Following its grand opening at the Met Gala, the exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion explores the concept of ‘camp’ through a Sontagion lens and reveals its cultural, political and social significance today, writes our contributor Georgia Good.
The Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion is conceptual. It asks the question “what is camp?” – and, inevitably, fails to answer. In each of its seven rooms, The Costume Institute celebrates, questions and ruminates on camp. The exhibition moves from camp’s cultural origins to the crucial Sontagian concept, which provides its framework; then, in a burst of playful self-reflection, it culminates in an exclamation, a performance, a suggestion of what camp means today.
The camp aesthetic was formalised in 1964. In her seminal essay ‘Notes on ‘Camp’, Susan Sontag explored the term as never before, propelling it into the mainstream. It’s Sontag’s essay that inspired this year’s Met Gala and accordingly has its own room in the exhibition (the manuscript is also on display). Taking on camp, Sontag’s was a novel and impossible task: to define it. For her, camp is an “aesthetic sensibility”. Distinct from ideas, sensibilities are elusive; like a colour, they’re familiar, yet hard to describe without tautology or misrepresentation. For camp, this is notorious and a constant source of debate. Yet Sontag insisted that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” It is deliberately ‘too much’; it loves bad taste, insofar as it’s good art. It is enthusiastically ‘off’, fantastic, not to be believed. It is, to Sontag, “a victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality, of irony over tragedy.” It’s not cruel: it’s sweetly cynical. The exhibition is alive with quotations like this – soundbites that excite, defining camp just as it evades them. “Camp”, the Met tells us, “is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers” (Sontag, 1964). “Camp is a question mark that won’t let its line be straightened into an exclamation mark” (Cleto, 1999). “Camp is a lie which tells the truth” (Core, 1984).
Sontag calls it “unmistakably modern”, and it is. Strikingly, though, there’s more to camp and the exhibition illuminates this. After the luminous ‘CAMP’ at the entrance, we’re greeted by a seventeenth-century sculpture: the Belvedere Antinous, attributed to Pietro Taca. We are told that the origins of camp can be traced to the reign of Louis XIV or, perhaps, further back. The aesthetic love of style for style’s sake, the proponents and curators of the playful, amusing, over the top, aren’t limited to this millennium. Where fortune exists, so does camp: it thrived as distantly as in ancient Greece and Rome. If you know where to look, camp is always there; it’s evident in the nineteenth century beau ideal (explored by the Met) and the classical sculptures that inspire it. When Rome fell, it persisted; in the Dark Ages it shone, outrageous and opulent, in the Catholic Church. Subversive and ambivalent, camp flickers in Pre-Raphaelite paintings; it leaps out of art by the likes of the Mannerist artist Rosso and Caravaggio (Caravaggio’s The Musicians, 1597,is on display). The eighteenth century was a ‘camp Eden’; indeed, ‘camp’ derives from se camper, meaning ‘to flaunt’ – a concept that flourished in Louis XIV’s Versailles, with its renowned theatrics and extravagance. The nineteenth century produced Oscar Wilde (see image below), who was known as an effeminate, aristocratic ‘dandy’ and as such embodied the link between camp and scandalous Victorian sexuality.
This is something of a revelation. The exhibition ends with a dazzling display of high fashion, all from the last fifty years – but clearly camp is much more than this.
Camp is also political. Andrew Bolton, head curator of The Costume Institute, explains its current resurgence: “camp tends to come to the fore during moments of social and political instability, when our society is deeply polarised.” Fundamentally subversive, it emerges from the margins. Notably, the Met explores its deep ties to queer culture; it functioned as a secret lingua franca for gay men to identify themselves and each other. Then and now, drag culture is a blueprint of camp. Louis XIV’s own brother ‘Monsieur’, for example, was a flamboyant crossdresser. In the nineteenth century, Frederick ‘Fanny’ Park and Ernest ‘Stella’ Bolton (see image below) were camp icons of gay subculture; when tried in 1870, they emerged as the faces of a British cause célèbre. Camp, after all, “renders gender a question of aesthetics” (Dollimore, 1991).
Camp is empowered by reactions. Sontag, like us, is “strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it”. Our attraction and revulsion, an essential paradox, are an endless source of enticement; camp revels in this, as both un-self-conscious and deeply self-conscious. Camp is all about perception and irreverence – and it’s this that warrants any potent political art. Its frivolity is an illusion; its ‘failed seriousness’ masks the profound. Its radicalism, historically and today, translates to freedom when expressed. To be camp is to be who you choose, to show it to the world, even when it leads to persecution (think of Wilde’s imprisonment in 1895-97). Camp is unapologetic; the alternative, then and now, is to apologise to prejudice, banality, and arbitrary social convention. Wilde’s letters and manuscripts stress this point; so do artworks parodying clandestine camp, like Johan Zoffany’s The Provok’d Wife (1763).
This is conveyed in the exhibition layout: the first rooms are ‘whispering corridors’, intentionally claustrophobic, conveying the covertness of camp as it was. The final room opens out: pink turns to black, the crowd thins out, couture is set back glowing, self-centred and surreal. In the designs of Alessandro Michele, Yves Saint Laurent, Salvatore Ferragamo and many more, comes liberation: camp as it is today.
It’s worth going to Camp: Notes on Fashion, but it’s not the only way to see camp. In fact, we can see it everywhere. For Sontag, it’s more than high fashion or a style of art. It’s an increasingly pervasive quality in our lives. It has been said, for example, that pro wrestling is camp. So is Swan Lake. So is Mozart, and so is Coronation Street. Donald Trump is an icon of camp: a master of superlatives, unbelievable, averse to the politically correct. My own father and brother have no interest in couture, but in watching bad action movies, ironically and passionately, they celebrate camp. The Met shares its own array of unexpectedly campy things, from Tiffany lamps to Aubrey Beardsley drawings, alongside its darling, Sontag herself, in a series of Warhol screen tests.
If camp arises in polarised times, it can bridge a certain divide. Always paradoxical, camp is both intellectual and low-brow; there is not, as Christopher Isherwood argued, a dichotomy of high and low camp. For Sontag, it embodies an intersection of sophisticated art and popular culture (this is realised in Andy Warhol’s 1966 Souper Dress, patterned with Campbell’s Soup, or in last year’s Balenciaga Platform Crocs). Evelyn Satz wrote that camp “can be taken on two completely separate levels, and make perfect sense on each.” This is equally true of the exhibition. Much of its art is striking, beautiful, trashy and provocative, but the text, written in black on flamingo-pink walls, is entrancing in its own right. It represents much of the beauty of camp: the mystery, the fierce and endless debate it inspires.
As Andy Medhurst said, “trying to define camp is like attempting to sit in the corner of a circular room.” We can’t define camp. But we can find it all around us.
Camp: Notes on Fashion is showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 9th May to 8th September 2019. Find out more here.