I love museum gift shops. I know, I know–this isn’t too much of a surprise after I’ve continually admitted my undying love of the worst of late capitalism, including yes, corporate Pride. But unlike that rainbow colored free-for-all, which comes around only one month a year to tickle my frantic shopping spree fancy, museum gift shops are a year-round source of amusement, filled with tacky and overpriced appeals to garish Midwestern tourist tastes: postcards of Old Master paintings nobody will ever send, scarves of Monet’s water lilies nobody will ever wear, and stuffed dolls of macho man artists like Picasso or Jackson Pollock that can terrify your child with their hypermasculine aggression, or give them nightmares about pissing in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. Who wouldn’t want to snuggle up next to ol’ J.P. reeking of booze after punching out some fellow painters over an aesthetic argument at the Cedar Tavern? Sweet dreams!
This all goes to say that I almost instinctually wandered directly into the exhibition-specific gift shop for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s Camp: Notes On Fashion before ever stepping foot into the show. Now, part of this may have been my own personal compulsion to flock to trashy sellable wares like a moth to a shiny, expensive flame. But I was also confused and blinded by the searing Camp entrance that was illuminated by a glaring fluorescent representation of that ubiquitous four-letter word. When confronted by a white light, my first impulse is to flee the other way: is this camp heaven? I’m not ready to die!
In retrospect, I wish I had followed my instincts, turned heel, and marched right into the gift shop since it provided the most amusing moments of the entire Camp: Notes on Fashion experience. This isn’t too much of a shock given the bungling of the gala, and the general humorlessness that exemplifies anything the Met does. Nevertheless, the show was somehow worse than I expected. The stumbling, bumbling missteps began immediately with the first room “Camp Beau Ideal,” which argues that sexy homoerotic classical Greco-Roman sculptures are, as the wall text reads, “endowed with the camp trace.” Does the camp trace leave a stain? Can you get it out with Tide? Obviously curator Andrew Bolton missed reading David M. Halperin’s distinction between the beauty and the camp in How to Be Gay, since depictions of these perfectly built male bodies such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph Antinous is all beauty, no camp.
This is not to say Greco-Roman statuary can never be camp, but it’s all context dependent (like most of camp). Sculptures of ideal male nudes flocking the azure pool in Liberace’s Vegas mansion? Camp. These sculptures in a museum already known for their classical art collection that obviously just dragged them from their dusty storage? Decidedly not camp.
And it didn’t get better from there with subsequent rooms exploring camp’s history from Versailles to Wilde to a room full of “Sontag-ian camp,” a section filled with all the (not)camp items Sontag listed in her “Notes on Camp.” This unfortunately included my inanimate nemesis: the Tiffany lamp (it was behind glass or I would have made good on my promise to smash it). What made the exhibition even more maddening was the continual typey-typey-typey of typewriter keys that I assume were supposed to represent Sontag’s maniacal fingers as she did a number on camp. If that wasn’t enough to spark an anxiety attack, this constant clicking clatter was interrupted only by Judy Garland caterwauling “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” while others chattered on about camp. It was like the soundtrack to a psychotic break. The Met must have some sort of kickback agreement with Bellevue’s psych ward, because I was ready to check myself in.
Overall, though, beyond the aggressive aural atmosphere, the exhibition was so highfalutin that camp lost its luster as any sort of subversive survival strategy for the marginalized–the “lifeboat for men at sea,” as Phillip Core writes. Curator Andrew Bolton tried so damn hard to show camp as solely the tool of the privileged upper class, stripping the aesthetic of any urgency. Whether it was the de facto focus on high-end fashion or the inherent snobbery of institutional curating, the focus solely on camp that could be purchased by the wealthy came at the expense of looking very, very out of touch in our increasingly economically stratified times. Where were the street queens laughing from Esther Newton’s Mother Camp? Would putting Divine’s leopard print “crime is beauty” outfit from Female Trouble cause the hallowed walls of the Met to come crumbling down (I hope so)? I mean, even Wilde was in the gutter when he was looking at the stars.
This also had the added effect of making the show seem extremely white. Even the mannequins were white. It was so white that catching a glimpse of Willi Ninja voguing in Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep In Vogue” video was a welcome relief, bringing some much-needed and essential queer of color camp performance to the whiteout of the exhibition. There’s no mistaking why a group of viewers gathered around this video, lingering longer than at the rest of the works on display.
More than just slotting camp as a tool for those able to afford it, Camp: Notes on Fashion was also startlingly humorless. For an aesthetic based on ridiculousness and excess masking caustic humor, there weren’t really many laughs to be had, unless you count audible scoffs at bad curatorial decisions as laughter. If camp is failed seriousness, Camp was failed failed seriousness. In the Met’s hands, camp became (gasp!) academic, just as Sontag bungled camp decades ago. Filling up the wall texts and labels with quote upon quote upon quote about camp, the show was like Camp 101 taught by someone who had no idea what camp is. Why not write all the text in a camp style? My email’s public; I would have done it for the right price, Mary!
The exhibition was, in fact, so self-serious that the utter absurd tackiness of the post-exhibition gift shop was a breath of fresh consumerist air, and created much more of a camp moment than the exhibition. So rather than spending more time on that shit show of a show, I want to also review the gift shop. Yes, the gift shop. Mark Booth explains, “to be camp is to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits.” And what could be more marginal than delving into the trashy-as-hell gift store, rather than that bore of a blockbuster exhibition? And boy, after that mess, I needed some good retail therapy!
Of course, the gift shop had some of your museum shop staples such as refrigerator magnets featuring clothing on display in the exhibition so you could wake up, and wander to the fridge to holler, “That’s not camp!” into the morning light. What better way to get the juices flowing? Who needs coffee? There was also a $22 box of postcards to send to friends and family asking, “Is this camp?” See who is really worth your time. For those more into grotesquely garish fashion statements, a silver fanny pack emblazoned with the word “CAMP” in sequined letters will do the trick. Something about it just screams “I fall for leggings-driven MLM pyramid schemes” to me. While this hideous fanny pack looks like something someone couldn’t give away, at $42, you’ve got to really want it. No matter–be proud of your tastelessness!
Perhaps my favorite gift shop offering (and the one I’ve been obsessively regretting not purchasing) is a T-shirt featuring a cartoon version of Susan Sontag, by illustrator Angelica Hicks, smirking blankly with a thousand-yard-stare. Her hands are held up in either mid-air quotes or Lady Gaga’s clenched claw gesture. Do you think Sontag would have been a Little Monster? The prominent writer sports a pink sweatshirt, a fashion statement that just screams Sontag, that reads “Camp counselor.” Imagine her reaction to this. I envision outraged recoiling. Talk about camp. What kind of merit badges do you think Sontag would give out as a camp counselor? A theorizing about illness badge? Comparing photography to death badge?
Counselor Sontag isn’t the only figure that gets branded as a “camp icon” with an unfortunate yet strangely appealing illustration on pins, patches, T-shirts, and tote bags. Susan is joined by Karl Lagerfeld, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele in a “Campify Yourself” shirt, Dapper Dan who transforms into “Dapper Dan-dy” (They didn’t even try), and Jean-Paul Gaultier in a striped boating shirt who says, “How’s this for sailing camp?” What does that even mean? There’s even Anna Wintour whose square sunglasses are scrawled with CA-MP. Do you think Anna knows about this, or was this whispered between assistants in the hopes she’d never find out? Wintour’s severity and utter lack of affect does make her a quasi-camp figure exuding the pinnacle of icy rich white lady energy–something my role model Azealia Banks has picked up on in several songs. Speaking of, why wasn’t Azealia a camp icon? She certainly earned it after emerging as a butthole soap purveyor, after surviving being stranded in “pork skin and froggy eyelids” Elon Musk’s house waiting for Grimes for days on end. Give a girl some credit.
The appearance of Karl Lagerfeld in this smattering of “camp icons” is also shocking when juxtaposed with some of the apparel offered in the special designer collections made specifically for the exhibition as a ploy for wealthier patrons to buy something ugly. Case in point: the Off-White collection, which included (the horror!) sweatpants. White sweatpants! Karl Lagerfeld famously sneered, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” I won’t argue there, even if you do pay $590 for Off-White ones to wear to Kanye’s Sunday Services. I’d rather wear these and nothing else:
Naturally, given the time of year, the Met had to get into their own form of institutional consumerist Pride, hocking rainbow-tinted items peppered with Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.” Yuck. Somehow, they found the cheesiest Wilde quote to slap on coffee mugs, pencils, and the back of a jean jacket that looks as if it should be sold at K-mart. It feels like an affirmational phrase posted on a mood board for someone teetering on the edge of the abyss. And that jean jacket is $128. Who knew being yourself could be so expensive?! If I’m going to buy a jacket covered with a Wilde quote, I’ll take Lord Henry Wotton’s line from The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”
An even better way to celebrate Pride inside the museum would be by stuffing your pockets with the multicolored bandana scarf covered in “camp symbols” like…a heart? Lips? Are lips camp? Where’s the poppers bottles and martini glasses?! No matter what bizarre symbols fleck the scarf, it still resembles various colored bandanas, aligning with the eponymous hanky code, that secret language meant to telegraph your favorite…ahem…pleasure or position. What could be better than slipping the scarf into your back pocket with the yellow peeking out to announce to everyone in the Sackler Egyptian wing that you’re into watersports? Or better yet, a flash of red could let your fellow Renaissance painting connoisseurs in on the secret that you’re game for fisting! And Jesus thought he was a masochist!
Beyond the sheer kitsch hilarity of the gift shop, it also exposed some of what was needed in the exhibition itself, namely an infusion of pop culture, and a wider range of LGBTQ+ and POC experiences and histories. Take, for example, a display of books that included John Waters’s Mr. Know-It-All, madison moore’s Fabulous, George Chauncey’s Gay New York, Quinlan Miller’s Camp TV, and Chantal Regnault’s photography collection Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92. Did anyone involved with curating Camp: Notes on Fashion read these books? If so, where was their influence in the show? Just this conglomeration of texts said more about the use of camp than the exhibition itself.
Ultimately, going back to my initial assertion of adoration for museum gift shop tchotchkes, knickknacks and gewgaws, the reason I love museum gift shops is because they are precisely the place within the institution in which the institution’s elitist mask slips. Suddenly, the intellectually rigorous institution tries to appeal to the lowest common denominator of trash taste. The museum transforms from a center for bringing high culture to the masses to a low culture grift for tourist dollars. And there’s just something deliciously subversive about the same institution selling a reproducible version of a work of art that they’re desperately trying to convince the public has an irreplaceable aura.
In Camp: The Lie That Tells The Truth, Phillip Core asserts, “CAMP is a disguise that fails.” And the privileged version of camp enacted within Camp: Notes on Fashion failed as soon as viewers exited through the gift shop. And while it may have been more bad bad taste than good bad taste, as John Waters distinguishes, it was welcome nonetheless.