Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”

1964

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of “Camp.”

Camp is especially hard to talk about because it is not natural – “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques. Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954), it has hardly broken into print. To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.

For Sontag, the draw to talk about Camp seems parallel to how Kant describes the sublime (think of Ngai?):

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

Though I am speaking about sensibility only — and about a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous — these are grave matters. Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.)

Again, Sontag’s insistence on some sort of consistency appears Kantian:

Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste. A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea . . .

The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.

In her “jottings,” Sontag argues that Camp is an aesthetics not of beauty, but of artifice and stylization. “To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content… disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical.” Camp is not simply a way of seeing (Kantian/idealist), but also a quality that inheres in objects: “the camp eye has the power to transform experience,” but only certain objects will work. Among the objects Sontag names are Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley, “The Enquirer,” Bellini’s operas, women’s clothes of the twenties, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

Visual decor, fashion, and furniture are particularly amenable to camp (think Mad Men’s surfaces…). “Camp is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.”

“Most people still go to the movies in a high-spirited and unpretentious way. There is a sense in which it is correct to say ‘It’s too good to be Camp’… Many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch. Not all though… some art which can be approached as Camp… merits the most serious admiration and study.”

Nature cannot be campy (think of this vs. the sublime). Camp often has an element of naivete, however, that might be called “urban pastoral.” Camp is “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Art Noveau is a perfect example because it “convert[s] one thing into something else… the Paris Metro entrances.”

“The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility… the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo… 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.”

Camp also favors “a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms… movie stars.”

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks… To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It’s the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

“Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘person’ and ‘thing’… Life is not stylish. Neither is Nature.”

“The dividing line seems to fall in the 18th century… Gothic novels… caricature, artificial ruins… Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.”

This sounds quite a bit like James Wood on hysterical realism or Jameson on postmodernism – how might artifice work differently, though? As other than nostalgia? She pics the 18th century for “that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry… conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character… continuing wanly through 19th century aestheticism… emerging full-blown with the Art Nouveau movement.”

“Art Nouveau is full of ‘content,’ even of a political-moral sort… also… a disengaged, unserious, ‘aesthete’s’ vision… what the lens of Camp, which blocks out content, is.”

“The Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.”

“To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.”

“Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”

Sontag’s examples for such seriousness include the Tiffany lamp, Busby Berkeley, and other musicals.

This is not so with such famous would-be Camp films of the fifties as All About Eve and Beat the Devil. These more recent movies have their fine moments, but the first is so slick and the second so hysterical; they want so badly to be campy that they’re continually losing the beat. Perhaps, though, it is not so much a question of the unintended effect versus the conscious intention, as of the delicate relation between parody and self-parody in Camp. The films of Hitchcock are a showcase… When self-parody lacks ebullience but instead reveals (even sporadically) a contempt for one’s themes and one’s materials -… North by Northwest — the results are forced and heavy-handed, rarely Camp… Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious.

In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish… The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers… Gaudí’s lurid and beautiful buildings in Barcelona are Camp not only because of their style but because they reveal — most notably in the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia — the ambition on the part of one man to do what it takes a generation, a whole culture to accomplish.

Eisenstein’s films are seldom Camp because, despite all exaggeration, they do succeed (dramatically) without surplus… The same for Blake’s drawings and paintings, weird and mannered as they are. They aren’t Camp; though Art Nouveau, influenced by Blake, is.

Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp — what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.

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, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don’t perceive.

Such temporal distance as is necessary for the Camp lens would be interesting in comparison with postmodernity and nostalgia:

This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment — or arouses a necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility.

Thus, things are campy, not when they become old – but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt… Garbo’s incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty. She’s always herself. [January Jones in Mad Men]

Camp exhibits an essential flatness (of character):

What Camp taste responds to is “instant character” (this is, of course, very 18th century); and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing.

Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. 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.

There are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.

For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result…This sensibility also insists on the principle that an oeuvre in the old sense (again, in art, but also in life) is not possible. Only “fragments” are possible. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human – in short, another valid sensibility — is being revealed.

And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.

The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary “avant-garde” art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.

One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that “sincerity” is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness. The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness – irony, satire – seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality. Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.

Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp — Dandyism in the age of mass culture — makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted.

It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.

The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it’s not true that Camp taste ishomosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap… homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of Camp… The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.

Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.

Camp is (to repeat) the relation to style in a time in which the adoption of style — as such — has become altogether questionable. (In the modem era, each new style, unless frankly anachronistic, has come on the scene as an anti-style.)

Taste:

The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles. The absence of this love is the reason why such kitsch items as Peyton Place (the book) and the Tishman Building aren’t Camp.

The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.

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