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Steampunk as an Art Movement

These days, there is a lot of confusion surrounding what “Steampunk” means. I can’t say that I will clear that up much with this post, but hopefully it will stand as a good primer. Mostly I am just sharing my views here, for discussion’s sake, and perhaps to clarify my perceptions for those who might wonder where I stand on such things.

Some would argue that it is a literary movement above all, pertaining to a return to speculative fiction — imagining what our world would be like had we never invented the combustion engine, or the silicon chip, and the imagining of worlds and concepts still ripe for the picking… exploration, invention, imagination, all those traits most admired in what once was what it meant to be human… something pondered by many of us with a great deal of wonder, and longing.

To others it is a musical movement – as bands return to musical roots ranging from folkish Americana to neoclassical, and strange hybrids of everything in between.

There are also many who see it as a fashion movement as well, setting aside screen-printed tees and sweat-shop alternative apparel for hand-stitched and hand-woven finery, made of tweed, wool, cotton, and leather, mixing the classic and the classy with punk-rock accents, again re-imagining a fantastic reality where time periods and worlds intersect.

All three seem to center upon this principle: That we are tired of mass marketing and mass production, throwing cash at huge corporations in return for another of a million perfect plastic reproductions of the latest barely original fad concept – filling landfills with disposable art and fashion inkjet printed on substandard metal lunchboxes, or upon single-stitched polyester and polyvinyl garbage in the name of consumer whoredom.

… And then there is the art, which follows in these very same lines, wherein we step away from the lazy and uninspired.

With single-lined scribbles and kindergarten-class paper cutouts, Matisse showed us in his later years that lazy and greedy can make for collectible and desirable art; Warhol expanded upon this concept by giving us consumerist and commercially-driven uninspired drivel in place of art culture.

Both of which had a profound statement to make in doing so, to break the mold, and to show us that most anything could be considered ‘art’ and sell for a hefty price, especially where fools with deep pockets and self-proclaimed art connoisseurs were concerned.

With these, came “Pop Art”… a movement wherein millions of people, out of some sense of financial masochism, shovel money into the pockets of those who make no effort at concealing that their art is all about taking money from others in return for nothing or next to nothing – wherein those who wish to be ‘chic’, create the ‘cutting edge’, with which to gouge their own eyes in order to blind themselves to the fact that the irony and novelty wore off some twenty years ago…

… or perhaps it is the irony within irony which holds the scene together. Pop culture these days seems to center upon the principle of raising those who should be at the bottom, to the very top, because seeing those who are less than we are in great esteem allows us to imagine that we might someday do the same. The worst local band is always the local favorite, the most addle-brained diseased wastes of flesh humanity has known – they dominate reality TV, the most stupid and inane stunts get the most plays on youtube, as talk of them dominates bandwidth on the internet. Ours has become a society wherein we worship disposable idols fashioned of regurgitated crap, as a means to raise ourselves, while lowering our own expectations for more comforting levels.

Steampunk art, like steampunk culture in general, is the opposite of this; Like steampunk fashion, steampunk literature, and steampunk music, a step backwards in time, to an era where effort, skill, and craftsmanship for an artist were more important than mass-friending sprees, media sensationalism, a pretty face behind the brush, and viral videos – Steampunk is all about the adventure and joy found in making, and the celebration of worthy, if not awesome individuals who are indeed quite a rare find in what they do, how well they do it.

I would like to say I am speaking solely of dedication to fine materials, surface preparation, the layering of paint, painstaking attention to detail – because such things would serve me… but though such things can be in the “spirit” of steampunk, the true steampunk works are a step above thinking in two dimensions, and further than simply fashioning the three-dimensional with stationary and psuedomechanical  parts.

The true and iconic artists of this movement are those who build thrones of wood and brass with full functioning gizmos built within, giant unmovable unbelievably complex brass telescopes for their backyards, insanely complicated tool packs for their own workshops, custom cases for their self-made theremins, or huge metal treehouses, towering tesla coils for the masses to enjoy in public places — and much like anything truly steampunk:

…probably not for sale.

We all know Steampunk is a DIY culture, but the truest spirit of steampunk is not just DIY; It tends to be DIYFY (Do it yourself, for yourself), or DIYFE (Do it yourself, for everyone).

It isn’t “steampunk art”, if one would not not prefer to either keep it for themselves, or share it with the entire world — If it doesn’t hurt to see it go, if the amount of work put into it isn’t beyond whatever cash amount it might bring in today’s market.

Everything and anything else I would tend to consider simply “steampunk-inspired”… which is how I would class my paintings, drawings, and prints; Admittedly, I often tend to use the word “steampunk”, because “steampunk-inspired” is simply not a very good search term.

There are a lot of wondrous steampunk-inspired things on the web, and if you are on twitter and a member of any etsy or steampunk crowd, you probably see everything from Steampunk toe-rings to Steampunk toilet brushes offered about every half second – some of these things amazing, some not, most at least fascinating on some level – the best of these hand-made from the ground up.

It makes me think of the wonderfully, refreshingly horrid and grotesque ’90s incarnation of the gothic art movement, wherein the beauty in darkness was explored, grunge and grime were made pretty, which was quickly reduced to big eyed girls in stripey socks and clompy shoes decorating everything from lunch box purses to cheap perfume… made a franchise by mall stores and non-alternative bands and labels seeking to add themselves to the hype.

Instead of stripey sicks there are gears, instead of skulls, there are …gears. Some of these things made by those simply wanting to cash in in what they have miisconceived as a cash cow… but others are made by brilliant and wonderful artists with limited means, made for people with limited means — these days it is very hard to make the works we would like to make, and still make them available to others. The artists and crafters tend to be as limited in resources as the buyers are… and perhaps a better word than “Steampunk” would be “Depression Punk”… but let’s face it: No one wants to be reminded that we are in a depressed economy, and it certainly does not serve any artist or other seller to speak of such things in their sales pitch.

Actually I love seeing a great many of these things – and I see many, many shiny bits of brass and silver that I wish I could buy… and that they are handmade, admittedly is often “steampunk enough” for me. I can still feel better in the fact that I am going for items that are fairly unique, and works of art in their own, greatly so in comparison to possibly similar things sold in stores.

As for my own works… I do wish that I could make many of my works “true steampunk”, hiding gears and mechanical functions within the fabric and frames of my paintings – making them do something more than just looking pretty. But what would a steam-powered panting do, besides using steam power, gears, and cams to… sit there… as a painting does?

Such is a concept I obsess over too often, and though I think of many good ways to do such things – the amount of work and materials needed vs. what people would be willing to pay for such things always proves to be an obstacle – as the intent of selling tends to ruin the concept from its very conception.

The spirit of Steampunk tends to die where commercialism steps in, as anything with ‘punk’ in the name well should; It also ceases to be where quality and craftsmanship take back seat – but saying something is “not Steampunk”, should never be a terrible thing, or seen as a terrible misdeed. Things can be incredible, beautiful, even awe-inspiring – and not be purely steampunk. Such things can even be liked by many of us, even embraced by the majority without the label needing to apply.

I am Myke Amend – and I make steampunk-inspired artwork, though I do hope and plan to be more of a maker and a tinkerer – as soon as I am able to… when materials and time are less of a luxury.