Is Utopia overrated?

Welcome to our day of reckoning.

Sirens approach, heralding nearing disasters. Catastrophes invade our countries, our states, our cities, our homes, our bodies.

Fires rage, both actual and metaphorical.

And I write.

I document disaster in tiny print, writing smaller and smaller, writing myself down a spiral of denial. The illusion of control boils away in the heat.

In my unscathed kitchen, I climb ladders to the high cabinets of my resolve, but my resolve is not sufficient to shift the world on its axis.

And still, I write.

And I wonder: If the world contained only love and were free of suffering, would art—by which I mean all forms of artistic expression, from sculpture to literature—exist?

Surely others have wondered this. I Google “can you have art in a Utopian society?” I find art installations about Utopias and a website about the concept and practice of utopianism. I find a TEDx talk about why we would be happier without Utopia. I discover that we love Utopia’s opposite, at least in fiction.

I find no answer to my question. Only more questions.

Conflict sparks art.

One of the first things you learn from storytelling teachers is that conflict makes a story (see, for example, C.S. Lakin, Kristen Lamb, Jerry Jenkins).

In a Utopia, the only conflict would be fictional. If we lived in a world without hate, oppression, violence, and natural disasters, could we imagine the scenarios that would produce engaging works of art? In the absence of a prototype derived from reality, is the human imagination powerful enough to conceive the conflict necessary for art? Would such a world bring us Michaelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Sylvia Plath, Hemingway, David Foster Wallace?

Would we want to live in that world?

Never mind art for now.

While conflict and trauma may provide the impetus for art, we cannot create art from within the vortex of tragedy. Artists cannot be starving or bleeding or suffering flashbacks at the moment of creation. First, they must be safe. Then, maybe, art can help them heal.

Here are some things more immediate and concrete than creating art that you can do for California’s fire victims.

3 thoughts on “Is Utopia overrated?

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  1. Has there ever been a sustainable Utopia? I imagine it would be impossible to maintain a Utopian society because we seem by nature to look for differences among ourselves and then discriminate or capitalize on them. Maybe it’s the striving for Utopia that is important, knowing that we’ll never quite make it because we are human. Although I don’t think the artist must be a tortured soul to create great art, the “ring of truth” one experiences in, say, a story about grief and loss is probably there because the writer has herself experience grief and loss. Maybe not always, but I would think most times.
    Speaking of the fires in CA, how are you and your family faring? I have friends in Lagunitas (Marin County) who say the smoke from the Camp Fire is really awful.

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    1. I agree that Utopia is something we will never achieve, human nature being what it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful idea. I was just struck by the thought that conflict and strife is what makes stories interesting, and so I wondered what would happen to storytelling in a conflict-free world.

      Thankfully, the San Francisco bay area isn’t dealing directly with fire at the moment, but the air quality all over the state is poor.

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      1. I sometimes go down a rabbit hole with my comments. Perhaps I’m too distracted by the current state of post-election results … after all, I live in Florida 😬 It’s an interesting question you pose and I wonder too if readers want stories full of strife and struggle. I know I love life, appreciate life much more when I’ve survived some frightening event.

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