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.
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.