Camp is an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value. Camp aesthetics disrupt many of modernism's notions of what art is and what can be classified as high art by inverting aesthetic attributes such as beauty, value, and taste through an invitation of a different kind of apprehension and consumption.
Camp can also be a social practice and function as a style and performance identity for several types of entertainment including film, cabaret, and pantomime. Where high art necessarily incorporates beauty and value, camp necessarily needs to be lively, audacious and dynamic. "Camp aesthetics delights in impertinence." Camp opposes satisfaction and seeks to challenge. The visual style is closely associated with gay culture.
Camp art is related to—and often confused with—kitsch, and things with camp appeal may also be described as "cheesy". When the usage appeared in 1909, it denoted "ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual" behavior, and by the middle of the 1970s, camp was defined by the college edition of Webster's New World Dictionary as "banality, mediocrity, artifice, [and] ostentation ... so extreme as to amuse or have a perversely sophisticated appeal". The American writer Susan Sontag's essay Notes on "Camp" (1964) emphasized its key elements as: "artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and shocking excess".
Origins and development
In 1870, in a letter produced in evidence at his examination before a magistrate at Bow-street, London, on suspicion of illegal homosexual acts, crossdresser Frederick Park referred to his "campish undertakings"; but the letter does not make clear what these were. In 1909, the Oxford English Dictionary gave the first print citation of camp as
ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; . So as a noun, 'camp' behaviour, mannerisms, et cetera. (cf. quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behaviour.
According to the dictionary, this sense is "etymologically obscure". Camp in this sense has been suggested to have possibly derived from the French term se camper, meaning "to pose in an exaggerated fashion". Later, it evolved into a general description of the aesthetic choices and behavior of working-class gay men. The concept of camp was described by Christopher Isherwood in 1954 in his novel The World in the Evening, and then in 1964 by Susan Sontag in her essay and book Notes on "Camp".
The rise of post-modernism made camp a common perspective on aesthetics, which was not identified with any specific group. The attitude was originally a distinctive factor in pre-Stonewall gay male communities, where it was the dominant cultural pattern. It originated from the understanding of gayness as effeminacy. Two key components of camp were originally feminine performances: swish and drag. With swish featuring extensive use of superlatives, and drag being exaggerated female impersonation, camp became extended to all things "over the top", including women posing as female impersonators (faux queens), as in the exaggerated Hollywood version of Carmen Miranda. It was this version of the concept that was adopted by literary and art critics and became a part of the conceptual array of 1960s culture. Moe Meyer still defines camp as "queer parody".
The Comedy Central television show Strangers with Candy (1999–2000), starring comedian Amy Sedaris, was a camp spoof of the ABC Afterschool Special genre. Inspired by the work of George Kuchar and his brother Mike Kuchar, ASS Studios, launched in 2011 by Courtney Fathom Sell and Jen Miller, began making a series of short, no-budget camp films. Their feature film Satan, Hold My Hand (2013) features many elements recognized in camp pictures.
American singer and actress Cher is often called the "Queen of Camp" because of her outrageous fashion and live performances. She gained that status in the 1970s when she launched her variety shows in collaboration with the costume designer Bob Mackie and became a constant presence on American prime time television.
Dusty Springfield is a camp icon. In public and on stage, Springfield developed a joyful image supported by her peroxide blonde beehive hairstyle, evening gowns, and heavy make-up that included her much-copied "panda eye" mascara. Springfield borrowed elements of her look from blonde glamour queens of the 1950s, such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, and pasted them together according to her own taste. Her ultra-glamorous look made her a camp icon and this, combined with her emotive vocal performances, won her a powerful and enduring following in the gay community. Besides the prototypical female drag queen, she was presented in the roles of the "Great White Lady" of pop and soul and the "Queen of Mods". More recently South Korean rapper Psy, known for his viral internet music videos full of flamboyant dance and visuals, has come to be seen as a 21st-century incarnation of camp style.
Lady Gaga, a contemporary exemplar of camp, uses musical expression and the body motions of dance to make social commentary on pop culture, as in the Judas video. Her clothes, makeup, and accessories, created by high-end fashion designers, are integral to the narrative structure of her performances.
Distinguishing between kitsch and camp
The words "camp" and "kitsch" are often used interchangeably; both may relate to art, literature, music, or any object that carries an aesthetic value. However, "kitsch" refers specifically to the work itself, whereas "camp" is a mode of performance. Thus, a person may consume kitsch intentionally or unintentionally. Camp, as Susan Sontag observed, is always a way of consuming or performing culture "in quotation marks".
Sontag also distinguishes between "naive" and "deliberate" camp, and examines Christopher Isherwood's distinction between low camp, which he associated with cross-dressing practices and drag performances, and high camp, which he considered as part of a cultural heritage that included "the whole emotional basis of the Ballet, for example, and of course of Baroque art".
Around the world
Gay comedian Kenneth Williams wrote in a diary entry for 1 January 1947: "Went to Singapore with Stan—very camp evening, was followed, but tatty types so didn't bother to make overtures." Although it applies to gay men, it is a specific adjective used to describe a man that openly promotes the fact that he is gay by being outwardly garish or eccentric, for example, the character Daffyd Thomas in the English comedy skit show Little Britain. "Camp" forms a strong element in UK culture, and many so-called gay-icons and objects are chosen as such because they are camp. People like Kylie Minogue, John Inman, Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen, Lulu, Graham Norton, Mika, Lesley Joseph, Ruby Wax, Dale Winton, Cilla Black, and the music hall tradition of the pantomime are camp elements in popular culture. The British tradition of the "Last Night of the Proms" has been said to glory in nostalgia, camp, and pastiche. Thomas Dworzak published a collection of portrait photographs of Taliban soldiers, found in Kabul photo studios. The Taliban book shows a campy esthetics, quite close to the gay movement in California or a Peter Greenaway film.
The Australian theatre and opera director Barrie Kosky is renowned for his use of camp in interpreting the works of the Western canon including Shakespeare, Wagner, Molière, Seneca, Kafka and his 2006 eight-hour production for the Sydney Theatre Company The Lost Echo, based on Ovid's Metamorphoses and Euripides' The Bacchae. In the first act ("The Song of Phaeton"), for instance, the goddess Juno takes the form of a highly stylized Marlene Dietrich, and the musical arrangements feature Noël Coward and Cole Porter. Kosky's use of camp is also effectively employed to satirize the pretensions, manners, and cultural vacuity of Australia's suburban middle class, which is suggestive of the style of Dame Edna Everage. For example, in The Lost Echo Kosky employs a chorus of high school girls and boys: one girl in the chorus takes leave from the goddess Diana, and begins to rehearse a dance routine, muttering to herself in a broad Australian accent, "Mum says I have to practice if I want to be on Australian Idol." See also the works of Australian writer/director Baz Luhrmann, in particular "Strictly Ballroom".
Since 2000, the Eurovision Song Contest, an annually televised competition of song performers from different countries, has shown an increased element of camp—since the contest has shown an increasing attraction within the gay communities—in their stage performances, especially during the televised finale, which is screened live across Europe. As it is a visual show, many Eurovision performances attempt to attract the attention of the voters through means other than the music, which sometimes leads to bizarre onstage gimmicks, and what some critics have called "the Eurovision kitsch drive", with almost cartoonish novelty acts performing.
The first post-World War II use of the word in print, marginally mentioned in the Sontag essay, may be Christopher Isherwood's 1954 novel The World in the Evening, where he comments: "You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance." In the American writer Susan Sontag's 1964 essay Notes on "Camp", Sontag emphasized artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and shocking excess as key elements of camp. Examples cited by Sontag included Tiffany lamps, the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake, and Japanese science fiction films such as Rodan, and The Mysterians of the 1950s.
In Mark Booth's 1983 book Camp he defines camp as "to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits". He carefully discerns the distinction between genuine camp, and camp fads and fancies, things that are not intrinsically camp, but display artificiality, stylization, theatricality, naivety, sexual ambiguity, tackiness, poor taste, stylishness, or portray camp people, and thus appeal to them. He considers Sontag's definition problematical because it lacks this distinction.
According to sociologist Andrew Ross, camp combines outmoded and contemporary forms of style, fashion, and technology. Often characterized by the reappropriation of a "throwaway Pop aesthetic", camp works to intermingle the categories of "high" and "low" culture. Objects may become camp objects because of their historical association with a power now in decline. As opposed to kitsch, camp reappropriates culture in an ironic fashion, whereas kitsch is indelibly sincere. Additionally, kitsch may be seen as a quality of an object, while camp, "tends to refer to a subjective process". Those who identify objects as "camp" commemorate the distance mirrored in the process through which, "unexpected value can be located in some obscure or exorbitant object." The effect of camp's irony is problematic, insofar as the agents of cultural redefinition are often of upper- or middle-class standing who could, "afford, literally, to redefine the life of consumerism and material affluence as a life of spiritual poverty".
In Ross's analysis, camp aesthetics became the site of personal liberation from the stranglehold of the corporate, capitalist state. Within the capitalist environment of constant consumption, camp rediscovers history's waste, bringing back objects thought of as refuse or of bad taste. Camp liberates objects from the landfills of history and reinvokes them with a new charisma. In doing so camp creates an economy separate from that of the state. In Ross's words, camp "is the re-creation of surplus value from forgotten forms of labor".
Ross suggests that camp often faces criticism from other political and aesthetic perspectives. For example, the most obvious argument is that camp is just an excuse for poor quality work and allows the tacky and vulgar to be recognized as valid art. In doing so, camp celebrates the trivial and superficial and form over content. The power of the camp object may be found in its ability to induce this reaction. In a sense objects that fill their beholders with disgust fulfill Sontag's definition of the ultimate camp statement, "it's good because it's awful." From flea markets to thrift stores, the 'bad taste' of camp has been increasingly reinculcated with the cultural capital that it had intended to break away from. In an attempt to "present a challenge to the mechanisms of control and containment that operate in the name of good taste", the camp aesthetic has been appropriated by artists. Their fame is only enjoyed at the expense of others, as Ross writes, "it [the pleasure of camp] is the result of the (hard) work of a producer of taste and 'taste' is only possible through exclusion and depreciation."
- Asemic writing
- Automatic writing
- Collection de l'art brut
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- Eurovision Song Contest
- Glam rock
- Horror vacui
- Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art
- Lowbrow (art movement)
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