The Camp Aesthetic Is Everywhere, from Andy Warhol to American Politics

Jackson Arn
Sep 5, 2018 6:49PM
Jim Shaw
Good N Plenty, 2018
Simon Lee Gallery

Using the same word to describe Oscar Wilde, Caravaggio, and Lady Gaga may be regarded as a misfortune; using it to describe Avital Ronell’s emails, Nazi propaganda, and Donald Trump looks like carelessness.

That word is “camp,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture.” How the word came to acquire that meaning is unclear. (One possible theory: Originally it was an acronym, K.A.M.P., which stood for “Known As Male Prostitute.”) What is clear is that camp has gone mainstream in the century or so since its earliest recorded usage. Like “surreal” or “formalist” or “Kafkaesque”—words originally used to characterize a subversive, little-understood aesthetic sensibility—“camp” is now applied to everything under the sun. At this point, the term seems to have had all the meaning, and subversiveness, squeezed out of it.


Blame Susan Sontag. Her essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”—originally published in The Partisan Review in 1964—brought on a craze for the academic analysis of camp, if not camp itself. Although some of the essay’s assertions seem broad (“The relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental”) or questionable (“It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical”), the best of them have the beauty and concision of poetry.

For instance: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’.…[Camp] is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” Or her final claim: “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.…Of course one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.” In 6,000 words and 58 numbered points, Sontag succeeded in expressing something that many had felt but few had articulated clearly. By the time you finish her essay, you wonder how you ever got by without “camp” in your vocabulary.

There had been a camp aesthetic for years—even centuries—before the word was coined. Sontag herself offers an informal genealogy: Mannerist painting, Mozart’s operas, Oscar Wilde’s witticisms. For all their differences, these things have in common a kind of showy, over-the-top artifice; a decidedly androgynous sense of beauty; and an allergy to seriousness that, together, prevent easy interpretation. Consider the images of the late Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, which—with their gaudy colors, Arthurian themes, and dramatic figures—seem almost cheesy in their intensity, to the point where you can’t decide whether to chuckle or weep. It’s this teasing uncertainty that makes the artist a camp icon par excellence.

One of camp’s defining features, indeed, is its refusal to be defined completely. Historically linked with homosexuality and other forbidden desires, camp remains playfully evasive about its own identity—it is, you might say, the style that dare not speak its name. To her credit, Sontag recognized this paradox. “To snare a sensibility in words,” she wrote, “especially one that is alive and powerful, one must be tentative and nimble.” But no matter how nimbly she may have approached her subject, Sontag opened Pandora’s box. The essay took some of the ease and unpretentiousness out of camp by reimagining it as an academic subject; in other words, it committed the sin Sontag had tried so hard to avoid. Artist and writer Bruce LaBruce, who authored an updated “Notes on Camp/Anti Camp” in 2012, put it rather more bluntly: “That makes her a kind of traitor!”

Sontag’s essay coincided with the mid-1960s glut of goofy, hiply self-aware TV, art, and film—everything from the cinema of Andy Warhol (in 1965, he directed a feature called Camp) to the Adam West version of Batman, with its self-mocking “SPLAT!” intertitles. For better or worse, Sontag shaped and prolonged this trend by giving it a name and a manifesto. The same year as “Notes on Camp,” moreover, she penned a glowing review of director Jack Smith’s 1963 queer camp extravaganza Flaming Creatures; she even testified on behalf of the artists who’d been charged with obscenity for screening the film. By the end of the 1970s—not entirely because of Sontag’s efforts, but in part—camp had come out of the closet, seeped into a startling number of popular art forms and genres, and splintered off into a hundred different sub-species of itself.

Grayson Perry
Britain is Best, 2016
Castlegate House Gallery

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 Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat 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.)

Tony Oursler
Half (Brain), 1998
Metro Pictures

This doesn’t necessarily mean that camp is dead—only that much of it is lazy or dishonest, and that the little that isn’t can be hard to spot. It’s no coincidence that Tony Oursler, Jim Shaw, and the late Mike Kelley—to name three of the most influential American artists whose work is likened to camp—amassed enormous collections of ephemera and found objects: antique magic kits and mediumistic photographs (Oursler); evangelical posters and pamphlets (Shaw); dolls and blankets culled from hundreds of thrift shops and yard sales (Kelley). By repurposing these items in their own works, the artists recapture some of the spirit of camp as Sontag described it. Oursler, Shaw, and Kelley know what camp is, but the anonymous folks who crafted the found objects in their collections probably didn’t, and this tension allows us to see the objects as simultaneously sincere and ironic; joyful and jaded.

It could be argued that camp, like so many other styles, is a victim of its own success. Though it continues to inspire talented auteurs like Grayson Perry, John Waters, and Maurizio Cattelan (as well as a great many hacks not worth naming), it’s forfeited some of its innocence, and its power to disrupt and destabilize. In exchange, it has become omnipresent, uniting everything from Star Wars to Sarah Palin. So it goes. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, a millennial heir to Sontag is banging out a long, insightful article on some as-of-yet unheralded sensibility. And when that article has been published, and the new sensibility has been discussed and debated to death, we won’t be able to believe we ever got by without it.

Jackson Arn