Utopia: Of Its Past and Present
Susan Cross and Vivien Greene on Utopia Matters
This conversation between Susan Cross, Curator at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, and Vivien Greene, Curator of 19th- and Early-20th-Century Art at the Guggenheim Museum and curator of "Utopia Matters: From Brotherhoods to Bauhaus," explores the genesis of the exhibition and the legacy of utopian ideas today.
||Susan Cross: My first question is about the show’s inspiration. Was it motivated by recent political events in the United States, either frustration with the George W. Bush era or the promise of transformation embodied by Barack Obama?
Vivien Greene: I began thinking about the exhibition in 2003, so it precedes this political moment and was probably prompted more by a desire for an antidote to the dystopian Bush administration. The idea first came to me while I was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. There I started thinking about artists’ colonies and how they were mini-utopias. I then considered them in the context of larger utopian communities, or places that began as such—including the Soviet Union—and how these smaller models seemed to succeed or continue to reoccur and be reformed, whereas those defined by socialism didn’t ultimately seem to function. I pursued the idea, in part, to counter a number of contemporary political thinkers who feel that the fall of communism proved that the utopian model had always been untenable.
And now we are left without a practicable alternative model to capitalism.
Yes, though while utopia might not work when a large government is involved, certainly, it is not a failed model if you look at smaller and creative communities, even if they don’t last very long. Nineteenth-century brotherhoods, the Bauhaus, or projects today, like those of Rirkrit Tiravanija, demonstrate the viability of utopian models.
By necessity your exhibition investigates communities that have ended, but we don’t have to say they have "failed," as you stated. This is a really productive way of reconceptualizing failure versus success. These laboratories for utopia, which are short lived or involve a small community, inspire new ways of living and thinking.
The word "laboratory" is a very good one. Utopias don’t have to exist in perpetuity in order to be loci for invention. While individual artists do and have pursued utopian precepts in their work, the exhibition deals with groups working in these sorts of "laboratory" situations. The show starts after the American and French revolutions, once these events and the Enlightenment made it possible for artists to be autonomous and free from patrons, such as the church or the state. Before that, they just don’t have that kind of agency, in the visual arts at least.
From a more contemporary perspective, I see connections in your show to the many artist collectives that have emerged in recent years as well as collaborations between artists and creators from other fields. Tiravanija’s The Land project (1998–) in Thailand, for example, was envisioned as a space for social engagement, experimentation, and community and has attracted artists, architects, students, and farmers alike. "Micro-utopia," which is commonly used to describe his work, is another way of reframing how we judge utopias and can be applied to almost all the examples in your exhibition.
True. These micro-utopias work because it is easier to find consensus with fewer individuals. You don’t need a governing body or too many rules.
But, many of these groups, though small, still manage to reach out to the larger community.
Yes, while in some utopian groups, artists retreat and create ideal worlds, or remain self-contained and don’t necessarily reference the external world, others—such as De Stijl, which wanted to redesign society—seek to create a utopian community that has a purposeful reach beyond a place.
On so many levels, utopia encompasses these opposite poles. It’s about community, and, at the same time, about the individual. It’s about a retreat from society and its ills and a desire to transform the world at large. I think that is why utopia is hard to define and even harder to manifest. We also see again and again models that began with an interest in working-class society and then became associated with elitism. The Bauhaus, for example, transformed the Weimar Academy of Fine Art into an applied arts school. It was absolutely radical, all about the working class and educational reform. But today we think of the Bauhaus and modernism as a tool of and for an elite. Many contemporary artists have addressed modernism’s failure to live up to its aspirations. Making living and working conditions better has apparently become a realizable ideal only for a small portion of the population and a mode of oppression or division for the rest. There is also a problem in how people read or understand these objects that are really the traces of these utopian aspirations and ideas, like the functional items that William Morris created. Now they are so easily co-opted by a consumerist society and have lost their context and history.
One of the catalogue authors, Victor Margolin, talks about the loss of the aura of objects, or even that of abstract work like Kazimir Malevich’s paintings, that were supposed to be about harmony or utopia. He questions whether they maintain the significance that they had at the time they were created, when socialist ideals pushed people to radically rethink how everything worked. Now these icons of a very different kind are seen as valuable objects in the market.
That is an important role that your exhibition will play; you’re reinvesting these objects, books, and utopian collectives with a history and intent that many people might not fully know.
I also sought to make connections within that history, so the show features nine movements, with examples by the major artists of each, spanning 130 years. I chose objects that speak to each other across time. For example, I include an embroidery produced by Morris & Co. and an embroidered book cover (ca. 1923–24) by Liubov Popova as well as Edward Burne-Jones’s stained glass Elaine (1870) and Josef Albers’s glass Interlocked (1927), to show how they employed the same medium to different ends. And I highlight the importance that design and "craft" hold for utopian groups, because the premise that changing the space in which one lives can change the way one lives is critical.
And not only how you live, but how you work. Changing modes of working was an important goal for most of these groups.
It was during the Industrial Revolution that the division came up between work and play or vacation. Here we revisit Morris, who believed work should be something that you enjoy, a creative act that gives you pleasure and satisfaction, not something you do only so you have time to play.
Alternatively, Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue and other utopian thinkers saw work as alienating and something that you wanted to minimize in order to leave time for leisure activities.
Well, they’re tied together. You need to till the land or wash the dishes, so those things should be done collectively. But when you are not performing those acts, your free time is spent reading, thinking, writing, painting, or what have you. So it comprises other forms of work, in a sense, but ones which are more creative or pleasurable for most.
The idea that art and labor can be joined into one thing still seems radical today, 100 years later. And there is still a perceived hierarchy that differentiates the applied from the fine arts.
It’s true. Yet, many of Marjetica Potrc’s collaborative projects challenge that notion. In The Cook, the Farmer, His Wife and Their Neighbour (2009), she and Wilde Westen, with a group of young architects, designers, and artists, have created a community center and green space, where they grow what they cook, in Amsterdam’s Nieuw West. Originally a modernist development by Cornelis van Eesteren that has fallen into disrepair, the neighbourhood is now primarily a working-class area. Like many projects that deal with utopian ideas today, this one has to do with sustainability and ecology, but it also addresses immigration and ways that communities, new and old, can function together. She brings activities like cooking or gardening, which we don’t think of as high art, into play as a kind of art form.
We’re seeing more and more of that in museums and other art contexts, but the "art" is more than just the act of cooking a meal or tilling a field; it’s also the by-product of the exchange between people.
There is also a renewed import assigned to the sharing of space and land. Many of these green spaces are urban gardens that harken to the idealization of the agrarian realm that pervades all of Western thought, reaching back to Virgil and the Arcadian. The shepherd or the farmer with his or her back-breaking labor is seen to be in touch with the land. There is value in reaffirming that relationship, and those essential actions take on even greater meaning if done as a group.
It is an idealized interaction with nature but also a human interaction. As we’ve reached this idea of idealization, let’s talk about the role of nostalgia in utopia. So many projects and collectives that you deal with—the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites, Morris—look to the past.
This began with literature, where utopia can exist in the distant past, the far future, or another world, and is very hard to situate in the present. The historical groups in the exhibition, such as the brotherhoods of the Nazarenes and the Pre-Raphaelites, looked for a time that can be idealized, particularly the Middle Ages. For one reason, the guild model is key. The Nazarenes were a collective. They valued the things they made. They were also creating a society. However, this veneration becomes more complicated, because some of these paintings glorify the past when a particular king or dynasty was in power. Nostalgia and nationalism, I find, go hand in hand. We always think the past was simpler or purer, and not littered with the problems of the present. The projection into the future does the same thing.
This notion of purity reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelites in particular, not only of the purity of the precapitalist, preindustrial time that interested them, but also the idealized, flattened forms they painted. Did their audience read into those paintings their utopian intent?
Some of their audience did grasp the utopian dimension, namely that they were a collective brotherhood, making art that emulated the time of the guilds, before Raphael. For a variety of reasons, they received an avalanche of criticism early on from the general public, but some of the themes the Pre-Raphaelites and Morris pursued that appealed to their audience are chivalry and medieval narratives. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot, which was essentially a utopia, definitely caught people’s imagination.
Many artists in the exhibition wrote fiction as well as manifestos in order to convey their messages and missions. You’re showing several books in the exhibition to illustrate how these artists made their ideas more accessible to a larger audience.
Most of the groups that have some utopian underpinnings seem to publish a journal or writings or illustrate books. Even in the 19th century, they made books that either had medieval-looking imagery or were actually about utopian ideas. In 1893, Kelmscott Press, which was Morris’s publishing company, produced an edition of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). Morris himself wrote a futuristic utopian novel called News From Nowhere (1890). But, likewise, if you go to the Russian section, one of the books is a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky called The Flying Proletariat (1925), which is his only foray, but a revelatory one, into utopian science fiction. Plus, books circulate much more easily than painting or sculpture. Some publications, such as an edition of engravings for Goethe’s Faust after drawings by the Nazarene Peter Cornelius, were available in England, and the Pre-Raphaelites would have seen that. You start to comprehend how connections were made to a larger audience and also between movements in different countries and different periods. We see it today in manifestos, artist’s books, and also blogs. That is another interesting point—the Internet as a utopian space.
Or dystopian space for some. However, the Internet does reach millions of people and creates community across great distances and in its leveling effects can also be quite utopian. An interesting example is Wikipedia, an encyclopedia written by the people (though, unfortunately, it seems to be another "failed" model in terms of accuracy).
The Internet presents many examples of utopian phenomena; Second Life, a potentially limitless society in cyberspace where you can create anything you want, may be one of the most obvious.
While reading The End of Utopia (1999) by Russell Jacoby, who also wrote for the catalogue, I thought about Second Life when he describes how recent generations seem to have lost the ability to envision a new society. Instead of really transforming it, we replicate what we know elsewhere. I see that in Second Life, which is essentially a consumer model. Instead of reinventing the way we live, the users have made this perfect world where they can have the larger house that they can’t have here.
So it is a capitalist dream.
I think that is where a key problem lies. We’re so programmed that we can’t even imagine in our wildest dreams an alternative to capitalism. Cao Fei’s project RMB City (2008–) in Second Life seems to address this. A lot of people are indeed grappling with this idea, what is the alternative? To return to the micro-utopia, I think many artists are moving away from completely reworking society as we know it, and, instead, are just taking on individual spaces and relationships, little by little. So we can see that certain aspects of these utopian precedents remain relevant today. We keep returning to micro-utopias, a term now associated with "relational aesthetics" and the contemporary artists who demonstrate the impulse to create communities and meaningful connections between people, even just for a moment, as an alternative to the alienation of the industrial world that the utopians you address were also working to eradicate. I think "Utopia Matters" places many of these contemporary artists in a larger context, connecting them to historical efforts with similar intent, if different methods and mediums.
Utopia Matters: From Brotherhoods to Bauhaus
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin
January 23 - April 11, 2010