May 16, 2008

Steampunk Historical Inspiration: The Revolutionary Dreamer

I have been leading up to these thoughts, wrapping my head around them. I will see if I can make sense here in this space. These thoughts are the core of the appeal of Steampunk to me. It is the stuff of term papers, dissertations, books, but I will try to clumsily cobble them into a few meager paragraphs. I will start with a quote from the NYT article, Steampunk Moves Between Two Worlds: "For some of its adherents, steampunk also offers a metaphoric coping device. It has an intellectual tie to the artists and artisans dealing with a world in turmoil at the time of the industrial revolution,” said Crispen Smith, a Web designer and photographer in Toronto, and a partner in a steampunk fashion business. "I think that my fascination with Steampunk, in the form in which it has been occurring at the turn of this century, is exactly the same fascination I have with the Arts and Crafts movement, at the turn of the last century. To me they are uniquely parallel, it is only that Steampunk is a sub culture, mainly underground and unheard of by many, and Arts and Crafts was a major art and social and cultural movement at the time, a revolution. I think both movements are reflecting a sense of dystopia in some form (defined as: an imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.) And both use Craft as a way to cope. During the Industrial Revolution, William Morris and his colleagues, resisted the impending doom of what they perceived as an ugly industrial monster taking over their lives, and fought back mightily with art and craft. While they made a valiant effort, and left us with a treasure trove of beauty, in the end, Industry did proceed and consumed our culture. And in the end, we are probably better for it, in many, many ways. I know I enjoy the fruits of what the Industrial Revolution brought in many ways. I love my computer, car, all my fun electronic gadgets, plus all the millions of life improvements that the evolution of industry and technology has provided in the last century. But the aesthetic has changed, and while some may find modern design beautiful, it is cold and sterile to me. I desire the wrought brass and iron and silver, the tooled leather, the carved wood, and the warm glazed ceramics of yesteryear. I want to see how things work, and be able to tinker with them. I can do that when I pop open the back of my grandpa's old pocketwatch, but I have no chance with my Ipod. And I think that Steampunk is a way to honor that old aesthetic, the simple ways that things worked, and what they meant. I think it is a nod to a different time, and a handshake with a craftsman from a century ago, who concerned themselves with ideas that were not so different, at the core.

And I think Steampunk, and I hope I am not being too heady and starry eyed here, I think it has the potential to have a revolutionary effect as well. I have seen people try to explain it, and struggle, as I have. To me this quality signifies the making of something great, beyond simple definition and words, something bigger than a style or trend. And I have seen it draw others in the way it draws me in. I want to swim in it, immerse myself, and I see others doing the same. It is something that attempts to bring a sense of beauty and handcraft and history to our lives, and hold it there, for us to examine and consider, if only for a fleeting moment, or to perhaps grasp onto and actually change the way we view the world around us forever.


  1. Morris never really saw any of his work translated to the masses in his lifetime, which was ultimately his critical Marxist Pre-Raphaelite vision. He in fact like our generation, didn't even see the slowing of industrial dystopia. But even with the class and racial paradoxes set into the equation, I think he used his wealth for the best. It would be an equivalent to the son or daughter of a modern corporate oil baron, that spends the whole of the family fortune on Poets, Drama & Art Students to create new "metaphoric coping device".

    I cried when I first saw a Kelmscott Chaucer (which is quite a difficult thing, when you're afraid to even get body oil on such a book) and spent the next 6 years trying to make a broad-side pamphlet with the same beauty. Failing in that of course, but succeeding in a couple completely hand crafted wood engraved prints.

    When you first showed me the assemblages of a couple Steampunk cats and kitties, I don't think I got the connection? But now I do. Steampunk might just be the next re-gentrification of an Arts & Crafts Social movement? Just like; Japan's Ukiyoe period, the Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau, Post Vietnam Poster Art of the 60's & 70's, and their Hip-Hop Graffiti torch bearers. Trying to take back what's left of once civil culture, by making beautiful things. :)

    Love you, Dear,

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Charlie, Yes... We understand this now, I think! All these things we have loved over the years, the philosophies, the inspirations... they continue to follow us and form our lives.

  4. I love Kelmscott Press books. My Dad is an university librarian, and I used to accompany him to the big Antiquarian Book Fair in New York City when I lived there and he came up on buying trips. The small-press books were always so beautiful to see, and of course, the examples of Kelmscott Press, especially the Chaucer, were always something to ooh and aah over.

  5. Melissa,
    Oh that sounds amazing! And how interesting about your Dad. I bet that in fluenced your love of literature.