I've been giving a great deal of thought to the genre of Steampunk and what my personal role has been and will continue to be in this style. Since I've spent the last 36 years as a full time professional in the arts, I draw from a deep well of experience that includes both the aesthetic, historical and the technical aspects of art and design. Having been thoroughly immersed in Steampunk design since 2006, I've curated the world's very first exhibitions of this style by bringing all of my previous experience to bear upon this genre for it's collection, evaluation and presentation. Herein, my thoughts as curator and artist.
Although the popularity of Steampunk art and design only goes back to late 2006, it was not considered a bona fide art form until my first curated exhibition at The Museum of History of Science at the University of Oxford, U.K. in October, 2009. This museum endorsement clarified the genre on an academic level and the record breaking crowds attending the show testified to the potential of the genre as an exciting new form of visual expression. Before that exhibition Steampunk was covered on websites like BoingBoing, Wired, MocoLoco and Gizmodo along with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal but it had not yet been infused into the awareness of the general public. Back then, if you had asked 100 people on the street if they had heard of Steampunk you would get a resounding, "No". However in 2012 there are now many exhibitions and gatherings and large conventions that appeal to a vast new audience with whom Steampunk deeply resonates.
Before I detail my own views on the art and design of this style, please know I believe that any kind of formal Steampunk design manifesto would greatly hinder creativity and enjoyment of this genre. Some bloggers have previously called for this official kind of statement on what qualifies as Steampunk art, but I've found that the broader the interpretation of the style, the more creative the work becomes. There are just too many evocative historic, visual and literary influences in Steampunk to narrow it down to a specific set of do's and don'ts.
That being said, my views as curator in this style need to be clarified.
Regardless if an artwork is actually called "steampunk", the work in question must be transcendent. The artwork must be evocative and unique even if it doesn't precisely fit into a formal category, as Steampunk is defined by influences as far back as ancient Persian science and art up to the mid-1930's, post-Art Deco period.
True Steampunk Art would be an artifact of grace and artistic ingenuity. It would feature genuine technical elements (either working or decorative) and also reference the concept of the "machine fantastique" as portrayed in classic science fiction literature. In this new genre, an artwork's value is not so much determined by it's slick, professional execution, but rather it's uniqueness of intention as it pays homage to the antique arts and sciences and ultimately points to a ideal or concept greater than itself. As an aside most of the artists in my Bridgehampton exhibition in 2008 and in Oxford 2010 were not actual Steampunk artists but rather artists who are embraced by the enthusiasts of Steampunk. Their artwork then becomes Steampunk by default and represents the genre in the best of ways.
In a functional Steampunk device, one of the most important elements of the design is the user interface- that is, the part of the design that one touches and operates to make the device function. The artist, Datamancer, celebrates the user interface in his Steampunk keyboards and computer monitors. He doesn't simply place a decorative antique shell around the modern device , but rather redefines how the user interacts with it by changing out the functional user components and creating his own, customized antique hardware. By doing this, Datamancer changes the way in which the computer is operated and thus makes us newly aware of it's antique/tactile operation, hereby re-introducing us to the ritual and romance of using an antique device- albeit a ficticious contraption, but one that has all of the functionality of a modern digital computer.
As contrast to this by example, a diametrically opposed (and wildly incorrect) attempt at Steampunk would be to, say, take an antique cast iron oven and replace the original top gas burners with a modern, flat panel electrical burner system. (Clearly, no chef worth their Himalayan salt would be caught dead cooking on electrical burners. But I digress :) This minimalist, invisible burner panel with touch screen operation would be the philosophical opposite of what Steampunk attempts to create. Here, one would only be left with the uncomfortable anachronism of a contemporary stove grafted onto an antique oven and the original user interface (the manual gas dials and iron grates) is completely obliterated.
If you peruse the net you'll see copies of Steampunk artworks that are deeply unoriginal with no discernable point of view or personal flourish. This happens to every art form as it evolves. As example: The Abstract Expressionists in the 1950's. The new, drip paintings of Jackson Pollack were a miracle of art and created the foundation for a new form of visual expression. But these splatter paintings seemed easy to imitate. So easy that local carnivals featured a spinning turn table to make splatter paintings one of their midway attractions. This art work contraption required no talent nor originality and to the uninformed eye, these carnival paintings were very similar to the original masterpieces displayed in museums. Because of the common denominator of antique materials and brass accessories, which are the hallmarks of Steampunk, a "me-too, slap-dash" technique now threatens to diminish the firey originality of the genre by merely rendering permutations of reknown Steampunk artworks with very little thought to uniqueness or creativity (view the satire of this method on YouTube.)
On the exhibition side, something new is cropping up in galleries and small museums. Artworks that would be regularly categorized as traditional assemblage art , bricolage or collage pieces are now being promoted as 'Steampunk' because the works happen to include some manner of antique imagery or industrial detritus. Simply glueing, welding or fastening disparate antique parts and devices together does not qualify as Steampunk because the ultimate effect is no greater than it's separate, un-integrated components. The works would then not qualify as transcendant, unique pieces of Steampunk sculpture. This inaccurate labeling would appear be an attempt to hijack Steampunk's enormous popularity without artistically re-tooling the defining historic references that so critically inform the genre and give it such an exciting identity.
Steampunk art and design is based on the traditional sciences and literature that defined and created our modern world. One must dig deeper into the historic sciences and aesthetic pursuits of the Victorian era that inspire this genre and attempt create work of beauty and emotional resonance.
My expressed area of interest is the sculptural and painted manifestations of Steampunk art and design. Even though I am fascinated by this art form I would never recommend that one decorate their entire home or office in this style. That kind of excessive design extravagance would be akin to living in a theme park, which is fine for some enthusiasts, but Steampunk is simply too demanding a visual style to fully saturate most domestic or hospitality environments. The style only truly sings out when used as art- select pieces that are thoughtfully integrated with their surroundings.
As of this posting, I've notice that many new Steampunk designs are being directed toward LARP and Cosplay Props and less for their own artistic innovation. Also, the recent hotel-based conventions and rennaisance-type fairs that cater to Steampunk fans are gaining wide popularity and have a direct impact on the quality of the art. This situation allows a genuine artistic movement to stagnate because the craftspeople who display their wares in the conventions merely create permutations of established Steampunk benchmarks. This is fine, of course, as those involved in these shows love and truly enjoy working in the genre. But the wide artistic berth of Steampunk surely allows for greater artistic experimentation than what is evident at these conventions.
Ultimately, a good Steampunk litmus test should yield evidence of the artists' own hand and individual experiences and present something that, although familiar, brings something new to the style.
Thanks for reading and My Best Regards,
All text and images-©2012 Art Donovan