Camp is Everywhere

Camp is everywhere, that’s what I thought of when I discovered the camp, certainly taken from the French “se camper” “to pose exaggeratedly” it designates something much broader than taking the pose. The Oxford English dictionary definition of 1909 paints a depraved portrait of camp aesthetics, “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical;  effeminate or homosexual”. Although Webster’s New World Dictionary gives a new definition in the 70s, ambiguous nature remains “banality, mediocrity, artifice, [and] ostentation … so extreme as to amuse or have a perversely sophisticated appeal”. 

But this perversity amuses and maintains the camp culture. Susan Sontag, who theorized this notion in the late 60s, qualifies it as a taste for excess, provocation to the grotesque while keeping a certain irony on its perversion. “Artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and shocking excess” 

Earlier, the writer Christopher Isherwood will define in a section of his novel, The World in the Evening, the camp mode.

“You thought it meant a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich? Yes, in queer circles they call that camping. … You can call [it] Low Camp… High Camp is the whole emotional basis for ballet, for example, and of course of baroque art … High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. 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. Baroque art is basically camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love …”

The camp allowed gender subversion as in one of its first uses by the transformist Frederick Park in a letter addressed to his lover during a trial for suspicion of homosexual behaviour with another transformist Thomas Ernest Boulton,this takes place during Victorian England, where conviction for sodomy was punishable by life imprisonment.  

“My campish undertakings are not at present meeting with the success they deserve,” 

The camp did the rise of transformism and especially drag culture, the actors of this emancipation expressed themselves beyond moral, social and gendered codes by the exacerbation and exhibition of their own nature by the art of performance. Although drag queens are often men, they stage themselves under a wildly exaggerated feminine appearance in a temporal way to express a particular identity, an artistic practice, or both. Thanks to this visual overexcitement, drag and queer culture were able to show themselves. We are talking about outrageous makeup, colossal wigs, sequined, feathered, colourful, overloaded outfits and an over-feminized stage performance overthrowing ridiculous. 

queer culture

Because the camp is not high art, unlike this one which advocates beauty, technique and value, it emphasizes lively, humorous and ironic representations that highlight the aesthetic overload that could be akin to kitsch or just bad taste. But the camp does not only performs in cabarets, in pantomimes,it is present in fashion, especially among music icons like Cher, Madonna, Prince, David Bowie, Lady Gaga and even Elton John. 

In this camp performance Lady Gaga wears 4 outfits in about twenty minutes

It allows ironic creations like Rolf and Viktor’s dresses based on kind humor that can be interpreted in different ways. 

More frivolous and loaded creations, blurring gender boundaries

Camp is everywhere and in every form of art. Of course, in architecture where we can mention the Batlló house in Barcelona and the Guimard metro entrances in Paris. In artistic movements as in Art Nouveau, Baroque or Rococo. 

It induces a different perception of humour as in the film The Room  which has become a classic because of its eccentricity and weird humour, we can mention the films of Ed Wood, known as the “worst director of all time”, which have become cult by its twisted scripts and handmade special effects.

 Through offbeat humour, irony, an eccentric or embarrassing universe or an eccentric aesthetic, he forces a step back on a fact, an artistic idea, or a culture and allows his emancipation. Susan Sontag thought she was betraying the camp, by giving it a definition, she laid it bare, and also gay community. Until then, the camp was  kind of a secret language in this community. Then, 5 years later, the Stone Wall riots broke out and marked the beginning of the pride movement.

Luigi Ontani, photographic works

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Post Author: Maxime Ricaud

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