Nick Page

Steampunk’d

OK, we’re back. It’s been a very busy month – trying to finish a book on preaching, trying to start a book on the history of the Bible, trying, in fact, to run just that little bit quicker than the avalanche of work which is forever chasing me…

Anyway, a welcome respite from this was a visit to Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science for their Steampunk exhibition. Steampunk is quite hard to describe. It really attempts to imagine the world as if Victorians were still designing stuff today; as if steam had not gone out of fashion and plastic had never been invented. You can see its influence in films like Brazil, in computer games like Myst and Riven. It draws inspiration from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. This is a world where digital technology is powered by steam, where today’s technology is clothed in brass and leather and polished mahogany.

The exhibition is superb. I particularly loved Tom Banwell’s wonderful masks. And the setting is perfect; the museum is full of steampunk, with the small difference that the museum objects were/are real.

What is interesting is why the movement is so strong, especially in the media. Part of its strength is because it’s a quick way to establish difference. If you want to do a sci-fi film, then nothing screams ‘alternative future’ as quickly as a few steampunk items. It’s become a shorthand for art directors to show that we are in a different world.

But that doesn’t quite explain its appeal outside of the computer game, TV and film. Here, I think, there is something more significant going on. Here is a desire for solidity and weight and beauty which the modern world seems to lack. The modern world is, we feel, too light. It is plastic, not brass; it is impersonal and mass-produced and covered in the ubiquitous white plastic. It lacks craftsmanship and style. It lacks, in fact, humanity. So we turn to a world where people make things by hand.

This is not a new problem – indeed, it’s one which the Victorians themselves identified. William Morris looked back with nostalgia to the mediaeval, Gothic age. Ruskin, in his famous chapter on The Nature of Gothic, contrasted what he called ‘servile ornament’ with ‘revolutionary ornament’. Servile ornament has no imperfection, and its art is executed with absolute perfection. Revolutionary ornament confesses its imperfection, but that imperfection has a dignity, because it is the result of an individual making their own decisions and using their own skills. Servile ornament turns men into slaves or machines; revolutionary ornament turns them into craftsmen.

Ruskin saw this as theological as much as an aesthetic argument. He saw revolutionary ornament as a Christian principle, ‘Christianity having recognised in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul.’ And that is a word I would use of the steampunk exhibits. They might be mad or fantastic or deeply impractical. But they are never soulless.