Consider, for instance, the two most famous Manhattan nightclubs of the disco era: Club 57 (the subject of a recent show at the Museum of Modern Art
) and Studio 54. The former was a grimy punk paradise where
rubbed shoulders with Fab Five Freddy and The Fleshtones; the latter was a glitzy money trap with valet parking. And yet both paid tribute to different sides of camp. You can feel it in 57’s weekly Monster Movie Club, both a tribute to and a send-up of old Hollywood schlock, and in 54’s legendary New Year’s Eve parties, said to have demanded four tons
of glitter. Call these the two paths for contemporary camp: one charmingly lo-fi, forever plundering the past; the other brash and maximalist; both basking in the confidence that none of this quite matters, that nothing is totally serious.
“It is a curious attribute of camp,” wrote critic David Kehr, “that it can only be found, not made.” If that’s true, then what are we supposed to do with self-aware, post-Sontagian camp? Traditionally, camp taste has often involved a major act of reinterpretation, so that the meaning of a work is wrested from the artist’s hands—an intense, somber Edward Burne-Jones painting, say, is reimagined as an extravagant, semi-comic masterpiece. What happens when the artist is in on the joke from the very beginning?
One thing that happens, per LaBruce, is that camp becomes cheaper—it even becomes the “white noise of the new millennium.” If everyone “gets” camp, furthermore, then anyone can offer a grotesque, distorted version of their own sensibility—even politicians. Who are the breakout Beltway stars of the 2010s, LaBruce asks rhetorically, if not “camp icons enacting a kind of reactionary burlesque on the American political stage?” Seen in this way, camp becomes a kind of alibi, whereby a shameless 21st-century demagogue could—just in theory, of course—get away with saying increasingly obscene and outrageous things by claiming that he’s shaking things up. (That would explain the spray tan, too.)