Apropos the conjunction of the New York Public Library’s fascinating, unfocused, appallingly installed “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World” and the upcoming election—which is beginning to feel like that old Twilight Zone episode where William Shatner sees a gremlin on the wing of the aircraft he’s on but can’t get anyone to believe him (we’re Shatner, the plane’s America, the gremlin is George W. Bush)—a few utopian proposals: America plays such a big role on the world stage, other countries should vote in our executive elections. As for those annoying “undecided voters,” if they haven’t made up their minds by now, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. And finally, Bill Clinton should be made copresident of Russia, because he’s the only one savvy enough to remedy their troubles.
“A map of the world which does not include Utopia,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “is not worth glancing at.” A glance at this mammoth 550-work exhibition—a collaboration between the Bibliothèque nationale de France and our own library—tells you this is a big subject. It also suggests our brains may have an undiscovered “utopia lobe” that does nothing but dream up perfect worlds. Utopia the term—a derivation of the Greek words for “no place”— and the genre were invented by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 classic Utopia, a first edition of which is on hand. On More’s island, all goods are communally owned, each person spends two years as a farmer, everyone dresses the same, toilets are made of gold, atheism is forbidden, and the incurably ill are encouraged by priests to choose a painless, self-administered death.
But utopias never come; they only go. They imagine worlds that might have been and could never be; they put fantasy into life but often depict worlds without desire—living deaths before death. As seen here in Cockaigne, or The Land of Milk and Honey, mountains are made of cheese, the sea is Greek wine, roasted birds fall from the sky, and owls lay fur coats. The City of Women pictures virtuous females in an invincible fortress. The walls of The City of the Sun are carved with marvelous representations of all knowledge. On the kibbutz, all the children are happy; in Celebration, everything is pleasant; in Brasilia, all the buildings are modern; in Jonestown, God was always at hand.
From the Garden of Eden to Kingdom Come, Arcadia to Auschwitz, the real and imagined utopias and dystopias are here. Lost worlds, brave new worlds, and new world orders; paradises lost and found; evil empires and empires of the sun; citadels of freedom and free love; journeys to the bottom of the sea, the center of the earth, and the afterlife; Plato’s Republic, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. We see Levittown, Tomorrowland, the Aryan Nation, and Woodstock Nation.
Consisting mainly of manuscripts, maps, prints, photographs, and drawings, this exhibition is an attempt to trace the history of an obsession. Most of this material isn’t primarily visual and involves a fair amount of reading. The expanse and eccentricity of its subject dictates that the show be little more than an introduction. Ironically, however, what hurts it most is its rambling utopian layout—a scheme that illustrates every utopia’s principal problem: Mostly, they make things worse. The library boasted of hiring “an edgy, young, downtown design team” to design the exhibition. The result is a confusion of snaking, dimly lit corridors, overbuilt cases, and inexplicable dead ends. Proceeding through this show’s zigzagging configuration is as numbing as winding your way through an airline queue.
Nevertheless, if you look hard enough there are silver linings. Among a number of outstanding items, including two of Boullée’s visionary architectural watercolors for Newton’s Cenotaph (an enormous spherical building that France should immediately build), one humble handwritten document stands out. It is a copy of the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson made a few days after the original had been ratified by the Second Continental Congress.
Standing in front of it may make you want to weep. Here, Jefferson reinstates passages that had been expunged by the congress, in an editing process that he called a “mutilation.” The changes are all significant. “Unalienable rights” originally read “inherent and inalienable.” But one eradicated section stops you in your tracks. A slave owner himself, Jefferson restores an extraordinary paragraph condemning for all time slavery on these shores. This missing link makes you realize that, in its original form, the Declaration of Independence actually described something closer to utopia than we ever imagined—something that makes you think, “If only . . . ”
This “If only . . . ” is where most utopias come from. Maybe every country believes that it’s a version of a perfect world. Everyone dreams zones of their own—inner utopias of thinness, tallness, intelligence, and wealth; leisure, pleasure, immortality, and fame. The best thing about utopia the idea and “Utopia” the show is the realization that perfect worlds are always best on paper. Oh, and by the way, that Twilight Zone episode ends with Shatner being wheeled away, a raving lunatic.