From designs for Renaissance buildings to a replica of the robot from the film Metropolis (1926); from 1960s hippy “peace-and-love” stickers to pictures of wealthy residents of Celebration, Disney’s “ideal town” in Florida. This intriguing range of images was contained in the exhibition “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World.”
To some critics, Utopia means conformity, a surrender of individual freedom to the collective or the divine, and a desire to be released from the burdens of free will, failure, or improvisation.
From that point of view, then, Utopia would be for authoritarians and weaklings. But it was also loved by philosophers. Two of Plato’s works, The Republic and The Laws, have recognizably Utopian elements.
Sometimes notions of Utopia suggest the Garden of Eden. The trouble with this is that Utopias are, or ought to be, whole societies, in which many conflicts are solved, and Eden had only two people in it!
The standard model for Utopia, and the word itself, came from Thomas More, who in 1516 published the didactic book of that title. “Utopia” literally means either “no-place” or “good place,” depending on how you translate its Greek roots. He put it on an island; later versions placed it on an unexplored continent or in outer space. Sometimes it was shifted to a radiant future or a golden past.
Attempts have been made in real life to build Utopian societies. Charles Fourier (1772-1837) imagined people living communally and practicing free love. By perfect mutual help, Fourier figured, paradise would return, and the world would have 37 million musical geniuses the equal of Mozart and 37 million mathematical ones to rival Newton.
In 1832 Barthelemy Enfantin set up a commune with 40 disciples on the outskirts of Paris. There they wore clothes that symbolized their ideals. These were designed to button up the back, so that you couldn’t put them on without the help of others (if it had had no buttons, like a T-shirt, it would imply that you could look after yourself).