“To every age its art, to every art its freedom.” (“Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.”)

Motto above the entrance of the Vienna Secession building.

The Island of Utopia

Even though nowadays we tend to use the word utopia in a negative way, referring to a naïve and unrealistic Lalaland, utopian ideals are serious, for they are in fact what one aspires to, dreams about, and acts upon with the goal of effecting change. In that sense, such ideas—ideological, philosophical, spiritual, social, and of course artistic—are a model that guides significant choices. Every revolutionary and/or social movement is a projection into a better future. And in times when the present becomes dystopian, the only way out is to envision a better, indeed utopian, future.

But let’s start at the beginning, with Thomas More coining the word in a book first published in 1516: Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia (A little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia). Revealingly, the name More gives this “new island” that houses a model society, Utopia, means “no place” or “nowhere”: a place that doesn’t exist but that the author imagines in great detail, with governing institutions and life organized along specific guidelines. In a woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein (the elder brother of the more famous Hans Holbein), for the third edition of More’s book, the island with the ship at its base is reminiscent of a skull. Although the skull is a traditional memento mori symbol (a reminder of the inevitability of death), I’d like to suggest that the skull here might also indicate that utopia is the product of intellectual processes.

That More’s Utopia is an island separated from the rest of the world has reminded many commentators of monastic life, which is also fundamentally utopian in nature. The history of Christian Monasticism starts with a retreat from the world, when, starting in the 3rd century, hermits left cities to live in isolation in the Egyptian desert. Eventually, these like-minded men got organized and this led to the first monasteries and religious orders, with a governing figure and specific rules structuring the daily lives of the monks and the nuns, with church services, prayer, study, and work. Monasticism is grounded on two impulses, a mystical one (aiming at a union of the soul with God) and an ascetic one (aiming at a purification of the soul).That a monastery is an ideal society, but also an ideal family, is made clear by the fact that the name for the head of a male monastery, “abbot”(an abbess for a female monastery), is derived from the Aramaic for father (abba).

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“Plan of Saint Gall,” Codex Sangallensis, parchment, c. 112 x 77.5 cm., c. 820–830, ms. 1092, Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen, Saint Gall, Switzerland (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

A 9th-century document from the time of Charlemagne, the so-called “Plan of Saint-Gall,” shows how self-sustaining and inward-turned a monastery is supposed to be. The Benedictine order had been founded in the 6th century by Saint Benedict of Nursia, who created a monastery at Monte-Cassino in present-day Italy. Three centuries later, a member of Charlemagne’s court, another Benedict (of Aniane), set out to revive the ideals of the early Benedictines. This is the context for the Plan of Saint-Gall, which is in fact a model for an ideal Benedictine community. The large grounds (500 by 700 feet) are laid out according to a grid based on a module: the regular layout echoes the community’s orderly functioning. In addition to the church in the center, we find administrative buildings, dwellings for the abbot, monks, lay brothers, and guests, a school, kitchens, refectories, gardens, a bakery and brew houses, baths and latrines, workshops (among which is a scriptorium where manuscripts were copied), stables and barns. It is a self-sufficient town of its own, closed to the outside world and yet able to receive pilgrims and royal guests. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Benedictine monastery where the plan was conceived and created, Reichenau Abbey, is, just like More’s Utopia, on an island (on the lake of Constance). Later, “real” monasteries occupied less extensive grounds but the idea remained the same and lived on in other settings. As Umberto Eco once suggested, “[n]othing more closely resembles a monastery . . . than an American university campus.” (83; a fact I often remind my students of, adding that the similarities stop at the monks’ and nuns’ vows of chastity!). Indeed, our college and university campuses also embody this idea of a separate and ideal society, with its own rules. Perhaps not surprisingly, Saint Benedict of Nursia, in the Prolog to his rule, defined the monastery as “a school of the service of the Lord.”

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Nave of the abbey church, Fontenay, France, 1139–47 (photo: Jean-Christophe Benoist via Wikimedia Commons).

Radical Utopias

What is remarkable about the history of Western monastic orders is that each new one is more radical than those that preceded it. This reminds me of the history of left-wing movements and of artistic avant-gardes, with new and more uncompromising ones superseding those that came before (for modern and contemporary art, see Robert Hughes’s 1980 BBC documentary, The Shock of the New). An excellent example—perhaps the best—of the way in which new religious orders are created in reaction to previous ones is that of the Cistercian order, whose architecture is characterized by a pared-down purity. The goal of such austerity was forcefully expressed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux when, writing in 1125, he lamented that the decorative elaboration of cloisters’ sculptures distracted the monks, asking (in a style that mimics the overwrought decoration he condemns): “what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness?” The purity of Cistercian architecture is unequaled and its austere beauty truly spiritual.

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Shaker bedroom (photo: Doug Coldwell via Wikimedia Commons)

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Kitchen, Hancock Shaker village, Hancock, Massachusetts (photo: Richard Taylor via Wikimedia Commons).

Remarkably, Cistercian architecture greatly contributed to the spread of the burgeoning Gothic style, and also anticipates the modernist diktat that form should follow function. Indeed, retreating from “the world” doesn’t mean being backwards. Close to us, here in America, the Shakers, living in communities and celibate just like catholic monks and nuns, also embraced modernity, producing all kinds of products, for instance cutting-edge wood stoves, which they started using as early as 1793 at the Mount Lebanon village in New York State. They too were creating a utopian way of life, an ideal domesticity that was meant to provide the members of their communities a foretaste of heaven. When we admire their interiors and their furniture, when we marvel at the pure lines of their built-in cabinets, we might not be aware that the idea was rooted in Shaker religious ideals and in particular that of cleanliness as an anticipation of heaven: with built-in furniture, no dust bunnies under the cabinets! Similarly, rows of pegs on the walls allowed to hang chairs so the floors could be easily washed (the woodwork, like in early American interiors, was often painted in bright colors and the walls were left white; the Shakers marketed their milk paints).

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Woodcut illustrating Boccaccio’s Decameron: the ten young men and women. Venice: Giovanni and Gregorio de Gregorii, 1492 (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, ten well-to-do young men and women flee the 1348 plague in Florence to settle in the hills outside the city, establishing their own utopian society, with its own rules: each day, a different “Queen” or “King” is in charge and decides on the topic to be covered in the stories they tell to pass time. In the woodcut illustration above, the ten figures appear twice, enclosed within ideal spaces. We see them seated in orderly manner, against a leafy hedge, in an idyllic garden where birds sing and a rabbit frolics, while at the top of the image they appear inside a church-like building. Boccaccio’s book has often been cited as parallel to our pandemic situation (see my essay Plague Art?). Indeed, during the 2020–21 academic year, Colby College, where I teach, allowed students to return to school but sealed the college from the outside world (the campus community had to test twice every week and a series of rules had to be followed).

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Anonymous (although often attributed to Giotto di Bondone), Saint Francis’s Renunciation of Worldly Goods, fresco, 90.5 x 106.2 in. (230 x 270 cm.), begun 1290 (?), Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, Italy (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Activist Utopias

Not all monastic orders retreated from society. The Franciscan and the Dominican orders (both created in the 13th century) lived within cities and interacted with the lay population: for both, preaching played a crucial role. Today, we would call them activists. The friars take three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Revealingly, they are referred to as Mendicant orders—from the Latin “to beg.” Poverty was the hallmark of Saint Francis, who was born a rich kid in Assisi and who, as a fresco in his Assisi sanctuary recounts, gave up “worldly goods”: we see him handing over his clothes to his father as he renounces his inheritance. Known as “il Poverello,” the little poor one, Francis’s embracing of poverty echoes Cistercian simplicity; both are grounded on a desire to go back to the ideals of early Christian times, or as we would say today, to go “back to basics.”

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Ambrogio Lorenzetti, frescoes for the Sala della Pace: Good Government in the City and in the Country, 1338–40, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Lay people also worked towards establishing an ideal society here and now. The allegorical depictions of a Good and a Bad Government and of their Effects in the “Peace Room” of Siena’s town hall were meant to inspire the “Noveschi,” the nine citizens who ruled the city-state. The Good Government includes personifications of the City of Siena accompanied by the Theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, as well as several other virtues: Christian virtues become civic virtues. In the section with the effects of a good government, we see a contemporary city, very similar to Siena, with a building being built in the background. This detail always reminds me of the French phrase: “quand le bâtiment va, tout va” (when construction goes well, everything goes well); in other words, construction is a sign of economic health. And indeed, the city Ambrogio Lorenzetti depicts is a bustling and thriving one, with signs of economic activity such as shops and goods being transported. We also see a teacher with his students: the stable government allows for learning and knowledge to spread. In a square, well-dressed women are dancing, a metaphor for pleasure and social harmony. Beyond the city walls, the countryside displays more signs of prosperity. This is not a wild and inhospitable place, but a well-cared land, with fields, vineyards, and pastures. It is also a place for leisure activities: just outside of the city gate, an elegant young couple, with hunting dogs and a falcon, heads into the countryside. Right next to the gate is the figure of Securitas (Security), who holds a scroll that reads:

Without fear every man may travel freely
And each may till and sow,
So long as this commune
Shall maintain this lady [Justice] sovereign,
For she has stripped the wicked of all power.

Securitas makes prosperity possible and the gallows she holds shows what fate awaits those who threaten this perfect order. In the allegory of the Bad Government (unfortunately very damaged) Justice lays defeated at the feet of the figure of the Tyrant. He is accompanied by the personifications of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War, as well as the vices of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. The effects of the Bad Government on the city are the perfect dystopic counterpart to the effects of the Good Government: the city is falling apart, buildings are being demolished, we see soldiers, people fighting and dying, and the only business in sight is that of an armorer.

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Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners, oil on canvas, 33 x 44 in. (83.8 x 111.8 cm), 1857, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Closer to us as well, artists put their art at the service of political philosophies meant to effect change. The prolific writer John Ruskin who was born in 1819, nine months and three days after Karl Marx, wanted all classes to be educated in art. Writing in 1825, socialist thinker Henri de Saint-Simon believed that artists can contribute to usher a new society, and compared them to a military “avant-garde,” the soldiers ahead of the rest of the army. Saint-Simon declared: “the power of the arts is indeed the most immediate and the most rapid: when we want to spread new ideas among men, we inscribe them on marble or canvas” (341).

The birth of French Realism coincided with the Revolution of 1848 that overthrew the Bourbon monarchy. Jean-François Millet, who came from a peasant family from Normandy, supported the Revolution. His paintings express a profound sympathy for the peasantry and celebrate the labor of the rural working classes, the backbone of French society. His pictures confer dignity to these peasants while depicting their hardships with honesty. In his famous Gleaners, three women pick what little is left after the harvest while haystacks tower in the background, setting an affecting contrast between the women’s poverty and the landowner’s affluence.

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Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, oil on canvas, 65 x 94 in (170 x 240 cm), 1849, destroyed during World War II (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

In the very year the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei. The notion of the exploitation of the working class is present in many Realist paintings: in Millet’s Gleaners as in Courbet’s Stonebreakers. This back-breaking activity is represented on a grand scale, on a very large canvas. Two men (faceless, just like Millet’s women) are shown building a road in the Barbizon forest (where painters would go to paint). The older man (the father?) crushes stones into gravel while the boy carries with much difficulty a basket of stones, reminding us that Marx and Engels demanded the abolition of child labor.

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Piet Mondrian, Tableau I, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 39.3 in. (103 x 100 cm), 1921, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

It is noteworthy that Marx and Engels’s book was titled Manifesto, for this type of programmatic text became the required foundational tool for every new artistic avant-garde movement. To cite a few famous instances: the Symbolist Manifesto published by Jean Moréas in Le Figaro Littéraire in 1886, Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, which appeared in the same literary supplement in 1909 (followed by a flurry of Futurist manifestoes on painting, sculpture, architecture, music, cinema, and many other topics), Hugo Ball’s Dada Manifesto (1916), Theo van Doesburg’s De Stijl Manifesto (1918), André Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto (1924) and second (1929), the list goes on . . . All these movements carried the hopes that art could pave the way to a new society, but their utopian ideals varied greatly. The Symbolists reacted against materialism, emphasizing individual freedom, intuition, emotion, and fantasy, going as far as using drugs to seek irrational experiences. The Futurists celebrated war, called by Marinetti the “the world’s only hygiene,” and eventually fell under the spell of Benito Mussolini’s fascist ideology. In De Stijl (or “The Style” in Dutch) there was a deeply spiritual element, aimed at perfection and universal harmony. The artists associated with the group, such as Piet Mondrian, were influenced by theosophy and in particular by the books of M.H.J. Schoenmaekers, and they aimed at uncovering the universe’s underlying perfect mathematical structure. The members of the Surrealist movement all joined the Communist party—until the revelation of Joseph Stalin’s violent purges shook their commitment.

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Emilie Flöge in Schörfling am Attersee, 1909 (photo: Heinrich Böhler via Wikimedia Commons).

All these movements were not limited to the fine arts but concerned other forms of expression, as mentioned above for the Futurist manifestoes. An avant-garde movement I have not mentioned yet, the Viennese Secession, cultivated this desire to see such ideals inform all aspects of life. Embracing the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, the Secessionists did not confine themselves to the fine arts, but embraced what was then known as “applied arts” (furniture, glass, silver, ceramics, jewelry, book arts, and fashion). They believed that where we live and the furniture and objects that surround us change us and, in turn, contribute to changing society. The revolutionary character of Secessionist ideals is perfectly illustrated in fashion designer Emilie Flöge’s “Reform dress,” a flowing type of outfit for the modern woman, with decorative patterning and without a constricting corset: utopian ideals in a frock.

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Joseph Maria Olbrich, Secession building, 1897–98. Vienna (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

The very name of “Secession” encompasses the notion of a radical severing from traditional art and society. But instead of isolating themselves, the Secessionists toiled, just like friars and other artistic avant-gardes, from within society. The building they built for their exhibitions is a manifesto of sorts, with a radical new vocabulary, with white walls and movable partitions that anticipate our contemporary exhibition spaces. While the motto displayed above the entrance—“Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art. To every art its freedom”)—declares that each period needs its own new art, and that art is a liberating force, an essential tool at the service of utopias.


Works Cited

Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron (c. 1350). Translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.

Bernard of Clairvaux: Apology. Internet History Sourcebooks Project, Fordham University.

Eco, Umberto. “Living in the New Middle Ages.” Travels in Hyperreality. Translated by William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. 73–85.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848. Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol. 1. Translated by Samuel Moore. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969. 98–137.

Saint-Simon, Henri de. Opinions littéraires, philosophiques, et industrielles. Paris: Bossange père, 1825.


Image at top: Ambrosius Holbein, Utopiae insulae tabula (Map of the island of Utopia), woodcut, 7 x 4.6 in. (17.8 x 11.8 cm), from Thomas More, Utopia, Basel: Johan Froben, 1518 (photo: Universitätsbibliothek Basel via Wikimedia Commons).