Subjects: Social Studies / English / Language Arts
Overview: Students will examine and compare utopian societies throughout history, including the utopian worlds depicted in the visionary environments discussed in the Off the Map Web site, discussing their origins, their founders, their successes and failures. Students will develop their own plans for a visionary and utopian society and the functions necessary to run it.
Background: One of the most common themes in visionary/outsider art is the idea of creating a backyard paradise. These artists set out to create a very personal vision of Utopia—ideally perfect places in their social, political, and moral aspects.
Throughout history, others within the conventional art world and even outside the art world have written about, imagined, or tried to establish utopian societies. Many utopian societies are based on religious beliefs, including the Shaker community, the Mormon community and the Amish community. There have also been many utopian movements, including Communism, and the naturalist movement evoked by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Utopian societies still exist, as can be seen in kibbutzim, ashrams, and even in political theory. But what challenges do those who seek utopia face? Is it enough to desire utopia, or must there be a practical way to achieve it?
After exploring the artists on Off the Map, students will choose one visionary artist and one historical utopian community/movement, and research the two different versions of utopia presented. They should compare and contrast the similarities and differences of each group or individual’s idea of utopia.
After doing the research, the students should be able to answer the following questions during class discussion and/or in a written essay.
In each instance, where did the vision of utopia come from?
How did each strive to make their vision a reality?
What challenges faced them?
How are they successful?
How similar or dissimilar are they?
In the student’s opinion, which one relates closest to his/her own idea of utopia?
After doing this research, students should think about what their version of a utopian society would be. What would be the focus of their society: religion, peaceful coexistence, becoming one with nature, rising above the challenges of the modern world? How would they strive to meet the criteria for their utopia?
Now have the students devise their own utopian society, thinking in terms of a visionary environment. What would their society consist of? How would it sustain itself? Would it consist of paintings, found objects, or perhaps simply elements from nature? Could they strive to create it for themselves? What would it take for them to be successful?