Nothing Succeeds Like Excess: Camp at the Met
New YorkMet Fifth Avenue
May 9 – September 8, 2019
“It is a truism that the only point of agreement about camp is that there is no agreement,” warns the wall text that ushers us into Camp: Notes on Fashion. It’s a fig leaf that doesn’t quite cover the show’s intellectual weaknesses. This exhibition might raise more questions than it answers: ‘Is camp gay?’ ‘Is camp political?’ And, ultimately, ‘What is camp? Is Camp gay?! Oh, for Ganymede’s sake! Does the Pope wear ruby slippers?’
Maybe such waffling is appropriate for a show about a covert (yet overt) gay sensibility that reveals (even as it conceals) its queerness in an Oscar Wildean embrace of the self as mask and life as art, and in an ironic attitude capable of transmuting masscult crap into comedy gold.
The exhibition doesn’t make its case through the careful forging of logical links; like Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964), the collage-like essay that Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, used as his flight plan, “Notes on Fashion” argues by association, plunking couture and quotes about Camp and works of art and tidbits of historical trivia side by side and leaving it to the viewer to make the connections.
In the first gallery, which walks us through Camp’s historical precursors, we learn that 19th-century worshippers of the “beau ideal”—the epitome of male beauty, as embodied in classical Greek statues—were much taken with sculptures of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s young lover Antinous, who “became a Hellenic idol of homoeroticism.” Here’s Robert Mapplethorpe’s “sensual photographic tribute” to a statue of Antinous, which “attests to Mapplethorpe’s fetishism of the male body through the lens of Greek sculpture.” Classical in its restraint, tastefully homoerotic, and technically impeccable in the usual Mapplethorpean way, the photo is the furthest thing from Camp, which is Baroque in its love of artifice, excess, exaggeration, the unnatural. Antinous was often depicted in the effete attitude known as contrapposto, which in modern times “became synonymous with the camp pose known as ‘the teapot,’” we’re told. Here’s a painting of Oscar Wilde not looking camp in the least—if anything, the self-proclaimed Lord of Language looks serenely regal, as if he’s plotting the conquest of another London dinner-table—but he is standing contrapposto, so there’s that. Just for laughs, here’s a jokey Victorian teapot in the shape of a mincing Wildean Aesthete, hand on hip.
How Mapplethorpe’s homage to Antinous or his “fetishism” relate to Camp, or whether Antinous is campy because he’s twink-y or because he snapped into contrapposto whenever he posed for a marble selfie is anyone’s guess. Does standing contrapposto make you campy because it’s a gay thing? Does that mean being gay and being campy go hand in (mauve) glove? (Ridiculous, says J. Bryan Lowder, in his essay “Camp vs. Campy: There’s a big difference.”) Also anyone’s guess is the difference between Camp (the sensibility) and camping (the social practice), and whether Camp is a way of looking at things (seen from the right ironic angle, Tiffany lampshades, Art Nouveau tchotchkes, and even the paintings of Caravaggio can be Camp) or a way of being in the world (camping it up) or both. Oh, and: Where all the lesbians? (Agnes Moorehead, long rumored to have been lesbian, was pure Camp as Endora on Bewitched.) Is Camp exclusively a gay male thing? If so, why?
These aren’t nitpicks; they go to the heart of what Camp is. The recorded voices caroming off the walls of the large, vaulted gallery at the end of show offer a grab bag’s worth of definitions of Camp, as do the texts plastered all over that “echo chamber” as the press kit calls it. Still, throwing fistfuls of quotes into the air doesn’t add up to a coherent argument (though it’s great fun, like firing off a party popper in the mind). Of course, in that regard Bolton is only being faithful to the scattershot, inconclusive theorizing-on-the-fly of Sontag’s essay.
That said, “Notes on Fashion” is visually delicious. “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment,” says Sontag. “Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.)” She’s wrong, of course, or at least not entirely right, but disagreeing with Sontag is half the fun of “Notes on Fashion,” and there’s no denying the show’s retinal pleasures.
With its flamingo-pink walls, campy statues of androgynous Greek boys, and gilt-framed paintings of Louis XIV and other denizens of his foppish, gender-bending court at Versailles, the opening gallery is Camp heaven, as envisioned by Liberace’s decorator. The walls give off a soothing roseate glow, conducive to reveries—until you’re jostled out of the way, as I was, by some bumptious clod mugging for a selfie in front of a Chanel ensemble of satin jacket and breeches, Karl Lagerfeld’s riff on the costume Louis XIV wore when he danced the role of the Sun King in The Ballet of the Night.
Happily, there was a display devoted to Oscar Wilde right around the corner, a veritable Lourdes for those of us who worship at his shrine. There are manuscripts, the famous Sarony photos of Wilde looking every inch the languid Aesthete in his lecturing costume (velvet jacket, satin knee-breeches, silk stockings, patent leather slippers with bows), and, in one of the witty juxtapositions Bolton excels at, a fabulous, gender-bent ensemble from Alessandro Michele’s spring/summer 2017 menswear collection for Gucci. “Michele grafted the jacket of a tailcoat onto the skirt of a frock coat, which he pleated to exaggerate its fullness and confound its gendered genealogy,” the wall text informs. “Worn with a string tie and velvet slippers, it gives the overall impression of a hybridized Wildean dandy-aesthete.”
The final gallery is just delirious, a forest of signs—literally: the epigrammatic wall texts are everywhere—and gasp-inducing outfits: Jeremy Scott’s spring/summer 2011 meat dress made out of eye-fooling “prosciutto” (pink and white latex, actually); Undercover’s spring/summer 2018 take on the Brady Twins, the ghostly sisters axe-murdered by their father in Kubrick’s The Shining, one in a pristine pink and blue dress, the other in a matching frock spattered with “blood” (“red cotton-synthetic net and red glass beads”). “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance,” Sontag wrote. “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Or a baby-doll dress spattered with glass-bead gore. “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”
“Notes on Camp” went viral with everyone from New York Review of Books readers to the Time magazine masses, elevating Sontag to the status of pop oracle. The essay has had remarkable staying power. Over a half century later, anyone thinking and writing about Camp still feels like a Sontag franchisee.
Funny thing is, Sontag was the least campy person ever. Whatever else it is, Camp is as fizzy as the Perrier-Jouët champagne that was mother’s milk to Wilde. It’s about ideas lightly held; about “dethroning the serious,” as Sontag herself acknowledges: “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.”
One thing Susan Sontag was not is “anti-serious.” Pass the cucumber sandwiches, will you, and I’ll beguile you with a juicy morsel from City Boy, Edmund White’s memoir of gay life and literary New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s. For years a member of Sontag’s inner circle (before the inevitable falling-out), White recalls her as a sacred monster of intellectual diva-dom, weighed down by her unsmiling self-importance like a diver clomping around in lead boots while the gay wits danced circles around her. “She was often ‘out of it’ in social settings, never getting the joke and needing everything to be spelled out,” writes White. “Her laugh was mirthless and heavy. She lacked spontaneity. Elle n’était pas bien dans sa peau, as the French would say.”1 (“She was uncomfortable in her skin.”)
Sontag’s seriousness was about Manhattan cocktail-party dominance, no doubt, but it was also the result of her generation’s equation of cultural authority and sibylline brilliance with the “moral seriousness,” as she would say, of French Existentialists like Sartre and Camus, intellectual movie stars who punctuated their gnomic utterances with puffs of Gauloise smoke. Although her early, bracing essays on Camp, porn, Pop art Happenings, and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, a trashy classic of queer cinema, planted the flag for postmodernism’s insistence on the pleasures of High and Low, she was always a creature of high culture at heart. “She never wrote about the Beatles or The Beverly Hillbillies,” White notes. How could she? She didn’t even own a TV! (Camille Paglia, onetime fangirl, longtime antagonist, deplored her elitist retreat from the postmodern mindset she’d helped usher in, dubbing her “Miss Mandarin in her New York apartment.”2) Says White, “Her taste was more inclined toward Godard and Syberberg.” Even so, he argues, “she wrote best about subjects she was most ambiguous about.”
“I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it,” Sontag declares, on the opening page of her essay, a queer thing for a famously lesbian (and famously closeted) writer to say. What, exactly, offends her so strongly? She never says. “No one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it,” she asserts. “To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” Why revulsion? Wouldn’t critical distance—the misgivings, moral or political, that make us hold a thing at arm’s length—do the job? Is this internalized homophobia talking? Or is it just a shudder of elitist distaste at Camp’s roots in the lived experience, sometimes tawdry, sometimes triumphant, sometimes self-mocking, sometimes defiant, of gay men in pre-Stonewall New York, from drag queens to “flame queens” to the merely “flamboyant”? (In this light, what are we to make of Sontag’s melodramatic use of a word that conjures up knuckle-biting silent-movie heroines in peril? Isn’t revulsion itself a little over-the-top, maybe even campy?) Also, why should immersion in a sensibility render you incapable of analyzing it? As cultural-studies scholars like Dick Hebdige and Constance Penley would soon discover by venturing outside the academic airlock to conduct ethnographic fieldwork on punks and Star Trek fans, members of subcultures can be sharply insightful about their social worlds.
Before reading “Notes on Camp,” White was familiar, naturally, with the verb: “One drag queen would shriek at another, ‘Stop camping, bitch!’” Yet despite being gay he’d never given much thought to the uppercase noun—to Camp in the Sontagian sense, a sensibility pieced together like a Tiffany lampshade, she contends, from “Scopitone films...Aubrey Beardsley drawings, Swan Lake, Bellini’s operas...the old Flash Gordon comics, women’s clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.), the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett,” and—my favorite—“stag movies seen without lust.” Doubtless he shared too wholeheartedly in the sensibility to analyze it.
Listening to Judy Garland warbling “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the Met show’s piped-in soundtrack, I kept hoping one of White’s drag queens would shatter the mood with a raucous “Stop camping, bitch!” But drag queens were nowhere to be seen, unless you count historical precursors like Louis XIV’s brother Philippe I, a “flamboyantly homosexual” crossdresser (known, not entirely convincingly, as “Monsieur”) who liked “dancing and dressing up,” in short “all the things that ladies love,” or the late-19th century British female impersonator Frederick “Fanny” Park and her friend and fellow crossdresser, Ernest “Stella” Boulton, who “became ‘camp’ heroines of queer culture” when they were tried for conspiring to seduce men by wearing frocks. (They were acquitted.)
Especially conspicuous in their absence were the black and Latinx drag performers and ballroom culture immortalized in the documentary Paris is Burning (1991) and mythologized in the FX series Pose. At the Met Gala, African-American attendees like the screenwriter Lena Waithe hijacked the red carpet in protest: a slogan scrawled on her suitcoat blared “Black Drag Queens [Invented] Camp.” In her essay “Why Was Black Camp Left Out Of The Met Exhibit?” Channing Hargrove decries the show’s erasure of black contributions to Camp, whether in the realm of couture (“Gucci, Moschino, Balenciaga, Giambattista Valli, Versace, and Louis Vuitton were all featured in the exhibition, [but] there were only three black designers”) or pop culture (Josephine Baker in her banana skirt, Blaxploitation movies, “‘70s disco icons like Donna Summer in all of her glitter, gold, and statement sunglasses,” George Clinton in “hot pants and platform boots”). “Most of the messaging surrounding the theme has leaned heavily into what camp means in queer communities,” writes Hargrove, “but what about in black culture?”
“Notes on Fashion”’s blind spots are Sontag’s, since Bolton followed her lead. “Notes on Camp” is 58 notes long, but it isn’t until note 50 that Sontag touches—with rubber-gloved distaste—on Camp’s roots in queer culture: “The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained.” Then follows some unconvincing waffle about homosexuals pinning “their integration into society on promoting their aesthetic sense.” In Sontag’s reading, Camp is an assimilationist ploy that “neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.” This gambit reminds her of the survival strategy of another “outstanding creative minority,” the Jews. “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.”
Her omission of even a passing mention of the black contribution to “modern sensibility” is either a staggering display of historically illiteracy (if you’re feeling charitable) or Peak Whiteness. As for the preposterous assertion that Camp is a kind of tongue-in-cheek minstrelsy, greasing the skids of queer assimilation, this is where Sontag’s monkish tendency to cloister herself in her legendarily vast library, rather than talk to her gay friends about what Camp—and camping—meant to them, impoverishes her analysis. According to White, “Notes on Camp” was heavily influenced by a gay friend of Sontag’s, a film critic “famous for his whip collection.” Why doesn’t he rate a mention? Both Sontag and the Met unmoor the Camp sensibility from its cultural context.
Historians like George Chauncey restore it. “Gay men developed a variety of...cultural strategies that helped them manage a double life and resist the dominant culture’s contempt,” he writes, in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, “strategies that “also affirmed their cultural distinctiveness and solidarity.”3 Camp, “the name gay men as early as the 1920s had given their most distinctive, and characteristic, cultural style,” was one of them. “[It] used irony, incongruity, theatricality, and humor to highlight the artifice of social convention, sometimes exaggerating convention to the point of burlesquing it, sometimes inverting it to achieve the same end. The drag queen thus epitomized camp, and any verbal play that questioned gender categories...embodied it. ... The social order denounced gay men as ‘unnatural’; through camp banter gay men highlighted the unnaturalness of the social order itself.”4
In an e-mail response to some questions I’d asked about “Notes on Fashion,” Bolton pointed out, “The Met is an art museum, not a museum of social history or design,” and the Costume Institute’s “mandate is to collect and explore the art of high fashion,” Bolton pointed out in an e-mail response to some questions I’d asked about “Notes on Fashion.” Fair enough. Trouble is, the aesthetic sensibility can’t be severed from the social rituals of resistance; Camp and camping it up are joined at the hip. Divorcing Camp from its social context, transposing it from the key of everyday life to the key of classical statuary, Versailles, Victorian Aesthetes, and haute couture—the key of power, wealth, and whiteness—depoliticizes Camp, flattens it into pure image, dials down its most confrontational, subversive qualities. And that goes double for what’s lost when
Camp in the annals of black and brown queer history is left out of the story.
“Camp was at once a cultural style and a cultural strategy,” Chauncey emphasizes, “for it helped gay men make sense of, respond to, and undermine the social categories of gender and sexuality that served to marginalize them.”
Facing off with the cops in front of Stonewall on the night of the riots, a bunch of gay street kids fought back with camp. Spontaneously linking arms, they formed a high-kicking chorus line, and sang, to the tune of the Howdy Doody theme song,
We are the Stonewall Girls,
We wear our hair in curls.
We wear no underwear:
We show our pubic hairs!
What I wouldn’t give to hear a few rousing choruses of that echoing through the Met’s tourist-thronged galleries.5
1. Edmund White, City Boy: My Life in New York in the 1960s and 70s, 283-4.
2. Camille Paglia, Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, 274.
3. George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, 286.
4. George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, 290.
5. David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, 176.