On Tuesday, I received a promotional email in my inbox (one of many I tend to ignore) announcing the theme of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute 2019 exhibition. To my shock (and horror), it was a theme familiar and close to my black little heart: camp! As a long-time denizen of camp, I should have been excited, thrilled to have this aesthetic raised to the highest echelons–the hallowed halls of the Met. Instead, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and a clenching in my bowels. Mary, I was anxiety-ridden, wondering what the hell the Costume Institute is planning to do to our beloved camp.
Camp, that coded aesthetic language for those of us who adore everything garish, has been getting battered from all angles lately. Apparently, it’s not enough that conservatives have perfected their own deranged form of conservative camp, at times beating us at our own game (Yes, I’m speaking of the Grand Dame Lindsey Graham herself) or used as an excuse for creepy emails from power-hungry academics. Now, apparently, we have to tangle with stodgy institutional interpretations of camp, mistaking true adoration of the marginal as something that can be shoved into a stuffy Upper East Side institution. Enough is enough! Get your classy, hierarchy-preserving hands off my trash!
According to the press release I received, the exhibition, entitled Camp: Notes on Fashion, which opens on May 9 to September 8, 2019, will explore “origins of the camp aesthetic and how it evolved from a place of marginality to become an important influence on mainstream culture.” Curated by Andrew Bolton, with Karen Van Godtsenhoven, the show will trace the development of camp, from its potential origins at Versailles with the term “se camper” to dandies and other decadents to more contemporary fashion. The press release also reveals that Susan Sontag’s flawed essay “Notes on Camp,” which Charles Ludlam remarked “really did a number on camp” will be a main source of inspiration. I’m concerned that in 2019, the Met will really do a number on camp too, acting as a solidification of an understanding of camp that is woefully inadequate.
The Met, for its part, seems to be patting itself on the back for imagining that camp is a serious theme to examine. As Bolton noted in The New York Times, “We are going through an extreme camp moment, and it felt very relevant to the cultural conversation to look at what is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful political tool.” Empty frivolity! What’s wrong with that, Mary?!
The Times piece, along with Zachary Small’s write-up in Hyperallergic, seems to see this theme as an about-face from this year’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. But, are they serious? What’s more camp than Catholicism! All that pomp and circumstance! Grand dramatic displays of religiosity! Those Biblical and saintly drama queens were really the first divas.
Despite the inherent camp of Heavenly Bodies, the Costume Institute tends to do best when focusing on a single designer like the gold standard of fashion exhibitions–the Alexander McQueen retrospective. I mean, sure Heavenly Bodies did offer some stunning spectacles during the Met Gala, including Lana Del Rey acting as Our Lady of the Sad Girls and Driving Fast, Pope Rihanna and even, Grimes and Elon Musk appearing as the weirdest Goth couple in your high school. Hosted by Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Alessandro Michele, Serena Williams and the campiest Anna Wintour, 2019’s Met Gala already disappoints me. There wasn’t anyone campier than HARRY STYLES? Seriously?! It should be hosted by John Waters and Cher, whose new album of ABBA covers redefines the meaning of camp. It sounds like you reached the pearly gates only to find them lined with go-go boys.
And lest you think my worry is unwarranted, the Costume Institute has previously fucked up subcultures royally. Remember that abomination PUNK: From Chaos to Couture? I know, I have traumatic flashbacks too with their ham-fisted transference of anarchy to the Upper East Side. The worst offender in that show was, of course, the replica of CBGB’s filth-encrusted bathroom, covered in faux cigarette butts, piss stains and layers upon layers of bleary-eyed drunken graffiti scrawl. Unlike the real thing, which I had the misfortune of using in my early NYC years, this recreation was preserved under glass, shielding the pearl-clutching public from its decades of smells just as the punk haven shuttered on the Bowery. If punk hadn’t already died, this was its final gasp.
Now, I’ll defer that I cannot say how Camp: Notes on Fashion will inevitably be. I’ll go into it with an open mind, but I do feel, as one of the keepers of the camp flame, a responsibility to point out some of the red flags that were peppered throughout the Met’s promotional email. The first of which occurred before I even reached the text. The included images showcase a Moschino shirt emblazoned with the text “Too Much Irony!” from Spring/Summer 1991 and an ensemble from Virgil Abloh for Off-White that included a little black dress with that exact phrase in quotation marks running down the side. It should come as little surprise when I label these outfits ironic rather than camp, considering one of the pieces has the word printed on its actual fabric.
This conflation of irony and camp continues into the press release, which quotes Max Hollein, the new Director of The Met, saying “The show will embody the ironic sensibilities of this audacious style…” Oh, honey, no. And while it might seem minor, this is a fundamental issue: where irony is eye-rolling dismissiveness that pretends to like bad things to set oneself apart from the debased, camp is a full-fledged sincere embrace of all that is theatrical and artificial. There is no place for air-quote cynicism in camp, only, as Robert F. Kiernan writes in Frivolity Unbounded: Six Masters of the Camp Novel, “a shameless love of all that is exaggerated.” Similarly, Scott Long asserts in “The Loneliness of Camp” that camp “takes the trivial absolutely seriously” (79).
In How To Be Gay, David M. Halperin articulates the distinction between camp and irony, which he links to straight hipsterdom. He writes, “Unlike camp, which allows no possibility for distance or dis-identification, straight hipster irony is at once satirical and apathetic; it signals both detachment from and a certain sense of superiority to the “authentic” cultural forms and aesthetic practices that hipsterism fetishizes–even if it is quite fond of them, in its way… straight hipster irony maintains and consolidates (though it’s much too cool to flaunt it) a distant and disengaged position for hipsters–that is, a position of relative social privilege” (396). While irony comes from a place of jaded snootiness, camp drags everyone into the gutter, creating a community of folks with the same warped sensibility. “On the contrary,” Halperin observes, “the recognition of something as camp is itself an admission of one’s own susceptibility to the camp aesthetic and of one’s own willingness to participate in a community composed of those who share the same loving relation to the ghastly object” (189-90).
And part of this misinterpretation of camp began with the seminal source: Susan Sontag’s own mishandling of camp in “Notes on Camp,” which The Met is perhaps unwisely using as a blueprint. Sontag never seemed to get that camp isn’t insincere, but I assure you, us denizens of camp, are quite serious about abominable things. As Halperin insists, “Sontag may be overplaying the insincerity of camp, its alienation and distance from the objects and practices it takes up, and underplaying its genuine love of them, its passionate belief in them” (193).
While Sontag’s essay certainly isn’t without its significance, it also has many problems. A big one is Sontag’s awkward list of camp objects, from Swan Lake to women’s clothes of the twenties, including feather boas and fringed and beaded dresses), none of which seem all that campy. And I swear, if I see a Tiffany lamp in Camp: Notes on Fashion, I’m going to smash it. Find better camp decorative arts! Maybe a golden tortoise?
That list was one of the major sticking points for Charles Ludlam in his own essay on Camp in Ridiculous Theatre: The Scourge of Human Folly. “What’s wrong with that is that camp ceases to be an attitude toward something and loses all its relativity. It nails it to the wall and makes it very literal. Therefore something becomes definitively camp, which is absurd. Values change. The value of camp, the ability to perceive things in a unique way, is that it turns values upside down” (225). And this is the real risk of Camp: Notes on Fashion–overlooking that camp is a sensibility. Rather than a series of objects, clothes, art pieces, etc. organized and curated, camp lies in the attitude and twisted outlook of the viewer. As Ludlam writes, “Camp is a way of looking at things, never what’s looked at” (225). For example, I find the sad sack-y religious paintings in the Met to be totally camp, but that’s because it’s in my nature to laugh at the histrionics of the saints. Camp is in the eye of the beholder.
Even the understanding of Versailles as a “sort of camp Eden,” drawn from Mark Booth’s essay “Camp-toi! On the Origins and Definitions of Camp,” comes from a particular perspective. Booth states, “Of course, Louis XIV did not build Versailles with the intention of making it camp, but, like peasants after a revolution, camp people have camped out in the palace. They have overrun the legend of Versailles and converted it to camp” (76).
Now, the question remains how the Met will deal with camp’s elusiveness. I fear that they won’t deal with it at all, instead labeling certain aesthetics and items as definitively camp and moving on, stripping away camp’s most cutting critique–the ability to usurp any aesthetic and take it as our own, for the minorities who don’t even fit into our own minorities. It’s important that camp maintain its ability to alienate just the people who would attend the Met Gala and donate to the Costume Institute. If not, what the fuck are we doing? Camp belongs to a drag queen splashing in the fountain of the Met’s David H. Koch Plaza (Yes, that Koch), not tamed within an exhibition.