Photographs courtesy of Walker Art Center and Minnesota History Center
When Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in 1516, he envisioned a perfect island society. Many families in 1950s America, on the other hand, pictured Shangri-La in the suburbs. For the up-and-coming middle class, utopia was a single-family home, preferably identical to the one next door. A decade later, another set of Americans defined utopia by different standards, ones that advocated for alternative living, environmentalism, and experimental art and recreation.
If history tells us anything, the odds of establishing a truly sustainable utopia are rather limited. Yet interest in such wannabe wonderlands appears boundless. In fact, as the Minnesota History Center explores the Leave It to Beaver lifestyle of the 1950s and ’60s in its exhibit, Suburbia, the Walker is reveling in 1960s American counterculture with Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.
all from Hippie Modernism’s exhibit.
The ideologies captured by the two exhibits, which opened late last month, could hardly be more contrary. Yet they’re essentially identical when it comes to their inspirations. Both are reflections of and reactions to their respective time periods. “The way you choose to live is very important and carries a whole bunch of weight beyond the practical,” says Suburbia exhibit developer Kate Roberts. “It really gets to the heart of identity.”
For many in the postwar era, the ideal identity was that of suburbanite. And the suburbs would be the perfect society. “If you read the popular literature at the time,” Roberts says, “there’s the dream to get away from the urban areas, to raise a family, and to have a strong sense of community.”
Federal programs, including the G.I. Bill of Rights, made it possible for young families to afford homes outside the city. The budding highway system ensured accessibility. Soon the American Dream found itself settled in the suburbs. This 20th century take on utopia shifted the focus to the nuclear family. It honored domesticity. And it celebrated the explosion of creature comforts.
Suburbia sets this scene with an interactive, life-sized, fully furnished model home. Next to that is the precisely, but playfully named, “Wall of Objects,” a collection of the most desirable items a housewife could get her hands on. There’s the Roto-Broil 400 electric broiler and the Constellation vacuum cleaner, its moniker inspired by the U.S.-Soviet space race. They’re surrounded by a double-pot coffee maker, a waffle iron/sandwich toaster, and a Filteramic radio. The exhibit also includes local ties with a section about the Southdale Shopping Center, which opened in 1956 and became a revolutionary model for the entire nation. Also included is a multimedia table where visitors can see how the geography around the Twin Cities shopping malls changed and how the communities developed.
Materialism may well have been the key virtue of this purported paradise. “But it’s important to put that in historical context,” Roberts notes. “This is a lifestyle shaped by people coming back from the battlefront. It’s people who lived through the Great Depression and then the shortages of World War II.” The ability to acquire “all that shiny stuff,” she says, provided a sense of security and stability that fueled the economy.
Still, behind the manicured yards and stylized shrubbery, parts of this perfect community were more polarizing than pleasurable. The exhibit’s oral histories reveal issues of isolation among women and discrimination against minorities.
“You’re building your community. That’s satisfying to a certain extent. But it’s limiting,” Roberts says. “There isn’t enough diversity. Women are hamstrung by the lack of opportunities. So right away you have that push and pull.”
If Suburbia is petticoats and TV dinners, the Walker’s newest exhibition is go-go boots and mind-altering drugs. Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia revels in 1960s American counterculture, revisiting everything from experimental films to conceptual furniture to the pioneering piece “The Knowledge Box,” a wooden chamber that projects a firestorm of images on its walls, floor, and ceiling.
To be clear, Hippie Modernism is not a formal art movement. It’s a blend of many forms of creative expression and “largely formed through the notion of dropping out,” says Andrew Blauvelt, the exhibition’s curator. “That didn’t have to mean dropping acid or becoming a slacker. It meant refusing to participate in mainstream society’s institutions.”
For the artists featured in the show, which spreads across four of the museum’s galleries, this take on utopia was everything the suburbs weren’t. The artists’ beliefs were anti-establishment, anti-consumerism, anti-conformity. Generated against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the OPEC oil crisis of 1974, the work echoed their liberal politics and anti-violent principles.
Hippie Modernism taps into growing social movements of the time, from DIY culture to eco-activism, highlighting Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s Portable Orchard. The pair’s installation, featuring a series of citrus trees fed by artificial light, was designed to prompt discussion about sustainable development.
“There was definitely a search for a slice of utopia in a variety of propositions,” says Blauvelt. The Shangri-La seekers of the ’60s imagined a society that championed individual expression and challenged social norms.
They also believed communal living was a path to peace. The exhibit actually features full-scale installations including a recreation of the Drop City dome, a counterculture artists’ community that formed in Colorado in 1965. “They created communes or places to try to live an alternative life,” Blauvelt explains. “They created new types of housing and more ecological ways of living. These smaller actions, not the overthrow of the establishment [which] did not happen, are important to consider today when people feel they have no room left to imagine alternatives to the so-called real world.”
Organizers for both of the exhibitions say they hope the collections foster a greater understanding of lifestyles then and how they are reflected in movements today. As Blauvelt sees it, each era offers insight into the next. He also suggests that while utopia always has and always will be desired, it isn’t necessrily something to be achieved.
“The mistake is to believe that utopia, as a perfect condition, is attainable in itself,” Blauvelt adds. “It’s more useful as a tool to diagnose the present. Utopia is an argument that is about what’s wrong with the present and what’s right about the future.”