William Morris – the original Steampunker?

I’m spent the past few weeks researching the connections between William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement for the upcoming “Useful and Beautiful:  The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites” conference, so I thought I’d share my abstract here.

William Morris:  The Original Steampunker?

Although it may seem an odd juxtaposition, there is much about the aesthetic philosophy of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement which prefigures the contemporary concerns of the Steampunk genre.  In my paper, I argue that the values of the Arts and Crafts movement rose out of a similar moment in history as the one we occupy today – a moment in which we recognize that we have lost access to the workings of the commodities which surround us.  Drawing upon the work and philosophies of Morris, Iwill show that the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement and the contemporary steampunk share a common desire: to reinstate the craftsman at the center of art production.

When Morris and his contemporaries set out to find an authentic style to represent the nineteenth century, they were pushing back against the rise of industrialized manufacturing which favored piece-meal production and constituted a movement away from genuine, individual craft.   Drawing upon the works of theorists and reformers such as John Ruskin and Owen Jones, practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement prioritized simplicity of form and quality of materials, linking the purity of construction to a greater morality of art.    Morris especially emphasized the simplicity of such forms, working himself with hand woodblock printing and rejecting more modern techniques for mass-producing books by returning to older, more traditional methods of printing.

This desire to return to older techniques of production, which prioritize the individual craftsman and emphasize the craft itself, resonates with the ostensible goals of today’s Steampunk movement.  Originally a literary genre, Steampunk has exploded in the past decades into an artistic and cultural movement, spawning conferences, clothes lines, films, music groups, and, perhaps most fascinating of all, steampunk artisans. 

Drawing upon philosophical tenets which look remarkably similar to those of Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, steampunk artists produce artifacts which stress their individual craft.  From a computer retro-fitted into a nineteenth-century style, steam-driven (but still functioning!) machine to earrings made of tiny cogs, the  products of steampunk proudly display all their components, rendering visible that which modern technology hides away beneath smooth surfaces.  Indeed, those who try to define steampunk return again and again to the idea that the nineteenth-century represents the turning point at which we lost the ability to “make” our own products or to open them up and tinker with them.  In a type of protest against the minimalistic, sealed-off aesthetics of artifacts such as iPhones or Macbooks, the artistic work of steampunkers reinvokes the very concerns of Morris and his contemporaries, asking the question – what is lost, or, what do we as consumers of art lose, when industrialization and mass-production render the individual craftsman obsolete.






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