People of all times tend to fantasize about and seek a better life. This desire came in many flavors throughout the history of humanity. It is tempting to interpret utopia as a guide to best possible life, however, it has somewhat a different meaning. According to Socrates, “After all, we never said those ideals could exist.” In other words, utopia, as an illustrative and inspirational metaphor for craving for a better life, is argued by the philosopher to not be the most effective tool for this task.
According to Ben Davis, art in the age of the Anthropocene needs to turn towards a consideration of utopia rather than dystopia. To begin with, before discussing Davis’s claim, there is a need to make a few preliminary remarks about the very argument, which is both complicated and deep. First, one has to agree that the notion of art is something with prominent didactic function or even obligation. In this argument, Davis jumps to discussing the best way to improve the recipients’ reaction to the challenges of the era, thus considers art in the age of the Anthropocene to be a tool for that. It is a questionable opinion; however, without an agreement on this matter, no further discussion can be productive. Moreover, in this purely theoretical attempt of social change (for instance, increase of environmental awareness) through art, society is trapped in the polarizing paradigm of positive and negative reinforcement. More specifically, an ideology of hope or despair, where Utopia represents a promise and Dystopia embodies a warning, controls the humankind. Two important things that are the essential characteristics of the era need to be mentioned. First, education does not work as the main function of contemporary art, and second, it is more practical to suppose that efficient way to increase awareness is through appealing to reason (by formal education programs) rather than to aesthetic experiences. Keeping that in mind, a reader is in a better position to proceed with the Utopia-Dystopia dilemma in art.
A brief exploration of the term “utopia” coined by Thomas Moore in 1516 is a helpful starting point for further analysis of the wide scopes of possible artistic implementations of this idea. The meaning of the term includes multiple connotations, namely, a literary genre whose representatives are in strict line with the Utopia by Moore (classic utopia); contemporary genre reflecting on utopian projects or their fictional incarnation through various mediums; impossible plan for social or political reform. Furthermore, it is often defined as a synonym or antonym of “socialism”; a synonym or antonym of “communism” (especially in the discussion of Proudhon and Marx); the Proudhon’s term that includes the meanings of “non-place” (non-lieu), “nothing” (rien), “oblivion” (neant). Utopia is a number of not feasible reforms that are used to organize a revolutionary movement; the forecast of the future social order: the fruits of evolution.
On the contrary, dystopia is a metaphor for an extreme decline in society and is often associated with real-world issues dealing with technology, social stratification, relationship between an individual and a government (in its worst scenario) and environmental cataclysms of anthropogenic origin. Jeremy Bentham proposed the first version of this term in 1818 and spelled it as “cacotopia”, wicked place. The earliest work that today is considered to belong to this genre is Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem (1595), which is a satiric description of English utopia. By providing the most pessimistic view on the future of humankind and planet, dystopias draws attention of the wide public to the actual and possible consequences of the current broad human activities.
It is perfectly reasonable to feel dissatisfaction when defining utopia and dystopia as models of society. A model is a simplified way to observe phenomena, and it is impossible to observe or measure something that has never happened and, possibly, will never happen. A clarifier “metaphor” describes the idea in a more precise way. In addition, it makes the link between these terms, ideas, imagination, and, particularly, arts to create visible trends in political rhetoric.
Notably, scholars rarely write about the motives of utopian or dystopian creativity, since it is understood to be a concern of professional philosophers. However, actual artists may refuse to share Davis’s view on functions of art in Anthropocene. Often what drives humans is not a dream to save the world but the interest in intellectual games, the desire to mentally rationalize and aestheticize reality, a desire for moral clarity, and a tendency to analyze critically the reality and to propose a radical alternative. Such people have faith in the reforms and the desire to leave one’s name in the history of movement for social harmony.
In any case, some mediums appear more suitable for these themes than others do. It seems that the genre of utopia is more typical in literature than the visual arts. The best way to prove the perfection is to explain in fine detail the structure of an ideal society as seen by the author. The very word “utopia” gives birth to literary-philosophical associations: Plato, Campanella, Thomas Moore, the Abbey of Rabelais, and finally, hilarious Chernyshevsky. However, the fact that is impossible for the painting to reach such a detailed explanation of perfection sometimes gives interesting results.
As concretization of sublime dreams, the very ideality of the proposed project is becoming more controversial, thus the ideal sometimes turns into its opposite. It has been suggested that all utopian paintings are, in fact, dystopian. Displayed in all details through visual or plastic art, the Kingdom of Justice is impossible and unnecessary. However, it is possible to picture a kind of map of the spiritual atmosphere of this Kingdom.
To develop this idea, it is important to introduce a contemporary sculpture Ocean Utopia by Val (Valérie Goutard), a French sculptor working mainly in Asia. Ocean Utopia is a composition of a human figure and an image of a ruined skyscraper representing fallen civilization. The sculpture is made of concrete, bronze, and corals and is installed underwater in Koh Tao, Thailand. Sponsored and supported by local coral reef conservation organization, Ocean Utopia conveys a message of human-nature reunion. A genderless figure in a calm but still dynamic pose looks over the skyscraper, inspiringly facing the light that comes from the surface of the water. Together with live corals and fish swimming around, the sculpture creates an image of true harmony between human and underwater inhabitants. However, this welcoming message of reunion is undermined by the figure’s solitude (the landscape would not look as peaceful if there were dozens of persons beside the hero) and its very location. The underwater world simply does not feel real or achievable, as any utopia. The first argument against Davis’s thesis is that he shows an unrealistic plan, which fails to inspire many people with something that is impossible to achieve. On a contrary, a reasonable person has to face the fact that ecological catastrophe is threatening humans every day (recall Chernobyl) and a warning depiction of this undesirable but possible future can be quite inspiring.
In comparison with Van’s work, Michael Kerbow’s paintings (A New Religion, Fool’s Gold, Leviathan) look shockingly contrasting. Even when ignoring an opposite message and ideological background, it is obvious that dystopian genre requires different technics. Unlike utopias that cannot afford too many details, dystopias demand them in order to emphasize the depressing monotony, the terrifying sameness, the irreversible decadence, the foul-smelling poison in the air, water, and soil, and the total invisibility of an individual. Tangled grid of roads and numerous multi-storey buildings right next to the black holes in the ground create an anxious feeling of claustrophobia. Dystopian art aims to wake up a genuine sense of fear and provokes realization that humans are, in fact, among the endangered species. A person cannot relate with characters of dystopian pieces of art if he/she is either too optimistic or lacking information about recent reports on climate change and possibilities of government surveillance.
Still struggling with ethical side of terrifying people in art encouraging decent actions like saving nature, the choice between utopia and dystopia is easy when using efficiency criteria. Readers’ reception of utopias somehow reminds the teenagers’ reception of fairy tales, it looks nice but people are too mature to believe in this. On the contrary, a description “Orwellian” is never a good characteristic for anything; however, it has been already rooted in language for quite a while. Moreover, the meaning of “utopian” in everyday language is not “perfect”, it is “impossible”. Arguing that art should turn towards considering Utopia is advocating for a relaxing imaginative space, when everyone is in the need of clear realistic view of a situation about which it is hard to be too pessimistic.
Obviously, in terms of believability, Kerbow’s works suffer from excessive imagination; redundant horror often feels comical or, at least, not realistic. Contrariwise, Mural by Banksy currently owned and protected by Global Street Art Foundation is strict, articulating, clear, and warning. The mural says, “If graffiti changed anything – it would be illegal” to use a blood-red handwriting font and pictures of a rat with its legs in red paint. The rat is a clear allusion to Orwell’s famous novel 1984. The whole piece reveals a discouraging, yet important idea of relative uselessness of casual rebellion. For instance, a petition is perfectly legal, however, it is proven to be the least effective form of communication with governmental structures, while protests are illegal if held without permission from local authorities despite (or because of) they are much more likely to make a difference.
Ironically, it is easy to remain skeptical about Banksy’s crusade against the system, this radically minded artist and a protester against capitalism and global business environment fits very organically into modern world. T-shirts and mugs with his works can be found in any large online store, his graffiti sketches flash in the computer games and album covers of famous musicians, and his art indeed fits perfectly in the context of the world of pop art.
To conclude, a conceptual precision and careful but still purely hypothetical argumentation cannot solve the honest dilemma of utopia and dystopia consideration in the art of Anthropocene. Despite sympathetic side of dystopia, apparently, one should stick to contextualized answers and cease to seek an all-comprising solution. It is reasonable to recognize and respect the fact that there can be no king of the hill when it comes to approaches to art or perception forecasts. Both utopia and dystopia can be triggers for redesigning one’s attitude to modern issues, as well as they can occur to be another boring kitsch, in some cases that depend on an artist, in other – on public.