystopia

Last week was a bit unnerving, unsettling, disconcerting.  Not only because of the unseasonably warm weather, but also because of a word (or two):  dystopia or dystopian.  The opposite of utopia, not a perfect, elusive place, often in the future, but rather a repressive and hostile place, definitely in the future, where individual freedoms are subjected to some all-powerful system. Whenever I was near a radio or a television,  I kept hearing that word, at least 20 times, more than I have ever heard that word in my life.  The primary contexts for the word were reviews of the Hunger Games film, set in a decidedly dystopian future, and related stories about the popularity of dystopian themes in young adult fiction, which is itself disconcerting.

As is always the case when things are not just quite right for me, I retreat to the past.  What better way to counter dystopia in the present than with some utopias of the past?  I really don’t know that much about ancient history, so I skipped the Garden of Eden, the Isles of the Blessed and Elysian Fields and went back to the Renaissance Utopia, Thomas More’s 1516 book, and then moved forward, more happily, toward the present.

Early Modern Utopias:  More’s Utopia, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), Bartolomea del Bene’s City of Truth (1609), and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624).

As you can see (you’ll have to take my word on the cropped Bacon image), all of these utopias are self-contained islands or cities, apart from the corrupt world, and their very existence is a commentary on that world.  It’s also very interesting to me that in these four works, two written by Englishmen and two by Italians, a distinct nationalistic vision of utopia has emerged:  More and Bacon have located their utopias on islands and Campanella’s and del Bene’s utopias are walled cities.  The Italians seem to think they can find utopia through urban planning, which was both an artistic and a logistical enterprise. Not only did the Italian Renaissance inspire and create paintings like Piero della Francesca’s Ideal City (c. 1470) but also the Venetian “development” of Palmanova in 1593, a real “ideal city”.

With the coming of industrialization in the modern era, cities could not possibly be utopian.  The ideal life/world could now only be found in a long-lost Arcadian past or a pastoral enclave in the present.  American utopianism in the nineteenth-century seems to be best represented by the romantic landscapes of the Hudson River Valley school, like Thomas Cole’s Dream of Arcadia below, and social experiments like Brook Farm here in Massachusetts, where Nathaniel Hawthorne spent a few (apparently miserable) months in 1841.  A young and struggling writer at the time, Nathaniel clearly did not find his utopia at Brook Farm:  too much manure.

Thomas Cole, Dream of Arcadia, 1838. Denver Art Museum.

Joseph Wolcott, Brook Farm with Rainbow, 1845. Massachusetts Historical Society.

I’m not sure how the quest for utopia has fared in the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first.  Have we given up on it?  Are utopian ideas and ideals so personal that we don’t have a collective cultural vision?  Is is all about dystopia?  At least in the first part of the century, and despite the dreadful First World War, the Bauhaus movement was definitely driven by utopian ideals as well as the passion for modernism and the desire to integrate art, design and technology.  All of these goals are exemplified by the title and the typography of their publications from the early twenties:  the volumes of  Utopia:  Dokumente der Wirklichkeit (Utopia: Documents of Reality) were designed by Oskar Schlemmer in a style that still looks modern today.

An etching by the American artist Peter Larsen from just about the same time as the beginning of the Bauhaus School shows a decidedly more inaccessible Utopia, like that of Thomas More.  So we’re right back where we began, with those who believe that Utopia is within reach, or at least worth striving for, and those that believe it’s just a fantasy.

Peter Larsen, Utopia,1919. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

10 responses to “Utopia, not Dystopia

  • ns

    Thanks for countering dystopias with a review of utopias in the past. I like to believe that some aspects of Utopia aren’t totally out of reach….

  • Vividhunter

    I really enjoyed reading this, though I think it’s a black irony that the word ‘utopia’ originally meant ‘no place’ – probably why Moore’s Utopia was so inaccessible.

  • BlanketandBone

    Very interesting..I still have a little seed in me that believes..keeps me going 🙂

  • markd60

    There is a flattop mountain in Sri Lanka where a king and his people lived for many years, safe from invaders. Maybe it was a good place for Utopia.

    I try to make my own in my house and yard. Always have to leave though.

  • ceciliag

    I agree with Mark above, we can only create our own utopia in our own homes.. the rest i do not know about, I do not have TV so i am not familiar with this new TV series .. of course we also must always have dreams .. lovely collection of works! c

  • The Fabricator

    The utopia’s of our fantasies are things we may achieve in the distant future, but are unlikely to be seen in our lifetimes. The world we live in is little more than a dystopian culture hidden behind a façade of idealistic dreams.
    What we get is whispered promises of a better day and a better world, and we barely get any salvation towards a utopia, or even something better than its opposite.
    I truly love the idea of a perfect utopian paradise, a world of Olympian glory, but the fact humanity plays a part means its an impossibility.

    We are really in an anarchistic society, where the strongest and biggest bully rules with an iron fist while the rest are left to crumble in ruin. But its hidden because its mistakenly called a democracy.

    A Utopia for now is a myth, lost within the fairy-tale dreams of our generation.

  • The Dusty Victorian

    Very complex post. Political landscpes are also important in this context, but the important thing is that you got me thinking about what and where is Shangri-la to me. My answer is that I feel blessed.
    Thank you Donna,

  • Geoffrey Sea

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention that the general plan of these utopias — concentric rings separated by canals and cross-cut by avenues with bridges — derives from Plato’s description of Atlantis, rediscovered in the Renaissance and used by Italian city planners as a model for the “ideal city.” Hence the name of Bacon’s “New Atlantis.” The shape was idealized as the “Atlantean Cross,” another name for the “Rose Cross” of Bacon’s Rosicrucians. The persistence of the shape was not accidental.

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