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Cheating for Love. Notes on “Notes on camp”

by Federica Tammarazio
Università degli Studi di Genova, Italy

Pentesilea.org

For LGBT History month, we are happy to host art historian Federica Tammarazio to celebrate the anniversary of “Notes on camp” by Susan Sontag.

Fifty years ago (fifty-one actually) art critic Susan Sontag published “Notes on camp“, a series of reflections on Camp culture. According to her own definition, “Notes on camp” was not meant to be a manifesto, but rather a tool to define and understand ‘camp’ sensitivity, which she thought “more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp”[1]

What was camp back then? And what is it now?

According to Sontag, “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”.[2]

The essay moves between examples and comparisons to reflect on the changes in camp over time, from a phenomenon of which no one speaks, otherwise it would be betrayed, and of which little is said “apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel the World in the Evening (1954)”[3]; to a shared mode paraded in art and cultural artifacts produced by Western post-human society.

In order to define camp in 1964, Sontag had to make 57 points. In summary, camp sensitivity “is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. (It is) not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” It is decorative art, which favors “style at the expense of content[5]“, a concept emphasized several times to conclude that “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy[6].”

Thirty years later, camp had taken other external forms, pouring into society and new media under new and broader semantic fields. The Nineties opened a new route for camp which is fully expressed in the twenty-first century as the complete construction of a new collective identity in Western society, “the post-human”, which parallels the general redefinition of the concept of culture (“For the aristocratic posture with relation to culture cannot die, though it may persist only in increasingly arbitrary and ingenious ways”[7]).

Post-human entails an unconditionally un-historical present, devoid of the capacity of creating an epic narrative of itself and of its roots. Curiously, the loss of humanity in favor of this new condition presents many elements in common with camp: disguise (C. Sherman, Untitled Film Stills, 1977-1980), the triumph of kitsch (J. Koons, Pink Panther), the mutation of the self through the mixing of gender, expressive languages and symbolic levels (Matthew Barney, Cremaster, 1994-2002), and humor (D. Hirts, Mother and Child Divided, 1993 and M. Cattelan, Him, 1999). For Sontag, by favoring the surface over the content and by emphasizing the mixture of forms and language in its judgment of the human being, “the androgynous being is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility”[8]

Camp sensitivity becomes a macro container that holds many contemporary research trends. What is the reason for this?

One of the answers may lie in the fact that camp is elusive. It is everything and its opposite. In the definition by Sontag, for example, “Art Nouveau objects turn, and this is typical, one thing into something else: the lighting in the form of flowering plants, the living room which is actually a cave[9]”. Yet, “A full analysis of Art Nouveau, for instance, would scarcely equate it with Camp. But such an analysis cannot ignore what in Art Nouveau allows it to be experienced as Camp. Art Nouveau is full of “content,” even of a political-moral sort; it was a revolutionary movement in the arts, spurred on by a Utopian vision (somewhere between William Morris and the Bauhaus group) of an organic politics and taste.” [10]

For this reason, the definition of nature from a camp point of view is particularly fitting, because it is abstracted from the content. Abstraction corresponds to an hidden escape, but always in reach: the very serious and macabre Marc Quinn in the self-portrait “Self” (1991) serves as the official counterpart of the sculpture “Allison Lapper Pregnant” (2000). Likewise, Yinka Shonibare’s dummies are an exotic version of Fragonar; the provocative but innocent figures by Takashi Murakami outline the strong link between the Japanese company and its creative artifacts.

In fact, “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More PRECISELY, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious”[11].

There could be so much more going on in depth, but we can stop with the superabundance of the surface. All that has not been transcribed, quoted or described would be equally important – but synthesis entails cruelty.

[1] Sontag S., Notes on camp, 1964 [online]. Available at: < http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid

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