First published in 1964, Sontags pioneering essay Notes on Camp was a cultural earthquake. Fifty years on, as the theme of this years Met Gala, has camp finally gone mainstream?
First published in 1964, Susan Sontags essay Notes on Camp remains a groundbreaking piece of cultural activism. Sontags achievement was to give a name to an aesthetic that was everywhere yet until then had gone largely unremarked. It was visible in Dusty Springfields mascara and beehive, there in late-night TV reruns of old Humphrey Bogart movies; there in Andy Warhols screen prints Flowers and Electric Chair images from advertising and the news media copied and provocatively represented.
Like pop, camp was the future; as Warhol had observed on his cross-country trip in 1963, it was omnipresent, so ubiquitous that it wasnt simply an aesthetic. It was an environment, a climate, with profound implications for western culture. To notice it, all you needed was the keen eye of an outsider.
In 58 paragraphs, Sontag conducted an intuitive yet rigorous examination of a phenomenon that she defined as a badge of identity among small urban cliques. And this private code constituted a new mode of perception that collapsed traditional ideas of high and low culture, of elitism and mass appeal. Here was a new hierarchy of taste, no longer defined by the old gatekeepers. Camp was a way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon, she wrote, in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylisation.
Sontags early passages outline the now overfamiliar so bad its good aesthetic: it could be found in the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, the 1933 film King Kong and Tiffany lamps. Today, Sontags observations remind us of how objects and works that were dclass in the 1960s have become part of accepted taste. She predicted this would happen, of course: The canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it.
She notes camps affinity with particular activities: interior decor, clothing, classical ballet, opera. In particular, notions of the epicene and the artificial marked the camp aesthetic: nothing natural, clumsy or butch (although that has become another camp mode). Even more important is the idea of excess: The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.
Camp can be used as a weapon, by gay people against gay people, sometimes as practice for dealing with the harshness of the world outside the gay community. The threat of aggression can be cut down by the sharp blade of a queens tongue. Sontag, however, prefers to identify a peculiar innocence in the midst of camps mockery, as well as a kind of seductiveness. Camp is not only used to repel us; it also aims to draw us in. And, as Sontag discovered, it can be highly effective. She begins her essay sounding slightly irritable and ends up having fun. At the climax of her essay, she observes: Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. Camp is a tender feeling.
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