Notes On "Camp"
by Susan Sontag
Published in 1964.
Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if
they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility
-- unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it
-- that goes by the cult name of "Camp."
A sensibility (as distinct from
an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special
reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed. It is not a natural
mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its
love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric --
something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban
cliques. Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood's novel
The World in the Evening (1954), it has hardly broken into print. To talk
about Camp is therefore to betray it. If the betrayal can be defended, it will
be for the edification it provides, or the dignity of the conflict it resolves.
For myself, I plead the goal of self-edification, and the goad of a sharp
conflict in my own sensibility. I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as
strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For
no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can
only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its
contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by
Though I am speaking about sensibility only -- and about a
sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous --
these are grave matters. Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm
of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual,
that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow
that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to
works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the
faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free -- as
opposed to rote -- human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in
people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in
morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One
of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly.
It's rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people
and taste in ideas.)
Taste has no system and no proofs. But there
is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies
and gives rise to a certain taste. A sensibility is almost, but not quite,
ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or
handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has
hardened into an idea . . .
To snare a sensibility in words, especially
one that is alive and powerful,1 one must be
tentative and nimble. The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim
to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down
something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It's embarrassing to be
solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself,
produced a very inferior piece of Camp.
These notes are for Oscar
"One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art."
Phrases & Philosophies for the Use of the Young
1. To start
very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing
the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms
of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.
emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is
neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp
sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized -- or at least apolitical.
Not only is there a Camp vision, a Camp way of looking at things. Camp is as
well a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons. There are
"campy" movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings. .
. . This distinction is important. True, the Camp eye has the power to transform
experience. But not everything can be seen as Camp. It's not all in the
eye of the beholder.
4. Random examples of items which are part of the
canon of Camp:
The Brown Derby
restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA
headlines and stories
Aubrey Beardsley drawings
Visconti's direction of Salome and 'Tis Pity She's a
certain turn-of-the-century picture
Schoedsack's King Kong
Cuban pop singer La Lupe
Lynn Ward's novel in woodcuts,
the old Flash Gordon comics
women's clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses,
the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy
stag movies seen without lust
taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture,
all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp.
For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and
style at the expense of content. Concert music, though, because it is
contentless, is rarely Camp. It offers no opportunity, say, for a contrast
between silly or extravagant content and rich form. . . . Sometimes whole art
forms become saturated with Camp. Classical ballet, opera, movies have seemed so
for a long time. In the last two years, popular music (post rock-'n'-roll, what
the French call yé yé) has been annexed. And movie criticism (like lists of "The
10 Best Bad Movies I Have Seen") is probably the greatest popularizer of Camp
taste today, because most people still go to the movies in a high-spirited and
6. There is a sense in which it is correct to say:
"It's too good to be Camp." Or "too important," not marginal enough. (More on
this later.) Thus, the personality and many of the works of Jean Cocteau are
Camp, but not those of André Gide; the operas of Richard Strauss, but not those
of Wagner; concoctions of Tin Pan Alley and Liverpool, but not jazz. Many
examples of Camp are things which, from a "serious" point of view, are either
bad art or kitsch. Not all, though. Not only is Camp not necessarily bad art,
but some art which can be approached as Camp (example: the major films of Louis
Feuillade) merits the most serious admiration and study.
"The more we
study Art, the less we care for Nature."
- The Decay of
7. All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of
artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy . . . Rural Camp is still man-made, and
most campy objects are urban. (Yet, they often have a serenity -- or a naiveté
-- which is the equivalent of pastoral. A great deal of Camp suggests Empson's
phrase, "urban pastoral.")
8. 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. The best example is in Art Nouveau,
the most typical and fully developed Camp style. Art Nouveau objects, typically,
convert one thing into something else: the lighting fixtures in the form of
flowering plants, the living room which is really a grotto. A remarkable
example: the Paris Métro entrances designed by Hector Guimard in the late 1890s
in the shape of cast-iron orchid stalks.
9. 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. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite
painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and
posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous
vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. Here, Camp taste draws on a
mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual
attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in
going against the grain of one's sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is
something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something
masculine. . . . 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. For obvious reasons, the best
examples that can be cited are movie stars. The corny flamboyant female-ness of
Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo; the exaggerated
he-man-ness of Steve Reeves, Victor Mature. The great stylists of temperament
and mannerism, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Edwige
10. Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp,
but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman." To perceive Camp in objects and
persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension,
in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.
11. 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.
12. The question isn't, "Why travesty,
impersonation, theatricality?" The question is, rather, "When does travesty,
impersonation, theatricality acquire the special flavor of Camp?" Why is the
atmosphere of Shakespeare's comedies (As You Like It, etc.) not epicene,
while that of Der Rosenkavalier is?
13. The dividing line seems to
fall in the 18th century; there the origins of Camp taste are to be found
(Gothic novels, Chinoiserie, caricature, artificial ruins, and so forth.) But
the relation to nature was quite different then. In the 18th century, people of
taste either patronized nature (Strawberry Hill) or attempted to remake it into
something artificial (Versailles). They also indefatigably patronized the past.
Today's Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the
relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.
14. A pocket
history of Camp might, of course, begin farther back -- with the mannerist
artists like Pontormo, Rosso, and Caravaggio, or the extraordinarily theatrical
painting of Georges de La Tour, or Euphuism (Lyly, etc.) in literature. Still,
the soundest starting point seems to be the late 17th and early 18th century,
because of that period's extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for
symmetry; its taste for the picturesque and the thrilling, its elegant
conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character
-- the epigram and the rhymed couplet (in words), the flourish (in gesture and
in music). The late 17th and early 18th century is the great period of Camp:
Pope, Congreve, Walpole, etc, but not Swift; les précieux in France; the
rococo churches of Munich; Pergolesi. Somewhat later: much of Mozart. But in the
19th century, what had been distributed throughout all of high culture now
becomes a special taste; it takes on overtones of the acute, the esoteric, the
perverse. Confining the story to England alone, we see Camp continuing wanly
through 19th century aestheticism (Bume-Jones, Pater, Ruskin, Tennyson),
emerging full-blown with the Art Nouveau movement in the visual and decorative
arts, and finding its conscious ideologists in such "wits" as Wilde and
15. Of course, to say all these things are Camp is not to argue
they are simply that. A full analysis of Art Nouveau, for instance, would
scarcely equate it with Camp. But such an analysis cannot ignore what in Art
Nouveau allows it to be experienced as Camp. Art Nouveau is full of "content,"
even of a political-moral sort; it was a revolutionary movement in the arts,
spurred on by a Utopian vision (somewhere between William Morris and the Bauhaus
group) of an organic politics and taste. Yet there is also a feature of the Art
Nouveau objects which suggests a disengaged, unserious, "aesthete's" vision.
This tells us something important about Art Nouveau -- and about what the lens
of Camp, which blocks out content, is.
16. 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
17. This comes out clearly in the vulgar use of the word Camp
as a verb, "to camp," something that people do. To camp is a mode of seduction
-- one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double
interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti
and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the
word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is "a camp," a duplicity is
involved. Behind the "straight" public sense in which something can be taken,
one has found a private zany experience of the thing.
"To be natural is
such a very difficult pose to keep up."
- An Ideal Husband
One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always
naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less
19. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are
dead serious. The Art Nouveau craftsman who makes a lamp with a snake coiled
around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all
earnestness: Voilà! the Orient! Genuine Camp -- for instance, the numbers
devised for the Warner Brothers musicals of the early thirties (42nd
Street; The Golddiggers of 1933; ... of 1935; ... of
1937; etc.) by Busby Berkeley -- does not mean to be funny. Camping -- say,
the plays of Noel Coward -- does. It seems unlikely that much of the traditional
opera repertoire could be such satisfying Camp if the melodramatic absurdities
of most opera plots had not been taken seriously by their composers. One doesn't
need to know the artist's private intentions. The work tells all. (Compare a
typical 19th century opera with Samuel Barber's Vanessa, a piece of
manufactured, calculated Camp, and the difference is clear.)
Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful. The perfection of Trouble
in Paradise and The Maltese Falcon, among the greatest Camp movies
ever made, comes from the effortless smooth way in which tone is maintained.
This is not so with such famous would-be Camp films of the fifties as All
About Eve and Beat the Devil. These more recent movies have their
fine moments, but the first is so slick and the second so hysterical; they want
so badly to be campy that they're continually losing the beat. . . . Perhaps,
though, it is not so much a question of the unintended effect versus the
conscious intention, as of the delicate relation between parody and self-parody
in Camp. The films of Hitchcock are a showcase for this problem. When
self-parody lacks ebullience but instead reveals (even sporadically) a contempt
for one's themes and one's materials - as in To Catch a Thief, Rear
Window, North by Northwest -- the results are forced and
heavy-handed, rarely Camp. Successful Camp -- a movie like Carné's Drôle de
Drame; the film performances of Mae West and Edward Everett Horton; portions of
the Goon Show -- even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of
21. So, again, Camp rests on innocence. That means Camp
discloses innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it. Objects, being objects,
don't change when they are singled out by the Camp vision. Persons, however,
respond to their audiences. Persons begin "camping": Mae West, Bea Lillie, La
Lupe, Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, Bette Davis in All About Eve. (Persons can
even be induced to camp without their knowing it. Consider the way Fellini got
Anita Ekberg to parody herself in La Dolce Vita.)
22. Considered a
little less strictly, Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious
(when one plays at being campy). An example of the latter: Wilde's epigrams
"It's absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are
either charming or tedious."
- Lady Windemere's Fan
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.
24. 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. ("It's too much," "It's too
fantastic," "It's not to be believed," are standard phrases of Camp
25. The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp
is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers. Camp is the
paintings of Carlo Crivelli, with their real jewels and trompe-l'oeil
insects and cracks in the masonry. Camp is the outrageous aestheticism of
Steinberg's six American movies with Dietrich, all six, but especially the last,
The Devil Is a Woman. . . . In Camp there is often something démesuré in
the quality of the ambition, not only in the style of the work itself. Gaudí's
lurid and beautiful buildings in Barcelona are Camp not only because of their
style but because they reveal -- most notably in the Cathedral of the Sagrada
Familia -- the ambition on the part of one man to do what it takes a generation,
a whole culture to accomplish.
26. Camp is art that proposes itself
seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is "too much."
Titus Andronicus and Strange Interlude are almost Camp, or could
be played as Camp. The public manner and rhetoric of de Gaulle, often, are pure
27. A work can come close to Camp, but not make it, because it
succeeds. Eisenstein's films are seldom Camp because, despite all exaggeration,
they do succeed (dramatically) without surplus. If they were a little more
"off," they could be great Camp - particularly Ivan the Terrible I &
II. The same for Blake's drawings and paintings, weird and mannered as
they are. They aren't Camp; though Art Nouveau, influenced by Blake,
What is extravagant in an inconsistent or an unpassionate way is not
Camp. 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. On the barren
edge of Camp lie a number of attractive things: the sleek fantasies of Dali, the
haute couture preciosity of Albicocco's The Girl with the Golden Eyes.
But the two things - Camp and preciosity - must not be confused.
Again, Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in
the sense, often, of being special, glamorous. (The curved line, the extravagant
gesture.) Not extraordinary merely in the sense of effort. Ripley's
Believe-It-Or-Not items are rarely campy. These items, either natural oddities
(the two-headed rooster, the eggplant in the shape of a cross) or else the
products of immense labor (the man who walked from here to China on his hands,
the woman who engraved the New Testament on the head of a pin), lack the visual
reward - the glamour, the theatricality - that marks off certain extravagances
29. The reason a movie like On the Beach, books like
Winesburg, Ohio and For Whom the Bell Tolls 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. There is Camp in such
bad movies as The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah, the series of
Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste, numerous Japanese
science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man)
because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more
extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy - and therefore touching and quite
30. 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.
This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned,
out-of-date, démodé. It's not a love of the old as such. It's simply that the
process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment -- or
arouses a necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the
failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time
liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp
sensibility. . . . Another effect: 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. Many people who
listen with delight to the style of Rudy Vallee revived by the English pop
group, The Temperance Seven, would have been driven up the wall by Rudy Vallee
in his heyday.
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. But the effect of time is unpredictable. Maybe
Method acting (James Dean, Rod Steiger, Warren Beatty) will seem as Camp some
day as Ruby Keeler's does now - or as Sarah Bernhardt's does, in the films she
made at the end of her career. And maybe not.
32. Camp is the
glorification of "character." The statement is of no importance - except, of
course, to the person (Loie Fuller, Gaudí, Cecil B. De Mille, Crivelli, de
Gaulle, etc.) who makes it. What the Camp eye appreciates is the unity, the
force of the person. In every move the aging Martha Graham makes she's being
Martha Graham, etc., etc. . . . 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
33. 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. Among operas, for example, La
Traviata (which has some small development of character) is less campy than
Il Trovatore (which has none).
"Life is too important a thing ever
to talk seriously about it."
- Vera, or The Nihilists
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.
35. Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the
seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds -
in being what it is and, presumably, in fulfilling the intention that lies
behind it. We assume a proper, that is to say, straightforward relation between
intention and performance. By such standards, we appraise The Iliad,
Aristophanes' plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of
Rembrandt, Chartres, the poetry of Donne, The Divine Comedy, Beethoven's
quartets, and - among people - Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon,
Savonarola. In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and
36. But there are other creative sensibilities besides the
seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture and of the high style of
evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has
respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or
feel on the sly.
For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose
trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity
between intention and result. I am speaking, obviously, of a style of personal
existence as well as of a style in art; but the examples had best come from art.
Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the
important works of art of the 20th century, that is, art whose goal is not that
of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and
more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter. This sensibility also insists on
the principle that an oeuvre in the old sense (again, in art, but also in life)
is not possible. Only "fragments" are possible. . . . Clearly, different
standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not
because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human
situation, another experience of what it is to be human - in short, another
valid sensibility -- is being revealed.
And third among the great
creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the
theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional
seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of
37. 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
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the
world. It incarnates a victory of "style" over "content," "aesthetics" over
"morality," of irony over tragedy.
39. Camp and tragedy are antitheses.
There is seriousness in Camp (seriousness in the degree of the artist's
involvement) and, often, pathos. The excruciating is also one of the tonalities
of Camp; it is the quality of excruciation in much of Henry James (for instance,
The Europeans, The Awkward Age, The Wings of the Dove) that
is responsible for the large element of Camp in his writings. But there is
never, never tragedy.
40. Style is everything. Genet's ideas, for
instance, are very Camp. Genet's statement that "the only criterion of an act is
its elegance"2 is virtually
interchangeable, as a statement, with Wilde's "in matters of great importance,
the vital element is not sincerity, but style." But 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. The Camp ideas in Our Lady of the Flowers are
maintained too grimly, and the writing itself is too successfully elevated and
serious, for Genet's books to be Camp.
41. 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.
42. One is drawn to Camp when
one realizes that "sincerity" is not enough. Sincerity can be simple
philistinism, intellectual narrowness.
43. 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,
44. Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a
bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement,
comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.
simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex."
- A Woman of
45. 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. Camp is the answer to the problem: how
to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.
46. The dandy was overbred. His
posture was disdain, or else ennui. He sought rare sensations, undefiled by mass
appreciation. (Models: Des Esseintes in Huysmans' À Rebours, Marius
the Epicurean, Valéry's Monsieur Teste.) He was dedicated to "good
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
47. Wilde himself is a transitional figure. The man who, when he
first came to London, sported a velvet beret, lace shirts, velveteen
knee-breeches and black silk stockings, could never depart too far in his life
from the pleasures of the old-style dandy; this conservatism is reflected in
The Picture of Dorian Gray. But many of his attitudes suggest something
more modern. It was Wilde who formulated an important element of the Camp
sensibility -- the equivalence of all objects -- when he announced his intention
of "living up" to his blue-and-white china, or declared that a doorknob could be
as admirable as a painting. When he proclaimed the importance of the necktie,
the boutonniere, the chair, Wilde was anticipating the democratic esprit
48. 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
49. It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last
analysis, by the threat of boredom. 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
"What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to
Art. It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art."
A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated
Aristocracy is a position vis-à-vis culture (as well as vis-à-vis power), and
the history of Camp taste is part of the history of snob taste. But since no
authentic aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes,
who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-elected class,
mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of
51. The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has
to be explained. While it's not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste,
there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap. Not all liberals are Jews,
but Jews have shown a peculiar affinity for liberal and reformist causes. So,
not all homosexuals have Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute
the vanguard -- and the most articulate audience -- of Camp. (The analogy is not
frivolously chosen. Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities
in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are
creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are
Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.)
reason for the flourishing of the aristocratic posture among homosexuals also
seems to parallel the Jewish case. For every sensibility is self-serving to the
group that promotes it. Jewish liberalism is a gesture of self-legitimization.
So is Camp taste, which definitely has something propagandistic about it.
Needless to say, the propaganda operates in exactly the opposite direction. The
Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the
moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting
the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral
indignation, sponsors playfulness.
53. Nevertheless, even though
homosexuals have been its vanguard, Camp taste is much more than homosexual
taste. Obviously, its metaphor of life as theater is peculiarly suited as a
justification and projection of a certain aspect of the situation of
homosexuals. (The Camp insistence on not being "serious," on playing, also
connects with the homosexual's desire to remain youthful.) Yet one feels that if
homosexuals hadn't more or less invented Camp, someone else would. For the
aristocratic posture with relation to culture cannot die, though it may persist
only in increasingly arbitrary and ingenious ways. Camp is (to repeat) the
relation to style in a time in which the adoption of style -- as such -- has
become altogether questionable. (In the modem era, each new style, unless
frankly anachronistic, has come on the scene as an anti-style.)
have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."
54. The experiences of Camp are based on the great
discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement.
Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists,
indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the
Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very
liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving
himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant
exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market,
so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty
hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk
of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.
taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgment. Camp
is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it
is cynicism, it's not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn't
propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn't sneer at someone who
succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in
certain passionate failures.
56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for
human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward
intensities of "character." . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is
enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they
label as "a camp," they're enjoying it. Camp is a tender
(Here, one may compare Camp with much of Pop Art, which -- when
it is not just Camp -- embodies an attitude that is related, but still very
different. Pop Art is more flat and more dry, more serious, more detached,
57. Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that
has gone into certain objects and personal styles. The absence of this love is
the reason why such kitsch items as Peyton Place (the book) and the
Tishman Building aren't Camp.
58. 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
1 The sensibility of an era
is not only its most decisive, but also its most perishable, aspect. One may
capture the ideas (intellectual history) and the behavior (social history) of an
epoch without ever touching upon the sensibility or taste which informed those
ideas, that behavior. Rare are those historical studies -- like Huizinga on the
late Middle Ages, Febvre on 16th century France -- which do tell us something
about the sensibility of the period.
gloss on this in Saint Genet is: "Elegance is the quality of conduct
which transforms the greatest amount of being into appearing."