Camp, this year's Met Gala theme, is based on an essay by Susan Sontag and it can be confusing. But don't worry, we've got you covered! Here's a quick guide to understanding what Camp is.
Have you ever seen the Paris Métro entrances and thought, "what a strange and extravagant thing!" You realize it's a, shall we say, work of art that you cannot decide whether it's ugly, beautiful, or neither; whether it's kitsch, tacky, or a stroke of genius. The kind of work that makes you wonder and think; that breaks your ordinary, down-to-earth robotic automation and forces you to look; that fractures your focus and demands your attention. Those very Métro entrances? That's Camp.
Camp has been around since the 17th century, but it was a fringe and vague style until the mid-1900s, when author Susan Sontag wrote a sort of manifesto to define Camp once and for all in her 1964 essay, Notes on Camp. Now, 55 years later, Camp is everywhere—from film to painting to fashion.
The latter is particularly well-suited to exemplify Camp at its best, as Sontag herself noted decades ago—anticipating one of the most interesting and outlandish aesthetic movements of all time. And this year, the single most important annual fashion event in the world, the Met Gala—known for its yearly thematic approach—has chosen Sontag's essay (and the whole Camp style) as its theme, calling its 2019 exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion.
The Met Gala is a big deal. A fundraising ball for the benefit of the Costume Institute in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, it has become the biggest, most publicized event for the world of fashion ever since Vogue's Anna Wintour took over as chair since 1995. The ball draws plenty of celebrities each year who dress in mostly custom-made outfits based on the exhibition's theme. So, it's no wonder people all around the world are now curious about what to expect this year, and the question in everyone's minds is: what exactly do they mean by "Camp"?
What is Camp?
Well, it's certainly not sitting by the fire and sleeping in tents. As you saw above, Camp is about aesthetics. At its core, it is a paradoxical sort of thing. It's ugly and alluring all at once, and leaves you wondering why exactly anyone, yourself included, could be drawn to it. But deep down, we all know: It's good because it's awful. That's the ultimate statement of Camp; that's its main sentiment.
Camp is, as Sontag says, a kind of “sensitivity,” a taste, an aesthetic style. More specifically, it’s an over-the-top style that is characterized mostly by being extravagant, ridiculous, kitschy, and even ironic.
Let’s go with a cliché and ask Merriam-Webster what Camp is. It’s a good start. Merriam-Webster defines it as “something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing; a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture.”
That’s not an altogether bad definition at all, actually. It does appeal to the spirit of Sontag’s essay, pointing out the tongue-in-cheek, artificial, and paradoxical nature of Camp.
Difference from kitsch
There is, for sure, a relation between kitsch and Camp, but they are not quite the same. Some kitsch objects may be Camp and vice-versa, but they are so for different reasons—appealing to different things. Camp requires a certain passion that most kitsch works lack.
Indeed, in order for a work of art to be Camp, it has to be daring, passionate, extravagant, bold. It has to go all in. Any reserve, any hint of playing-it-safe ultimately destroys Camp and turns the work into a mere decoration—into something chic and nothing more. “Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous.” It has, in other words, to be theatrical. It has not only to attempt to be a "good" work of art and fail, but to do so unequivocally. Camp has to be “loud” for the eyes. And the fact that it often fails is certainly not the end of the story. Actually, the whole point of Camp is to find success in particularly passionate failures.
After all, “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much.’” But for all its seriousness, for a work of art to be taken as Camp, it must be both highly ambitious and a failure (with respect to those ambitions). “A work can come close to Camp, but not make it, because it succeeds,” as Sontag puts it.
Here are some examples
Camp can be found everywhere, especially since it was widely popularized in the 20th century. The more society allows for extravagance, the easier Camp embeds itself in pop culture.
Some classics of 20th-century Camp in TV include the original Batman series, Gilligan’s Island and The Mod Squad. Also in that camp (pun intended) is The Addams Family, The Munsters, Lost in Space, The Wild Wild West, Get Smart, Charlie's Angels, and Fantasy Island.
As time went by, more series took over to best exemplify the style, especially with shows like Dynasty or Dallas.
In film, George and Mike Kuchar are examples, as well as Jack Smith and his movie Flaming Creatures. Similarly, John Waters provides paradigmatic Camp instances with films like Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Pink Flamingos. Mommie Dearest and Showgirls are also Camp.
In plastic art, Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans painting is a great example. But it's in fashion where we find the ultimate examples of Camp. Gucci’s Fall/Winter 2018 show is perhaps one of the most salient ones, with models carrying replicas of their own heads beside them (video above). Moschino’s Jeremy Scott is also a typical Camp artist. On the more flesh-and-blood side, performers such as Dame Edna Everage, Divine, RuPaul, Paul Lynde, and Liberace are current representatives. Lady Gaga personifies Camp not only in her fashion, but in her very character—she’s, as Sontag would put it, a “Camp person.”
Where does it come from?
The word “Camp” originally comes from the French verb “se camper,” roughly meaning, “to strike an exaggerated pose.” The style was born out of the over-the-top lavishness of the French court during the reign of Louis XIV (in the 17th century), and best exemplified at the time by the outlandish demeanor and effeminate character of the king’s brother, Philippe I.
From its inception, then, this peculiar style was deeply rooted in a challenge to our everyday notions of sex and gender, becoming a staple for sexual minorities the world over, as you’ll see.
Camp, the LGBT community, and other groups
Camp was adopted and more keenly developed by the drag queen culture in Victorian London, and has remained closely associated with the LGBT community ever since. This is far from a coincidence. One of the most prominent features of Camp is its take on the “Camp person,” mostly characterized by androgynous features that challenge our usual conception of sexuality and gender. As Sontag puts it,
“Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one's sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”
In a rather interesting manner, Camp blurs our typical labels by simply drawing us closer to the strangeness of everyday things and people. It's all about playing a social role, and to see objects as explicitly doing so. Or, to put it another way, objects fall into any category ironically. “Camp sees everything in quotation mark,” Sontag explains. “It's not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’”
But it’s not only the LGBT community that has become the epitome of Camp culture. The black community also bears a close association. In particular, when black pop culture ripples through the artistic scene, it tends to do so with a certain extravagance that is intimately related to Camp—and proudly so. Here, Camp becomes enjoyment and sheer fun.
What to expect at the Met Gala
Hopefully, you now have some idea about what to expect from the Met Gala this time around. Lavishness, spectacle, unapologetic exaggeration. Overall, “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Interestingly enough, Sontag herself described the perfect outfit for the 2019 Met Ball back in 1964, and we're dying to find out who, if anyone, follows her word. We can certainly hope so—when it comes to Camp, Sontag's Notes is basically the Bible.
In any case, we’re sure to be treated with many such Camp delights. And when we do, remember one of the most crucial aspects of Camp, according to Sontag:
“Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment.” If you criticize this year's Met Gala by yelling that the outfits are ugly, then you've clearly missed the point. Just enjoy it, and have fun!
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