Let me start by saying that I really do love steampunk. Mostly when it's done correctly. I know that's a bit of an arrogant thing to say, but there's a heck of a lot of it going around lately, and only a few pieces that are genuinely nice. So I started writing some of my ideas about what makes the good stuff good and the bad stuff bad, and before long it became a journal. The journal turned into a rant. The rant is now bordering on becoming a manifesto. However, for the two or three of you that actually take the time to read this, I've at least tried to make it enjoyable. To everyone else, I apologize. I would apologize to anyone who reads this and finds any part of it offensive, but they probably won't read this far down so I really couldn't give a copper-plated rat's ass about them. Still with me? Cool. Here we go...
To me, steampunk is what the future would look like if the future had happened at the height of the Victorian era. It was a very special time. In today's mass-production world, someone who makes doors, or builds fences isn't really considered an artist, they're considered a laborer, builder, handyman or construction worker (depends on where you live). In the Victorian era however, they guy who laid the cobblestones on the street could be considered an artist by today's standards. Artists were everywhere and everything was art.
In essence, steampunk is another form of neoclassicism. The first kind came about when someone realized the artists in Ancient Greece and Rome were onto something with the whole "use math to create art" thing. Guess what? The folks in the Victorian era were doing it too, and it still works today. There was a guy called Escher who also did it and his stuff turned out alright as well. Math was used a lot in the more functional elements of Victorian society, and the result in the urban settings was a thing of beauty. Everything from door hinges to toilet handles looked pretty darn snappy.
Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the engineering of the day. They had to be innovative because they had no access to many of the things we take for granted. Plastic, for example. Steady and even artificial light sources hadn't been developed, and the only computers used back then involved beads. But they poured themselves into their work, designing modern conveniences using the only fuel sources available to them. They did it because the machines they were designing and building were becoming more and more necessary to deal with an increasingly expanding population.
Of course, it should be said that by nature, steampunk could just as easily have been called "coal-punk." In order to get steam, you need to boil water, and that heat needs to come from somewhere. Sometimes they used wood, but try building a fire with coal and another with wood and tell me which one stays hotter longer. So it wasn't exactly clean power...but the machinery they made makes any modern combustion engine look wicked dull by comparison.
So we've started to imitate it, because they made their stuff look better than the stuff being made today. Mass production has made materials more scarce, we cover up the internal workings of our machines to make them look better. As a result, engineers don't care what the machines look like anymore, so it's all about function. In the Victorian era, they kept it working well and looking good enough to keep it on display. What's more is they knew it. Have you ever noticed how watches made with visible gears cost more than the ones that cover them up? It's kind of like porn for people who like clocks.
That's right. I just called all the steampunk artists, myself included, pornographers.
What I will say about the artwork is that it has become a media trend. Everybody and their mother wants to do it. Some people are doing it right, doing it well, and I'm hoping they're doing it more. There are however quite a few people who don't seem to understand what makes something steampunk.
YOU DO NOT SIMPLY PUT SOME GEARS ON IT.
Yes, gears have an elegant design to them. It's necessary. They're attractive for the same reason that makes them functional. They are regular, precise, and symmetrical. They can make very appropriate decorations to things. Using them however, does not magically make it steampunk.
One of the greatest writers in history once wrote, "all beautiful things come from someone making something useful." His name was Oscar Wilde and he was as intelligent as he was witty and creative (and if you haven't already, you should really look him up...he wrote a couple books and stuff back in the day). He also lived during the era and had a very good point, one with which I happen to agree. The innate beauty of steampunk doesn't come from its ornamentation. The real and genuine beauty comes from its functionality.
A gear hanging in space that doesn't appear to drive anything, or even connect with any other gears, is just taking up space. It's blocking the rest of the picture. On jewelry, I can accept it. On something that looks like it would function every bit as well or better without the gear's presence, that gear is useless. It's purpose has been removed, and unless you're a Dadaist making a statement, it's not working.
That said, the same goes for springs, valves, pipes, tubes, gauges, rivets, screens, vents, levers, buttons, bulbs, or any other damn thing people just add to force the theme on what would otherwise be perfectly fine without it.
Steampunk artwork requires thought and planning. It's a meeting of art and engineering, form and function, yin and yang. Done properly, it's pretty cool. Done wrong, it's just putting frosting on a wristwatch and calling it cake.
The cake is a lie.
(Thank you, GlaDOS)