I found a really interesting article on 'camp' (as an adjective) linked in the comments of someone else's journal. I finally put some time aside to read it:
My reactions follow, all jotted as I read. You should read the article and form your own opinions first.
Now, I don't care for 'camp' as a whole, so don't expect any coherent thoughts and opinions from me here. I probably would fit in in some ways with a 'queer' (hate that word) way of looking at things, though, so I'm definitely interested to read on…
"The more we study Art, the less we care for Nature."
- The Decay of Lying
An offhand quote that caught my eye. It could be in a nutshell why I don't like art (or, rather, why I think of myself as someone who doesn't like art. The other reason being school art lessons), and why I am less and less likely to like any individual artwork the more it deviates from the strictly realistic, or at least the methodically representational.
(Yes, even if it portrays something that doesn't exist, it could have the courtesy to look right.)
As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. [...]
Allied to the Camp taste for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn't: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.
Yes and no for me. I like androgyny strongly, but not cartooniness. Macho-men and bimbo-women repulse me.
What does attract me is some, but not all, cross-sex behaviours. Generally speaking… men acting like women is more attractive to me than women acting like men, but women dressing as men is very much more interesting (cough) than men dressing as women, which leaves me quite as cold as do men dressed as men.
Oh, I'm talking about dressing up here, not trying to 'pass' as a member of the opposite sex, which is an entirely different and less fun matter. I'm not attracted to srs bzns. It'd be wrong to derive enjoyment from someone just trying to be themself or do their job.
Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of "man" and "woman," "person" and "thing.") But all style, that is, artifice, is, ultimately, epicene. Life is not stylish. Neither is nature.
Epicene's a great word, meaning "belonging to, or partaking of the characteristics of, both sexes". I have no idea what Sonntag is driving at with this paragraph, and am not at all sure I know what she means by "life". Human behaviour?
I'm also a little lost from not recognising most of the works she makes reference to. (And, picking out one I do know, what's camp about Caravaggio? What I get from him is somehow-unusual realism, combined with stupidly exaggerated expressions of the sort you'd expect from the more saccharine genre of saint pictures.)
(Skipping back to a quotation from earlier:)
For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.
I suppose I can somewhat appreciate the conscious concentration on surface things – for a while. I should not like to dwell on the surface. I suppose I should see 'camp' as more of a refreshing dip. The sorbet of the recreational media, if you like.
(Please try to ignore my wild shifts in writing style. They just happen.)
Thus, the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.
I am reminded of those loathsome people who put up posters of Che Guevara because they look cool.
One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying.
As with anything that tries too hard, I suspect.
The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious. [...] Genuine Camp [...] does not mean to be funny.
Here we're getting back to more familiar territory, connected to something Sonntag mentions at the beginning of the piece: the idea of something being 'so bad it's good', and those people who are able to get enjoyment out of something crap: granted, it isn't the sort of enjoyment the creator had in mind, but it is still a different response to that of folks who merely find the thing crap.
Which isn't to say that one or the other is the better response, other than that increased enjoyment is generally good – which point matters less these days when nobody is very often forced to sit through something they really can't stand.
But in my experience, so-bad-it's-goodism is always a personal, subjective thing. I might find the awfulness of a particular song enhances my enjoyment, while my brother doesn't see past the awfulness. In fact I'm quite used to nobody around me seeing what I see in things; I'd never dream of declaring an open standard for so-bad-it's-good, or indeed for 'camp' – which I'm still not sure I understand, so on with the article.
In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.
For writers like me, who have no souls and therefore very little fine sense for emotion, this is a constant source of terror. I shouldn't like to be so-bad-it's-good, or to be merely bad. It is so much more attractive to stick to safe, unserious things.
When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish. [...] Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is "too much."
Right, now I get what she's driving at, but it's still too subjective for me.
Neither can anything be Camp that does not seem to spring from an irrepressible, a virtually uncontrolled sensibility. Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp — what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.
Spoke too soon, now I'm lost again. Pseudo-camp is anything that's… not camp…? Not overdone? I see 'chic' as elegant and minimalistic, and surely that's as far as it's possible to be from camp.
The reason [some films Herm's never seen] are bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, is that they are too dogged and pretentious. They lack fantasy.
To lack fantasy is to lack interest(ingness), to me. But I'm not sure exaggeration is the same as fantasy, although fantasy in the sense of 'glamour' I think I understand theoretically (I've never personally found anything glamorous)…
There is Camp in [other bad films, especially forrin ones] because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy – and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.
I find the 'foreign' aspect most notable, although Sonntag doesn't explicitly pick up on it; that's obviously my own annotation there.
Of course, the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don't perceive. We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own.
She's on the verge of it in this section, but again doesn't seem to pick up the point that foreign can be more easily camp than one's own country. I think Gilbert and Sullivan knew this with The Mikado, for example. Yes, it's a vehicle for satire of their own country, but I mean, the players are all dressed Japanese, aren't they, so you can't take it serious…
(I saw a fun Bollywood-style Mikado a while back. Great Indian costumes – I wished the music had been tweaked to match.)
time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic.
Related question: when does it cease to be a soap opera and become a costume drama?
Thus, things are campy, not when they become old – but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt.
In other words, it's easier to snipe at things that don't strike close to home. There are some people to whom you don't tell dead baby jokes.
Camp is the glorification of "character." [...] This is clear in the case of the great serious idol of Camp taste, Greta Garbo. Garbo's incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty. She's always herself.
I can only make sense of this idea by equating 'camp' to so-bad-it's-good again, with an arguably spiteful undercurrent of "at, not with". I don't find it particularly charming when an actor can only play themself. That's not what actors are for. By that description Garbo would really be an and-starring-as-herself, not an actress.
What Camp taste responds to is "instant character" (this is, of course, very 18th century); and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing. This attitude toward character is a key element of the theatricalization of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility. And it helps account for the fact that opera and ballet are experienced as such rich treasures of Camp, for neither of these forms can easily do justice to the complexity of human nature. Wherever there is development of character, Camp is reduced.
I have, on occasion, reflected that the idea of 'character development' seems to be becoming more and more emphasised, perhaps to a stupid degree.
I think of Charmed, my brother's favourite series and surely camp in itself, in which the main characters are beaten with the karma stick every episode until one of their 'issues' is solved. I do not like that. There is no subtlety, no free will, often (literally) no way to overcome one's demons other than submit to being 'fixed'.
There is enjoyment in a character who refuses to learn his Very Important Lesson, who sticks to his principles. There is sadness in a character who is beaten with Aesops until she drops her demands, takes off her glasses, abandons her quirky habits and becomes bland.
So campness correlates with incorrigibility, does it? We all love a confirmed rogue…
Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn't reverse things. It doesn't argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.
Bzzz, I call meaningless. Certainly to me. I don't have 'good' and 'bad'; I have 'like' and 'don't like'. 'Good' is technical proficiency and doesn't mean I like a thing. 'Like' and 'don't like' can have many reasons. I think that's more a natural sense of subjectivism than camp, per se.
The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary "avant-garde" art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic.
You'll have to read that section in context to grasp what she's saying. It's too long to quote in its entirety. I don't see what she's driving at by trying to divide things up in this way.
Camp and tragedy are antitheses. There is seriousness in Camp (seriousness in the degree of the artist's involvement) and, often, pathos. [...] But there is never, never tragedy.
I don't understand this.
Style is everything. [...] [The same ideas can be camp or not camp:] what counts, finally, is the style in which ideas are held. The ideas about morality and politics in, say, Lady Windemere's Fan and in Major Barbara are Camp, but not just because of the nature of the ideas themselves. It is those ideas, held in a special playful way.
"It's the way I tell them." Certainly true for Wilde. I am a great supporter of playfulness.
The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. 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.
No, that's verging on the postmodern-wanky now. Move along.
The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness – irony, satire – seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.
I am a great fan of irony and satire and if I could understand her argument there, I might oppose it.
Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century's surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism.
In other words, it's easier to find things terribly droll if you know where your next meal's coming from.
The dandy was overbred. His posture was disdain, or else ennui. He sought rare sensations, undefiled by mass appreciation.[...]
The connoisseur of Camp has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures, in the arts of the masses. Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp — Dandyism in the age of mass culture — makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.
Oh, and here at last is the "we're better than everyone else" part. I congratulate the writer on taking so long to get around to it. I do appreciate that.
The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted. The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.
This is where I side, on average, with the old-style dandy. I don't like someone's petticoats flashed in my face. It's so very seldom clever.
The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.
It's nice to have that explicitly stated.
I'm not touching the parts about homosexuality and Jews…
"One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."
- In conversation
Best aside ever.
Paragraphs 54 onwards are a good summing-up, best read in context. The last lines:
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.
My sense of camp isn't the same as so-bad-it's-goodism; camp needs to have other qualities. Still, obviously the two are related.
Like I said at the beginning, a really interesting essay. I remain ambivalent to camp in a much less violent way than Sonntag ("I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it"). I just don't find it all that notable one way or the other.
edit to add: I suppose overall, this vision of 'camp' describes something essentially patronising. It's valid, as a personal response to any art (recreational media), but I can see how it could be offensive to someone who put in a very great effort making the art. I don't think many Serious Artistes like to be laughed at-not-with.