The Spirit of Utopia

It is perhaps with irony that Whitechapel sought to launch its latest exhibition on Arcadia on July 4th, otherwise known as Independence Day. The cluster of North American colonies had decided that the British Empire’s rule had run its due course, and they declared as much. They wanted to realise their own destiny.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the Founding Fathers wrote with sincere eloquence.
They were attempting to carve out their own version of utopia, but, even before the new republic had started on this grand ambition, it was already corrupted. Its new, unshackled political class had failed to abolish slavery.
The Spirit of Utopia is a show that offers its own critique of human history, with ten artists and collectives from all over the world delivering their own vision of Thomas More’s fictional paradise on earth. He gave us a word for an absolute idealism that always seems so far away.
For the Guardian’s resident art critic Jonathan Jones, the visionaries that make up this nevertheless intriguing show are lacking in a real manifesto for meaningful change. Their proposals, he says, are nice, sure, but without real vigour.
“Take them seriously or comically or a bit of both, but what you can’t take from any of these installations is a vision of utopia – unless the future is a greenhouse where people make pots and get therapy,” he comments.
“Or maybe it is. The Spirit of Utopia is not about coherent proposals for a better way of running the world. It is a celebration of vaguely alternative lifestyles. Its soft radicalism has a slight whiff of scented candles. Where is the hard analysis of economy and state that might genuinely overthrow the bad guys? Where are Marxists when you need them?”
Perhaps Mr Jones is too much of a believer in a good thing (although he remedies this later on as you will see). Here we are in the twenty first century, still burdened by the same problems that have plagued humanity since the dawn of civilisation, latter day crises seemingly more embedded in economic problems, but decidedly social and political by association in any event.
Therefore, some of the ideas explored in this exhibition offer a much more realistic approach, a sort of start small and don’t rush kind of philosophy, which, if you believe in progress, is happening already, albeit at a protracted rate we could do with being a little faster.
“Paradoxically, in failing the utopian idea, this exhibition saves it,” Mr Jones says “Real attempts to build perfect societies have proven catastrophic. Humans are not perfect. More was in fact joking in his misunderstood masterpiece of political thought.”
We sometimes know not what it is we’re doing, but so long as we improve our lot, take better care of the planet and show compassion to those that have been, are and will be our enemies, maybe what we have today is as honest a representation of utopia we will ever achieve.
The Spirit of Utopia at the Whitechapel Gallery runs until 5th September 2013.
Cadogan Tate has extensive experience in shipping fine art all over the world.