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On the Back of the 2019 Met Gala, Singulart breaks down ‘Camp’ Art through History

Performance artists Kalup Linzy as Taiwan

As another MET Gala passes, a record-breaking $15 million is raised for the museum’s Costume Institute, and your Instagram feed is flooded with sequins, rainbows, and a face-full of feathers. In the wake of the Metropolitan Museum’s ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ Gala and exhibition, whose theme was based on the 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’ by Susan Sontag, the internet has been overwhelmed with discussions on what exactly constitutes camp.

Although many have put forward their personal interpretations on the meaning of amp, it is important to solidify a cultural understanding of what exactly ‘camp’ is among the white (pun intended) noise and gross misconceptions.

No easy feat. Nevertheless, Singulart is jumping in on the conversation.

Here, we provide you with a brief understanding on the origins of camp, and how such a sensibility has permeated the art world throughout the ages.

What is Camp?

There is no definitive etymology for the word ‘camp’, but a few convincing theories on the word’s origin have been postulated over the years. One such theory suggests that the word ‘camp’ derives from the similar French term se camper, which means to pose in an exaggerated manner. Another hypothesizes that camp is derived from the Italian word campare, which means to make something stand out. Another possible root comes from Polari, an 18th century British sub-cultural language that was used among gay people of the time.

The 1960s is when the term ‘camp’ came to prominence, in large part due to Susan Sontag’s aforementioned essay, published in 1964. According to Sontag, camp, in the general sense, is “a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous”. It is a way of seeing the world in strictly aesthetic terms, favoring the exaggerated, playful, artificial and even garish. As Roberta Smith, co-chief Art Critic for the New York Times aptly states, Sontag’s text brought Camp “from the underground into the mainstream”.

However that doesn’t mean that camp hasn’t always been present in some capacity.

Camp has always existed

Although the term was only popularized in recent years, looking back across the scope of art history, one can apply the principles of camp as far back as the Hellenistic period. Smith notes that perhaps one of the first instances of camp to be found in art exists in contrapposto. This is the popular pose in Hellenistic sculpture where the subject is shown bending the knee, sometimes placing a hand casually upon the hip while leaning the body weight to one side, forming an overall fluid, lax silhouette. It is the frivolity, the flourish, the lushness of line formed by the body when such a pose is assumed, that makes the contrapposto camp.

A 2nd century BCE bronze statue known as 'The Hellenistic Prince' examples Smith's contrapposto figure.
A 2nd century BCE bronze statue, known as ‘The Hellenistic Prince,’ examples Smith’s contrapposto figure. Image via Ancient History.

Fast forward a few centuries and, according to Sontag, Art Nouveau became the epitome of camp art, as the stylisation and fundamental uselessness of embellishing architectural features like ornate facades, candle sticks, and chair legs came to prominence. This was, for Sontag, the essence of camp: lavish, somewhat ridiculous objects made with no intention of being considered frivolous. As Sontag states in her essay, it is the “sensibility of failed seriousness” which can be “serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” that is essential to camp.

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait in Drag, 1981.

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait in Drag, 1981. Image via Guggenheim.

Any conversation on camp cannot be had without mentioning Andy Warhol. Everything from the artist’s intentionally askew platinum wig, his nose surgery, his powdered white face and his standoffish persona, exudes a purposeful performativity of the self that is extremely camp. Warhol’s ‘campiness’ is also expressed in his artistic practice and its un-ironic celebration of the mass-produced, as seen in his famous Campbell soup can series. As Sontag notes, “camp … makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica”. Warhol, it would appear, took this principal to heart.

‘Black Drag Queens Invented Camp’

The accounts of camp mentioned by Sontag in her definitive essay have undoubtedly been vital in the development of a calcified etymology of the word. However, the examples of artworks used in ‘Notes on Camp’ tend to draw from the white-dominated, Western canon of art history. There is a reason why one of the most striking outfits from this year’s Met Gala was Lena Waithe’s jacket with the slogan ‘Black Drag Queens Invented Camp’ across the back.

With this jacket, Waithe paid tribute to African-American ballroom icons such as Pepper Labeija, Willi Ninja and RuPaul. These figures were well-known in the ballroom scene of the 1980s, and rose to prominence two decades after Sontag’s ‘Notes’ was published. None the less, they played an instrumental role in forming our understanding of camp today. To write about camp art history without the inclusion of black queer artists seems amiss.

One contemporary black queer artist whose work is evocative of camp style is Kalup Linzy. Linzy is a performance artist known for his works that ‘invoke a satirical narrative inspired by soap operas and Hollywood melodramas to investigate stereotypes around sexual identity, race, and gender. His films have a deliberately DIY aesthetic and are, in turn, humorous and affecting. From the replication of his own body in assuming hundreds of exaggerated and larger-than-life characters-many in drag-to drawing inspiration from cheesy, Hollywood soaps, to the satirical and humorous element of his performances, Linzy’s oeuvre is as true to the pillars of camp theory as one can get.

Kalup Linzy as Taiwan, 2015.
Kalup Linzy as Taiwan, 2015. Image by Will Lytch via USFCAM.

Another artist who could be considered camp-though perhaps not immediately so-is President Obama’s portraitist, Kehinde Wiley. Wiley takes a mostly traditional approach to portraiture, citing Reynolds and Gainsborough as just a few of his inspirations. However, the embellishment of his backgrounds with floral and brightly patterned motifs, and his frequent use of theatrical poses, gives his work a distinctive camp aesthetic, one that additionally plays with traditional conventions of gender.

By juxtaposing young black men in hip-hop attire with pink, paisley backdrops or intertwined among flowers, Wiley not only destabilizes the stereotypes of aggression and hyper-masculinity that plight black men, but also creates a luscious feast for the eyes. His extravagant backgrounds moreover recall the extraneous decorative elements in Art Nouveau that Sontag found to be the epitome of camp.

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Simon George II, 2007.
Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Simon George II, 2007. Image via Crocker Art.

These diverse examples from art history demonstrate the almost inherent ambiguity around what constitutes camp. It must be remembered that despite all the ‘Notes’ and articles (including this one), camp theory thrives on its inability to be pinned down. What we can agree and focus on, however, is that camp is essentially a love for the extravagant, flamboyant and playful. To conclude this article in true camp fashion, therefore, we at Singulart leave you with one final example of contemporary camp, a final nugget of camp wisdom, if you will. After all, what’s the point of writing about camp if you’re not going to go out in style? And, in the words of the great Sasha Flute, we ask you: ‘What’s more camp than a flute with an updo?’

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