What is Camp? When the “Good Taste of Bad Taste” Becomes an Aesthetic

Even if you don’t care about high fash­ion or high soci­ety — to the extent that those two things have a place in the cur­rent cul­ture — you prob­a­bly glimpsed some of the cov­er­age of what atten­dees wore to the Met Gala ear­li­er this month. Or per­haps cov­er­age isn’t strong enough a word: what most of the many observers of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art’s Cos­tume Insti­tute annu­al fundrais­ing gala did cer­tain­ly qual­i­fied as analy­sis, and in not a few cas­es tipped over into exe­ge­sis. That enthu­si­asm was matched by the flam­boy­ance of the cloth­ing worn to the event — an event whose co-chairs includ­ed Lady Gaga, a suit­able fig­ure­head indeed for a par­ty that this year took on the theme of camp.

But what exact­ly is camp? You can get an in-depth look at how the world of fash­ion has inter­pret­ed that elab­o­rate and enter­tain­ing but nev­er­the­less elu­sive cul­tur­al con­cept in the Met’s show Camp: Notes on Fash­ion, which runs at the Met Fifth Avenue until ear­ly Sep­tem­ber.

“Susan Son­tag’s 1964 essay Notes on ‘Camp’ pro­vides the frame­work for the exhi­bi­tion,” says the Met’s web site, “which exam­ines how the ele­ments of irony, humor, par­o­dy, pas­tiche, arti­fice, the­atri­cal­i­ty, and exag­ger­a­tion are expressed in fash­ion.” But for a broad­er under­stand­ing of camp, you’ll want to go back to Son­tag’s and read all of the 58 the­ses it nailed to the door of the mid-1960s zeit­geist.

Accord­ing to Son­tag, camp is “not a nat­ur­al mode of sen­si­bil­i­ty” but a “love of the unnat­ur­al: of arti­fice and exag­ger­a­tion.” It offers a “way of see­ing the world as an aes­thet­ic phe­nom­e­non.” Most any­thing man­made can be camp, and Son­tag’s list of exam­ples include Tiffany lamps, “the Brown Der­by restau­rant on Sun­set Boule­vard in L.A.,” Aubrey Beard­s­ley draw­ings, and old Flash Gor­don comics. Ele­vat­ing style “at the expense of con­tent,” camp is suf­fused with “the love of the exag­ger­at­ed, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Camp is not irony, but it “sees every­thing in quo­ta­tion marks.” The essen­tial ele­ment of camp is “seri­ous­ness, a seri­ous­ness that fails.” Camp “asserts that good taste is not sim­ply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.”

“When Son­tag pub­lished ‘Notes on Camp,’ she was fas­ci­nat­ed by peo­ple who could look at cul­tur­al prod­ucts as fun and iron­ic,” says Son­tag biog­ra­ph­er Ben­jamin Moser in a recent Inter­view mag­a­zine sur­vey of the sub­ject. And though Son­tag’s essay remains the defin­i­tive state­ment on camp, not every­one has agreed on exact­ly what counts and does not count as camp in the 55 years since its pub­li­ca­tion in the Par­ti­san Review“Camp to me means over-the-top humor, usu­al­ly cou­pled with big dos­es of glam­our,” says fash­ion design­er Jere­my Scott in the same Inter­view arti­cle. “To be inter­est­ing, camp has to have some kind of polit­i­cal con­scious­ness and self-aware­ness about what it’s doing,” says film­mak­er Bruce Labruce, chal­leng­ing Son­tag’s descrip­tion of camp as apo­lit­i­cal.

And what will become of camp in the all-dig­i­tiz­ing 21st cen­tu­ry, when many eras increas­ing­ly coex­ist on the same cul­ture plane? Our time “has can­ni­bal­ized camp,” says cul­tur­al his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Fabio Cle­to, “but to say that it’s no longer camp because its aes­thet­ics have gone main­stream is an over­ly sim­plis­tic read­ing. Camp has always been mourn­ing its own death.” Even so, some of cam­p’s most high-pro­file cham­pi­ons have cast doubt on its via­bil­i­ty. The phrase “good taste of bad taste” brings no fig­ure to mind more quick­ly than Pink Flamin­gos and Hair­spray direc­tor John Waters (who speaks on the ori­gin of his good taste in bad taste in the Big Think video above). But even he speaks pes­simisti­cal­ly to Inter­view about cam­p’s future: “Camp? Noth­ing is so bad it’s good now that we have Trump as pres­i­dent. He even ruined that.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why So Many Peo­ple Adore The Room, the Worst Movie Ever Made? A Video Explain­er

David Fos­ter Wal­lace on What’s Wrong with Post­mod­ernism: A Video Essay

The Star Wars Hol­i­day Spe­cial (1978): It’s Oh So Kitsch

Susan Sontag’s 50 Favorite Films (and Her Own Cin­e­mat­ic Cre­ations)

John Waters Talks About His Books and Role Mod­els in a Whim­si­cal Ani­mat­ed Video

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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