Camp

plastic flamingo

kitsch

Camp is an aesthetic sensibility that regards something as appealing or humorous because of its deliberate ridiculousness. The concept is closely related to kitsch, and things with camp appeal may also be described as being ‘cheesy.’

When the usage appeared, in 1909, it denoted: ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, and effeminate behaviour, and, by the middle of the 1970s, the definition comprised: banality, artifice, mediocrity, and ostentation so extreme as to have perversely sophisticated appeal. American writer Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on ‘Camp” (1964) emphasised its key elements as: artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess. Camp as an aesthetic has been popular from the 1960s to the present.

Camp films were popularised by filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar, Andy Warhol, and John Waters, including the latter’s ‘Pink Flamingos,’ ‘Hairspray,’ and ‘Polyester.’ Celebrities that are associated with camp personas include drag queens and performers such as Dame Edna Everage, Divine, RuPaul, and Liberace. Camp was a part of the anti-academic defense of popular culture in the 1960s and gained popularity in the 1980s with the widespread adoption of postmodern views on art and culture.

‘Camp’ derives from the French slang term ‘se camper,’ meaning ‘to pose in an exaggerated fashion.’ Later, it evolved into a general description of the aesthetic choices and behavior of working-class homosexual men. Finally, it was made mainstream, and adjectivized, by Susan Sontag in her landmark essay.

The rise of post-modernism made ‘camp’ a common perspective on aesthetics, which was not identified with any specific group. The attitude originally was a distinctive factor in pre-Stonewall gay male communities, where it was the dominant cultural pattern. It originated from the acceptance of gayness as effeminacy. Two key components of camp were originally feminine performances: swish and drag. With swish featuring extensive use of superlatives, and drag being exaggerated female impersonation, camp became extended to all things ‘over the top,’ including female female impersonators (aka faux queen), as in the exaggerated Hollywood version of Carmen Miranda. It was this version of the concept that was adopted by literary and art critics and became a part of the conceptual array of 1960s culture. Author Moe Meyer still defines camp as ‘queer parody.’

Camp means and has been from the start an ironic attitude, embraced by anti-Academic theorists for its explicit defense of clearly marginalized forms. As such, its claims to legitimacy are dependent on its opposition to the status quo; camp has no aspiration to timelessness, but rather lives on the hypocrisy of the dominant culture. It doesn’t present basic values, but precisely confronts culture with what it perceives as its inconsistencies, to show how any norm is socially constructed. This rebellious utilization of critical concepts was originally formulated by modernist art theorists such as sociologist Theodor Adorno, who were radically opposed to the kind of popular culture that consumerism endorsed.

Camp is a critical analysis and at the same time a big joke. Camp takes ‘something’ (normally a social norm, object, phrase, or style), does a very acute analysis of what the ‘something’ is, then takes the ‘something’ and presents it humorously. As a performance, camp is meant to be an allusion. A person being campy has a generalization they are intentionally making fun of or manipulating. Though camp is a joke it is also a very serious analysis done by people who are willing to make a joke out of themselves to prove a point. Roy Kift’s holocaust play ‘Camp Comedy’ is a good point of reference here. The title is not only (superficially) in bad taste, the play uses irony and the humor of the concentration camp inmates to make a critical analysis of their predicament.

As part of camp, drag occasionally consists of feminine apparel, ranging from slight make-up and a few feminine garments, typically hats, gloves, or high heels, to a total getup, complete with wigs, gowns, jewelry, and full make-up. In the case of drag kings or female male-impersonators, the opposite is true and often involves exaggerated displays of masculinities.

Television shows such as ‘The Munsters,’ ‘The Addams Family,’ ‘CHiPs,’ ‘Batman,’ ‘Lost in Space,’ ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ and ‘Fantasy Island’ are enjoyed in the 2000s for what are now interpreted as their ‘camp’ aspects. Much of the cult following of camp today, grew exponentially during the transition from black and white to color television in the early 1960s. Network programming during that time was seeking entertainment content that would display the new medium with the use of bright colors and high stylization. Some of these shows were developed ‘tongue-in-cheek’ by their producers. TV soap operas, especially those that air in primetime, are often considered camp. Even the villains of shows as divergent as ‘Batman’ and ‘The Mod Squad’ were costumed as to take advantage of new colors and changing fashion styles, in ways that took advantage of camp. The over-the-top excess of ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas’ were popular in the 1980s.

The concept of the comicbook superhero (an individual in a highly stylized, outlandish and possibly impractical costume avenging otherwise serious matters such as murder) could be interpreted as camp. However, since it was aimed initially at children, it is camp only in an abstract sense. It was not until the 1960s television version of ‘Batman’ (one of the more famous examples of camp in pop culture) that the link was made explicit, with the inherent ridiculousness of the concept exposed as a vehicle for comedy. Ironically, even ‘Batman’ fell victim to contemporaneous parodies, with the release of ‘Captain Nice’ and ‘Mr. Terrific,’ which layered extra camp onto the overladen superhero concept. The stylized content of ‘Batman’ may have possibly jump-started television campiness, to circumvent the strict censorship of comics at this time (after Dr. Fredric Wertham’s essay ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ which led to the comics’ industry-sponsored Comics Code), as the ‘Batman’ comic books were very dark and noirish until the 1950s and from the 1970s onwards.

Some classic films noted for their campy tone include John Huston’s ‘Beat the Devil’ (1953, starring Humphrey Bogart), an exaggerated film noir send-up. Filmmaker John Waters’ directing a number of camp films such as ‘Pink Flamingos,’ ‘Hairspray,’ ‘Polyester,’ and ‘Cecil B. Demented.’ Filmmaker Todd Solondz uses camp music to illustrate the absurdity and banality of bourgeois, suburban existence. In Solondz’s cult film ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse,’ the eleven-year-old girl protagonist kisses a boy while Deborah Gibson’s ‘Lost in Your Eyes’ plays on a Fisher-Price tape recorder.

Films such as ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ ‘Burlesque,’ ‘Showgirls,’ and ‘Mommie Dearest’ gained camp status primarily due to the filmmakers’ attempting to produce a serious film that wound up unintentionally comedic. Award-winning actresses, like Patty Duke in Dolls and Faye Dunaway in Dearest, gave such over-the-top performances that the films became camp classics, especially attracting fanfare from gay male audiences.

Educational and industrial films form an entire sub-genre of camp films, with the most famous being the much-spoofed 1950s ‘Duck and Cover’ film, in which an anthropomorphic, cartoon turtle explains how one can survive a nuclear attack by hiding under a school desk. Its British counterpart ‘Protect and Survive’ could be seen as kitsch, even though it is very chilling to watch (it was never shown on grounds of National security and would only be broadcast if an attack was deemed likely within 72 hours).

Some films are intentionally and consciously campy, such as ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.’ Another cult is built round ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’

Retro-camp fashion is an example of modern hipsters employing camp styles for the sake of humor. Yard decorations, popular in some parts of suburban and rural America, are examples of kitsch and are sometimes displayed as camp expressions. The classic camp yard ornament is the pink plastic flamingo. The yard globe, garden gnome, wooden cut-out of a fat lady bending over, the statue of a small black man holding a lantern (called a lawn jockey) and ceramic statues of white-tailed deer are also prevalent camp lawn decorations.

Dusty Springfield is a camp icon. In public and on stage Springfield developed a joyful image supported by her peroxide blonde beehive hairstyle, evening gowns, and heavy make-up that included her much-copied ‘panda eye’ mascara. Springfield borrowed elements of her look from blonde glamour queens of the 1950s, such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, and pasted them together according to her own taste. Her ultra-glamorous look made her a camp icon and this, combined with her emotive vocal performances, won her a powerful and enduring following in the gay community.

The words ‘camp’ and ‘kitsch’ are often used interchangeably; both may relate to art, literature, music, or any object that carries an aesthetic value. However, ‘kitsch’ refers specifically to the work itself, whereas ‘camp’ is a mode of performance. Thus, a person may consume kitsch intentionally or unintentionally. Camp, however, as Susan Sontag observed, is always a way of consuming or performing culture ‘in quotation marks.’

However, Sontag also distinguishes the difference between ‘naive’ and ‘deliberate’ camp. Kitsch, as a form or style, certainly falls under the category ‘naive camp’ as it unaware that it is tasteless, ‘deliberate camp,’ on the other hand, can be seen as a subversive form of kitsch which deliberately exploits the whole notions of what it is to be kitsch.

Thomas Hine identified 1954–64 as the campiest period in modern U.S. history. During this time, Americans had more money to spend, thanks to the post-war economic boom; but they often exercised poor taste. In the U.K., on the other hand, camp is an adjective, often associated with a stereotypical view of feminine gay men. Although it applies to gay men, it is a specific adjective used to describe a man that openly promotes the fact that he is gay by being outwardly garish or eccentric.’

The first post-World War II use of the word in print, marginally mentioned in the Sontag essay, may be Christopher Isherwood’s 1954 novel ‘The World in the Evening,’ where he comments: ‘You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.’ In Sontag’s ‘Notes on ‘Camp,’ Sontag emphasized artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness and shocking excess as key elements of camp. Examples cited by Sontag included Tiffany lamps, the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, Tchaikovsky’s ballet ‘Swan Lake,’ and Japanese science fiction films such as ‘Rodan,’ and ‘The Mysterians’ of the 1950s.

In Mark Booth’s 1983 book ‘Camp’ he defines camp as ‘to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits.’ He discerns carefully between genuine camp and camp fads and fancies, things that are not intrinsically camp, but display artificiality, stylisation, theatricality, naivety, sexual ambiguity, tackiness, poor taste, stylishness, or portray camp people and thus appeal to them. He considers Susan Sontag’s definition problematical because it lacks this distinction.

As a cultural challenge, camp can also receive a political meaning, when minorities appropriate and ridicule the images of the dominant group, the kind of activism associated with multiculturalism and the New Left. The best known instance of this is the gay liberation movement, which used camp to confront society with its own preconceptions and their historicity. The first positive portrayal of a gay secret agent in fiction appears in a series, ‘The Man from C.A.M.P.’ in which the protagonist is, paradoxically, effeminate yet physically tough. Female camp actresses such as Mae West, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and Joan Crawford also had an important influence on the development of feminist consciousness: by exaggerating certain stereotyped features of femininity, such as fragility, open emotionalism or moodiness, they attempted to undermine the credibility of those preconceptions. The multiculturalist stance in cultural studies therefore presents camp as political and critical.

The Frankfurt School academic Theodor Adorno condemned pop culture as an instrument of capitalist oppression, with camp being part of the system. Camp, according to Frankfurt School theory, engenders unthinking consumerism. Camp often faces criticism from other political and aesthetic perspectives. For example, the most obvious argument is that camp is just an excuse for poor quality work and allows the tacky and vulgar to be recognized as valid art. In doing so, camp celebrates the trivial and superficial and form over content. This could be called the ‘yuck factor.’

Camp-style performances may allow certain prejudices to be perpetuated by thinly veiling them as irony. Some feminist critics argue that drag queens are misogynistic because they make women seem ridiculous and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This criticism posits that drag queens are the gay equivalent of the black and white minstrel. Some critics claim that camp comedians perpetuate gay stereotypes and pander to homophobia.

As a part of its adoption by the mainstream, camp has undergone a softening of its original subversive tone, and is often little more than the recognition that popular culture can also be enjoyed by a sophisticated sensibility. Mainstream comic books and B Westerns, for example, have become standard subjects for academic analysis. The normalization of the outrageous, common to many Vanguardist movements—has led some critics to argue the notion has lost its usefulness for critical art discourse.

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