It's a natural human ideal to wish and strive for a better life. We want it for ourselves. We want it for our children. And if we're particularly noble, we want it for our nation and indeed, all of mankind. This is idealism, and taken to it's extreme, utopianism. Utopianism is a striving not just for a BETTER world but for the BEST world--a perfect world. We might call it Heaven on earth. And while the world at one time may have been perfect, inhabitation by the imperfect species known as mankind for perhaps ten thousand years (particularly the last 200 years) has made it anything but.
But one hundred years ago we didn't know this. Artists, writers, and philosophers in particular didn't know this. The nineteenth century had see a few nasty little regional wars, but by and large, there was a feeling that war was somehow outmoded, having been replaced by logic, diplomacy, idealism, and economic common sense. Standing on the brink of a new, fresh, twentieth century there was reason to hope for a perfect, utopian world. June 28, 1914, brought all such unrealistic dreams crashing to the ground. With the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke, Ferdinand, and the first of several declarations of war just a month later, utopian artists and idealists of the world got a rude reality check. War was NOT obsolete.
After the "war to end all wars," a phrase probably coined by a utopian dreamer, the Rational Utopians faded into the background. Utopian groups such as de Stijl, artists such as Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesberg, and Geroges Vantongerloo became passe. War was seen as an irrational act, utopian antiwar sentiment likewise became irrational. Though in its nascent form before the war, Dada sprouted, bloomed, and died of self-inflicted wounds. Artists such as Duchamp, Jean Arp, and Francis Picabia challenged the common sense that led to "rational war" in literature, music, drama, painting, and politics. Socialism, Communism, and in art, Surrealism followed. Surrealism was irrational, but not self-destructive as had been Dada. Artists such as Rene Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvadore Dali, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, and even for a time, Pablo Picasso, climbed on board this new and improved utopian bandwagon, wagering that the world had learned its lesson and that they, through art, could perfect all human endeavors.
Boy, were they in for a surprise! With the crumbling of the utopian League of Nations, Hitler, anti-semitism, the holocaust, the atom bomb; the Second World War did what the First had failed to do. It stamped out utopian dreams for a perfect world once and for all. The dreamers fled to New York, huddling in the shadow of yet another, somewhat less utopian institution, the United Nations. There they propounded their art if not their ideals, giving birth to the fabled New York School and the ultimate utopian art, Abstract Expressionism. Today, on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you can chart the course of twentieth century utopianism and its artists in their exhibit, "The Dream of Utopia/Utopia of the Dream." The exhibit runs through August 22, 2000.