Camp It Up
How can the popularization of camp inspire and evolve the ways in which we “perform” protest?
All hail camp, and we don’t mean where parents send their kids for a few weeks in the summer. We’re talking about the ironic, tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top, bad-on-purpose aesthetic that’s been around since writer-wit extraordinaire Oscar Wilde set staid Victorians on their ear with his unapologetic gay lifestyle.
Now it would be silly to proclaim that camp is “trending.” After all, the word was memorialized as far back as 1909 by lexicographer J. Redding Ware as “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis.” And to this day, camp remains a hallmark of queer subculture, epitomized nowadays by such fare as the cult reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But it took New York intellectual Susan Sontag to give camp the high culture seal of approval with her 1964 essay Notes on “Camp”, identifying camp’s essential element as a “seriousness that fails.”
In the Sixties and Seventies, for instance, you could find camp on network TV in everything from Adam West’s kooky turn as Batman matching wits with Cesar Romero’s even nuttier The Joker and gravel-voiced Tom Carvel’s plugging Fudgie the Whale ice cream cake to the outrageous outfits worn by Cher. Playing at the movies were John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. On stage, it was Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company or the peerless dragster Ethyl Eichelberger as Nefertiti, Carlotta, Empress of Mexico and other doyennes of history.
Today when we describe something as campy, we usually mean that it’s quirky, kitschy or flamboyant. Clothes, movies, furniture, songs and even people can be campy. The term can feel broad and elusive — no two people seem to agree on what exactly camp means. Like Dada, you know it when you see it.
Indeed, soon you’ll even be able to see it at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 2019 theme for The Met Costume Institute’s spring exhibition and Gala on May 6 will be “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” Somewhere Susan Sontag must be laughing. Hyped, brought into vogue and given mass market appeal, camp is cool. And as with anything that is remotely cool, brands will find a way to co-opt it.
Sampling Sontag’s original essay, here are a few of camp’s many faces and how they are manifested in contemporary culture:
“Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken all together seriously because it is ‘too much.’”
If camp carries a certain too-muchness, nobody personifies that better than Lady Gaga, whose original handle was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. The gogorgeous Gaga has spent the past decade building a fashion reputation through bizarre ensembles that involve dressing like a sea urchin and hatching out of a giant egg. Or there are Viktor & Rolf’s tulle-laden, meme-spewing, exaggerated gowns in its Spring 2019 Couture Collection, which feign seriousness and become the embodiment of extra.
“The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”
Jeremy Scott’s 2014 debut runway collection for Moschino with SpongeBob SquarePants references and gowns that look like potato-chip bags earned him the self-proclaimed title of “king of camp.” At first glance the clothes may seem tacky or corny, but a closer look will reveal tongue-in-cheek humor and a refreshing self-awareness. Meanwhile, John Mayer embraces camp taste in his New Light music video, which was “charmingly low-budget” and blew up the internet in 2018.
“The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Comme des Garçons’ 2018 Fall collection by Rei Kawakubo was an ode to camp, complete with fondant-like textures, clashing colors and bursting layers of fabric that create a pointed unnaturalness. The same staged artificiality rings through the comic horror of experimental pop star Billie Eilish’s latest album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?.
“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.”
If nostalgia is a sentimental longing for the past, camp is a longing for the outdated. Just ask the models who rocked the ugly sneakers and dad shoes trend all through 2018. Kitschy capitalism got an update with Vetements’ DHL T-shirt, which sold out in weeks and cost over $200. Forever 21 collaborated with the United States Postal Service on a capsule collection, which The Cut called “an eyebrow-raising mix of workwear and camp.”
“Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman’.”
Camp’s added dimension of ironic detachment is what Virgil Abloh is all about. If his quietly irreverent, “quotation mark”-peddling fashion house Off-White isn’t camp, we don’t know what is.
The Met’s Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton explains the timeliness of camp: “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, especially for marginalized cultures.”
Among all of camp’s defining features, its subversive bent could prove vital for driving social change in a cultural moment when the very existence of “truth” and “facts” is being debated. Like it or not, having the best information isn’t necessarily the best way to make a point these days. It’s all about catching people’s attention and challenging their assumptions as quickly and boldly as possible.
For a terrific example of camp’s effectiveness at using levity to influence the public’s thinking on serious issues, recall the cheekiness of The Village People. The group used disco music to skewer macho male stereotypes of cowboys and construction workers as pop culture fantasy figures. Or consider the anarchic spirit of Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot, whose trademark balaclavas and satirical performances brought global attention to human rights violations. Or even the irreverent humor of the anti-war Yippies, who raised questions about the legitimacy of the 1968 Democratic National Convention by nominating the domestic pig “Pigasus” as their presidential candidate.
Social movements need not be joyless to be serious, and camp surely isn’t for everyone, but activists should at least consider having it as a tool in their belt. One of the latest socio-political movements to have captured our attention in recent months is Extinction Rebellion (XR), an activist group that has injected fresh urgency into climate activism to match rapidly rising stakes. While XR’s tactics aren’t camp, per se, the giant pink boat that its activists parked smack dab in the middle of London’s Oxford Circus was both serious social commentary and epic prank. Or take the thousands of iconic bright pink pussyhats worn at the inaugural Women’s March. They both flaunted a similar too-muchness and mocked the incoming president’s history of sexual violence without making light of it.
Similarly, emerging initiatives like the Green New Deal, Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future could consider using camp’s performative nature and its “theatricalization of experience” to build momentum. In 2019, climate change activism needs its own version of Lady Gaga’s meat dress at the MTV Video Music Awards — raw, ugly and hard to look away from.