Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Vieux Nouveau

I was thinking the other day about Steampunk and how the last time this art form appeared...

Last time?
Of course, didn't you know?... I should have thought that one who was versed in anachronistic artforms that you would have remembered. But then perhaps you are too young. It also didn't look exactly like its present form, it never does, so you could be excused for not realising. A micro history to follow.

Steampunk is a revival of Art Nouveau. Shall we say, Old Nouveau, Vieux Nouveau. For the Art Nouveau creators the industrial revolution was all too present, so the recombinant elements were: industrial processies and organic forms. After the horror of WWI it was commodified into Art Deco. You will note the depiction of women goes from romantic and soft, to totemic and mechanical. After WWII the shocked art community and the boomers who followed attempted to obliterate all history.

So now in this Post Post Modern world we find that our architecture is either utilitarian and brutalist, egocentric and ostentatious, or faux historical. Now to be fair to the faux group, at least they comprehend that there is something alienating about the two previous categories. New Urbanists and some designers have been working on these problems for some time now, they also fall into this melange of anthrocentricity and technology.

As in the last attempt to marry our technological propensity with the realities of our feeling bodies there came the co-option. As I've read elsewhere refered to as the "second artist effect." That being, the first artist is inspired, the second copies, and often poorly. Steampunk may go the way of Hippie (itself a Rousseauian type revival) consisting of people who like to dress up and party, obliterating the meaning behind the movement. I think Steampunk though has some advantages over the previous incarnations.

we are conversant with co-option, and commodification. This dross is inevitable, and perhaps useful. It is the effluvia, the compost of creation. From it we can grow better things which will themselves be swallowed up into the vortex of cultural garbage. It is part of what we accept as the continuous change of the world, and hints to the upcycling of our civilization.

because of our interconnected communication networks we can now see that the more links any idea has, the more robust its presence. This means that just as with Hippie before it, Steampunk must infiltrate all aspects of life to the deepest extents. The 'conservative effect' will tone down much of the most exuberant aspects. Indeed Steampunk, instead of being co-opted by the consumer-goods machine, needs to become a co-opting entity. Like its octopus emblem, it needs to insinuate itself into everything, not just fashion and fiction.

in a post oil, high cost energy world appropriate technologies are needed. For example: Steampunk can easily co-opt the urban agrarian movement with greenhouses and conservatories, a status symbol of the Victorian elite, and a necessity for local produce variety, as well as potential income. Solar power, lauded by 1970s Eco technologists, can be integrated easily into a self-sufficient Steampunk ethic. Technology and science, unless it is culturally acceptable, is marginalised.

women are more aware of their personal needs and desires for their life. Unlike the Art Nouveau period, or even in the Hippie revolution, women now comprehend that the social contract of romanticism must be balanced with real economic power. The decent into war/corporate culture is anti-romantic and soul-eviscerating. Barefoot and pregnant is stagnating and an underutilisation of talent. For women the shifts in ephemeral culture signal real shifts of power. Civilising stories that prepose gentility and kindheartedness as lauded cultural values are not just arbitrary constructs, but trends of behavior. Neither too romantic, nor not romantic enough will benefit womens' status. Nor is the chimera 'gender neutral' enough. Steampunk is female positive. (And with all the gadgets, male positive too.)

... So as I was saying, when this art form appeared last as Art Nouveau, marrying emanations of the soul to the products of the hand, they got one thing wrong, a part of history that Steampunk must do its best not to repeat. And that it can only do by knowing what came before. Significant creations are not the same as meaningful creations. Artifice is not the same as ingenuity. Darkness does not necessarily imply evil, nor light good. We must distinguish, in our own hearts, a spiritual dimension of our creations. We should say of those who make important and significant works: How clever of them. But for those who make creations that touch our souls we should say: Bravo!

If you can't tell the difference between brass and gold, then it's all brass.

Mr. Kingfisher