Betraying Camp

By Alex WeintraubMay 5, 2019

Betraying Camp
BUYER BEWARE: the catalog for “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” the upcoming blockbuster-to-be from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and motive for Vogue magazine’s “Met Ball,” contains no notes on fashion. Instead, the curators have preferred to talk about the exhibition’s theme of Camp. The catalog is divided into two discrete, mint-colored books, both of which are strapped into a handsome pink leather-bound case. The design is pure confection, as if the macaron purveyor Ladurée decided to extend its reach into the graphic arts. Book I of the set, entitled “Camp,” is arranged in a conventional codex format (pages collated along their left-most edges) and reads like the catalog for a much vaster art historical survey of the Camp concept. Rather ingeniously, the curators have traced Camp’s history all the way back to the classical canon of the beau idéal — the longstanding reverence in Western art for heroic, ephebic beauty — and they then follow the term’s development up until the triumph of Pop Art in the ’60s. As the exhibition’s title makes plain, the catalog’s authors have drawn heavily from Susan Sontag’s influential essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), which is reprinted at the end of this first volume.

By contrast, Book II of the catalog, “Notes on Fashion,” looks more like a luxury notepad (pun likely intended) than it does a museum catalog. Composed of stiff sheets of cardstock with golden versos bound along their upper-most edges, Book II’s pages contain glossy photos (occasionally as foldouts) of contemporary, ostensibly Camp-inspired garments. In his introduction to this second book, the Costume Institute’s curator Andrew Bolton declares that “Sontag’s voice can be heard more as an echo in Book II [and that o]ther voices of post-Sontagian ‘camp criticism’ can also be heard.” This is a peculiar way of phrasing things, since it downplays how literally Book II makes use of “echoes.” After Bolton’s two-page remarks, the only other descriptive texts found in this volume are image captions, copyright information, and a series of pilfered quotes from Sontag and later critics of Camp, each of which serves as the epigraph for an individual garment or a pair of them. Readers can decide for themselves whether these text/image matchups improve upon the various listicles already available online for free.

One wishes that the exhibition’s curatorial team had been daring enough to match Sontag’s source text with its own “Notes on Fashion.” The ambition alone would represent a marked improvement on Book II’s folly. Like Camp, fashion also bears a minor relationship to the history of art and style, at least as one typically encounters this history arranged in major museums like the Met. This minor status has led to a certain defensiveness on the part of the Costume Institute’s curators, evidence for which can be found in Bolton’s repeated claims on behalf of fashion’s dignity in Andrew Rossi’s 2016 film, The First Monday in May. Bolton’s best shows to date have made his convictions appear as if they were self-evident. For this reason, his real curatorial triumph was not his much-celebrated Alexander McQueen retrospective, “Savage Beauty,” but rather his “Manus x Machina” show from 2016, which presented contemporary fashion as a complex of cultural techniques that were first codified by French philosophes in the Encyclopédie. In this earlier show, the historical gap between the exhibition’s 18th-century source text and the majority of its presented content made perfect sense. Contemporary designers are not just inspired by old-fashioned techniques of feathering and beading. Many still practice them. Haute couture names the prestige of outmoded labor relations.

Unlike “Manus x Machina,” “Camp: Notes on Fashion” appears to hang much more heavily on the enigmatic appeal of its organizing concept. This approach to fashion is, ultimately, a self-defeating one, since it awards clothing with an art historical value extrinsically, as the mute content of style. Without furnishing any explicit criteria for evaluating contemporary garments in relation to Camp, the catalog also leaves the exhibition vulnerable to an uninteresting, yet ultimately fair critique. “That’s not even Camp.” Worse still, it casts fashion in a position of chronic belatedness, with iconographically overloaded dresses functioning as the wearable reception history of some cultural zeitgeist better observed, or, as in the case of Camp, read elsewhere.

What a shame, too, that the catalog offered contemporary designers no space for sustained reflection on Camp’s continued meaningfulness for their own work. At least this appeal to authorship would have saved the exhibited clothing from being reduced to emblems of some cultural critic’s earlier aperçu. Finally, the catalog opens the curators up to accusations of bad faith, of, say, the outsize influence of their corporate sponsor, Gucci, whose designs (at least those printed in “Camp”) appear tailor-made to the book’s own. Readers of this catalog will still be obliged to answer the show’s underlying questions for themselves. What does Camp mean today? And what does Camp mean in the context of fashion?

This leads me to an even more disappointing aspect of the “Camp” catalog: its inability to decide how best to build from Susan Sontag’s legacy. This indecision is apparent in Fabio Cleto’s essay, “The Spectacles of Camp,” which waffles uneasily between an over-identification with the late critic’s “Notes” and a will to establish a so-called “post-Sontagian” criticism of Camp. On the one hand, Cleto’s essay depends so literally on Sontag’s original language that it occasionally fails to recognize its own debts. Here is Cleto, tracing the term to Christopher Isherwood’s The World in the Evening: “In 1954, at the time of the novel’s publication, ‘camp’ […] had hardly ever broken into print.” And here is Sontag: “Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954), [Camp] has hardly broken into print.”

On the other hand, Cleto’s essay offers original interpretations of Camp, but does so at times through misrepresentations of Sontag’s thinking. In one telling instance, Cleto claims that Sontag distinguished between Camp as a mode of perception “being prominently ‘in the eye of the beholder,’” and Camp as a conscious mode of performance. But in the passage cited by Cleto, Sontag was claiming that “not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.” Unlike Cleto, Sontag distinguished between a “Camp way of looking at things,” which is wholly (not “prominently”) subjective, and a Camp “quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons,” which isn’t. The eye of the beholder is ultimately irrelevant in determinations of “campy movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings.” If they can’t be Camp, then they can’t be Camp. For Sontag,“[t]he Camp eye has the power to transform experience,” but not its objects. Her cited note thus collapses the distinction that Cleto develops between Camp vision and Camp performance. One becomes the conscious execution of the other.

Where Cleto’s essay really shines is in its cultural history of the “camp craze” of the 1960s. His sharp retelling of this period style makes his contribution a worthwhile read. What remains unexplained, however, is why Sontag’s essay remains intellectually (as opposed to just historiographically) indispensable for our current discussions of Camp. My own opinion is that Sontag’s true achievement in “Notes” lies less in her text’s relation to the history of art than it does in its contribution to the history of taste and sensibility, which is to say within a speculative tradition of aesthetics.


The Camp sensibility takes traditional judgments of taste from behind. As Sontag writes, “Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment.” Many readers of Sontag and many of the academic partisans of Camp cited in Cleto’s essay (though, irony this, not many genuine Camps) have since taken this statement to describe a critical ethics or anthropology of taste. Camp, they believe, constitutes a form of parodic subversion. (Think of Judith Butler writing about the art of drag.) Nothing could be further from Sontag’s meaning. “Camp doesn’t reverse things,” she writes, “It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.” Camp does not challenge judgments of taste. It supplements them.

As a sensibility, then, Camp describes a universal receptivity to aesthetic experience beyond our pre-given sets of standards for judgment; as a style, Camp composes this same aesthetic beyond into works of art (or life); as a taste, which Sontag defines as a consistent sensibility, Camp names a peculiar aestheticist discipline: the formalism of the too much or the well, why not? Camp aestheticism is peculiar because it still entails an appreciation for art’s sake, but does so even in absence of aestheticism’s conventional predicate: art. “[S]eeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon,” Camp seems to filter the wrong objects or at least too many of them through the Kantian dictate of “purposiveness without purpose.” (Ex: “stag movies seen without lust.”) Whereas we might ordinarily imagine an art critic to face off with a work of art, to deliver his judgment, and then imperiously to strike all offenses to good taste from his consciousness, a Camp finds reason to prolong aesthetic experience, preferring to persist in contemplating so-called bad objects rather than to dispense with them.

A newer cohort of Camp theorists has come much closer to appreciating this sensibility for its passivity with respect to critical judgment. Taking their inspiration from the writings of the late literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, these students of affect have re-construed Camp as a form of individual or collective reparation, as opposed to the earlier model of queer sabotage. Camp, according to Sedgwick, teaches us “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture — even a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.” Though Sedgwick’s account is no doubt appealing in its rhetoric of care, it is also perfectly mistaken. What could be less Camp, for instance, than the deflating re-description of works of art as “objects of culture”? More troubling still, valuing Camp for its therapeutic vampirism (sustenance extraction) transforms an aesthetic sensibility — i.e., an idealistic and idealizing receptivity to art’s purposelessness — into an expressly weak form of utilitarianism. Sontag knew better. “The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.” A Camp does not extract sustenance from a culture inimical to his flourishing. Instead, he aesthetically refines his own masochistic affections. “Camp,” after all, “is a tender feeling.”

Critical writings on Camp — my own, of course, included — always risk disappointment. Sontag took an even stronger stance. “To talk about Camp is to betray it.” The most straightforward way to interpret this betrayal would be to read Sontag as describing a problem of over-exposure. By mainstreaming a seemingly esoteric sensibility, Sontag would in effect be killing it. However, “Notes on ‘Camp’” offers plausible reasons to reject any reduction of Camp — including, of course, Sontag’s own — to “something of a private code.” Pure Camp, at least as Sontag describes it, is nothing like a game that can be given away because Camp is precisely the art of giving the game away. “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious. The Art Nouveau craftsman who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voilà! the Orient!” The genuine Camp “can only, whatever his intention, exhibit [his sensibility.]” This returns us to the central problem of Book II in the Met’s catalog. Camp fashion requires no critic’s quotes, because Camp is already clothed “in quotation marks.”

And if Camp has nothing to hide, then Sontag’s betrayal must be interpreted otherwise. The more appropriate way to understand the term’s meaning for her text would be to follow the critic’s express intentions and to allow for form to triumph over content. Sontag always considered herself to be a serious writer, which meant for her that her essays ought to be judged first and foremost as writings. “Style is everything.” Nothing would have been more embarrassing than to have criticized Christopher Isherwood’s 1954 account of Camp for its laziness, only to pen an essay of no greater literary distinction. (It isn’t as if Sontag disagrees with Isherwood about what Camp means.) The truly indefensible betrayal of Camp, then, is mediocrity. “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.” Ultimately, Sontag penned her “Notes” in the hopes that her “betrayal [could] be defended.” If she had to corrupt Camp by making too much sense of it, at least she would not do so with middling prose.

The author appears to have suffered from something like the New Critic’s fear of paraphrase, or the skeptical belief that any critical interpretation of art must necessarily constitute an act of aesthetic disloyalty. As a result, she composed “Notes on ‘Camp’” as notes (as opposed to a more conventional essay format) so that she might avoid “producing a very inferior piece of Camp.” However, once the reader begins to compare the critic’s original “Notes” with those various citations of Oscar Wilde that she intersperses among them, it becomes difficult to arrive at any other judgment. Her text achieves almost nothing of her literary hero’s aphoristic concision. Wanting to get Camp just right, Sontag ended up “jotting” down a series of intricate qualifications. (“The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful … Of course, one can’t always say that.”)

In other words, the closer Sontag comes to representing Camp’s logic in all of its nuance, the more her text falls out of step with Camp form. The writer’s “Notes” emerged from a phobic conflict in her own sensibility, which she described as a “deep sympathy [for Camp] modified by revulsion.” She wanted her essay to be edifying — to help herself and her readers come to terms with Camp — but she also rightly knew that this sensibility had no such practical motivation. Pure camp is in essence “a seriousness that fails,” which Sontag the serious writer could never fully abide. With “Notes,” Sontag may have betrayed Camp defensibly by refusing to betray it herself. It’s just too bad that so many of Sontag’s readers lack her same feeling for treachery.


Banner Image: Bertrand Guyon (French, born 1965) for House of Schiaparelli (French, founded 1927). Ensemble, fall/winter 2018–19 haute couture. Courtesy of Schiaparelli. Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019


Alex Weintraub is an art historian and critic based in New York City. He earned his PhD from Columbia University's Department of Art History and Archaeology.

LARB Contributor

Alex Weintraub is an art historian and critic based in New York City. He earned his PhD from Columbia University's Department of Art History and Archaeology.


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