Well, as I hoped in my last blog entry, I did change my mind about the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition at the Met on a sunny summer day in New York City. New York does that to me more often than not, it always provides a change of perspective, shifting it from the neurosis of Washington, DC to a more life-affirming attitude. Even with rain clouds covering much of Manhattan, the view from the Rainbow Room’s bar was still a sight to behold.
As for the exhibition, it was simply great fun. And as such, it delivered what Camp promises. It traces its ‘history’ in a sometimes unabashedly anachronistic fashion to the ancient statues of Antinous with their classic contrapposto stance and one arm akimbo
to Rigault’s famous painting of Louis XIV in his coronation gown, assuming a similar pose, to Oscar Wilde, whom Susan Sontag identified as the main character in Camp’s play on aestheticism, irony and reality in her Notes on Camp.
None of these historical figures was actually Camp, each lived within a cultural context in which the concept as we define it today made no sense. Versailles’ reputation as an idealized ‘Camp Eden’ was a ‘retroactive designation’, and even regarding Wilde, the authors of the exhibition catalogue concede that he ‘was neither described as camp or a homosexual during his lifetime’. His identification as ‘a camp homosexual’ only emerges in historical hindsight. This raises the issue of whether camp is a particular quality in artefacts that are intentionally or unintentionally imbued with it, or a gaze or vision that can appropriate historical items and protagonists for its repertoire. Susan Sontag famously allows both in Note 3, with the balance going towards the quality side: ‘[Not] everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder’ .
This might be true, but it does not settle the question of ‘what is camp’ in any unambiguous way. Is a Tiffany lamp really camp? Some of the dresses on display were in my view not Camp as they, in Sontag’s words, ‘did succeed (dramatically) without surplus’ (Note 27). Ultimately, I find the desire to settle this question quite unproductive, so I settled for seeing the exhibited objects as aesthetic provocations: How about this one? Do you think this is Camp? This opens up the exhibition to more interesting discussions and disagreements.
It the fashion section showed anything, it was the current ubiquity and pervasiveness of Camp as a sartorial code. From red carpet gowns to casual wear, Camp motives and symbols are clearly part and parcel of today’s vestiary inspirations.
Yet it is precisely its omnipresence in fashion and beyond that raises the central question: Does Camp still matter in a political fashion, and as a political fashion? My own initial concerns that Camp has lost its subversive and ‘deconstructive’ power, given that we live in a time when morals, norms and political discourse are themselves faked, artificial and abnormal are actually echoed in Fabio Cleto’s excellent Introduction for the catalogue: ‘how does camp work, how can it even work, within a culture that has camp’s own travestite logic as its foundation?’ Maybe the human travesty with the ‘visionary hairdo and apricot complexion’ that stepped out of a TV reality show and into the White House is indeed the final incarnation and thus the end of Camp?
Or maybe, just maybe, our camp gaze betrays us here, confusing Camp appearance with Camp substance. As the last weeks and months have shown ever more clearly, this White House is not ironic, playful and aesthetic. Rather, it pursues a vicious and violent simulation of the ‘1950s’ in which ‘minorities’ of colour, gender and sexual orientation do not yet interfere with white male dominance. There is, then, no Camp quality in play here. At the same time, the ubiquity of Camp style and fashion suggests that the proponents of this oppressive simulated ‘normality’ are actually in the minority today. There is not much in contemporary culture, other than via an ironic refraction, that normalises the 1950s.
So the very fact that ‘Camp’s spectacles are woven into our cultural tapestry’ and have become pervasive might be a first element in the resistance to the racism, resentment and retrogression incited by the current administration. On top of this, perhaps we can also find a more productive counterpoise, a contrapposto of sorts, in our Camp repertoire, rather than to routinely revert to high-minded moral outrage and condemnation. This, after all, is simply what ‘Agent Orange’ wants us to do. Perhaps we should start taking the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW less seriously and subject him to the aesthetic, ironic, and theatrical judgement that Camp affords us. He is, after all, a poorly attired human being with a fake hairdo and a skin colour not usually seen in nature, with a tenuous grasp on reality and a limited command of the English language. A truly poor performer in a by now stale reality show.
Or in other words, perhaps a bit more Seth Meyers and a bit less Stephen Colbert.
So if you haven’t yet seen it and have a chance to swing through NYC and the Met Museum someday soon, I recommend it.