I once tried to explain the notion of Camp to some young people of my acquaintance and I was rewarded with blank pierced faces. To be fair, I couldn’t provide them with a definition either. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said when asked to describe his threshold test for obscenity in 1964: ”I know it when I see it.” That’s how I am with Camp.
Susan Sontag famously dedicated an entire book to the subject, where she noted:
Camp is always a way of consuming or performing culture in quotation marks.
Sontag also distinguished the difference between “naive” and “deliberate” Camp. Kitsch, as a form or style, certainly falls under the category “naive camp” as it is unaware that it is tasteless. “Deliberate camp” on the other hand, is a subversive form of kitsch which exploits the whole notion of what it is to be kitsch.
I think that I somehow grasped Camp by the time I was 5-years-old when I favored my parental unit’s Yma Sumac albums. But, recognizing Camp really took hold when I was fortunate enough to have stumbled on the Busby Berkeley Technicolor musical film from 1943, The Gang’s All Here, when I was 12-years-old.
Each year. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, holds its Met Gala, a black-tie fundraiser that kicks off the institute’s spring exhibition. To read a short history of the event, see World of Wonder writer Trey Speegle‘s piece here.
The 2019 title for the event and exhibition was Camp: Notes On Fashion. As the Met explains, the exhibit examines “camp’s exuberant aesthetic” and “how the elements of irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration are expressed in fashion”. Mr. Speegle tackles the subject smartly, just click this link.
What is camp? The dictionary definition is: “Camp is something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of it being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental”. Its adjective form is “campy”.
Sontag snappily said:
Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’, of things-being-what-they-are-not … Camp is art that proposes itself seriously but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’.
Sontag wrote that the embodiments of Camp include such varied people and things as: Oscar Wilde, Art Nouveau, and Flash Gordon comics. For me, I see Camp in Auntie Mame, bowling shirts, 1960s girl groups and Melania Trump.
Queer culture has made camp into an art form, as can be seen in John Waters’ 1972 film Pink Flamingos.
Pink Flamingos is directed, written, produced, filmed, and edited by Waters. It is part of what Waters has labelled as his “Trash Trilogy”, which also includes Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). It stars Water’s muse, drag queen Divine as Babs Johnson, a criminal and “the filthiest person alive”. While living in a trailer with mother Edie (Edith Massey) and son Crackers (Danny Mills), plus her bestie Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), Divine is confronted by “The Marbles” (David Lochary and Mink Stole), a couple of criminals envious of her reputation.
Pink Flamingos has the tagline “An exercise in poor taste” and it was immediately known for its outrageousness, nudity, profanity, and scatology, with increasingly revolting scenes of exhibitionism, voyeurism, sodomy, masturbation, gluttony, vomiting, rape, incest, murder, cannibalism, and foot fetishism.
When Pink Flamingos was first released it was surprisingly embraced by film critics and instantly loved the LGBTQ community. Despite being banned in several countries, it became a cult film.
Shot on a budget of $10,000, Pink Flamingos set the style of Waters’ low-budget filmmaking inspired by New York underground filmmakers like Andy Warhol. Stylistically, it was inspired the Baltimore drag show scene and classic 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, characterized by its homemade Technicolor look.
Its popularity among queer theorists, has led to the film being considered “the most important queer film of all time” and an important precursor of Punk.
Gay film director Gus Van Sant describes Pink Flamingos as:
…an absolute classic piece of American cinema, right up there with The Birth Of A Nation, Dr. Strangelove, and Boom!
Remember: Campy isn’t the same as cheesy. In so many ways, it can seem easier to define what camp isn’t. Campy isn’t tacky or corny. It’s knowingly and willfully engaging in “too much”. It’s the art of being, well, artfully artless. Sontag closed her famous essay with:
The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful … Of course, one can’t always say that.