I LOVE Susan Sontag. I'm envious of the scope and breadth of her reading and her facility and dexterousness with words. Sontag was in a longtime committed relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz. In 1964, at the age of 31, Susan wrote a ground-breaking essay called "Notes on Camp" -- where she tried to pin down and define the "camp sensibility". That "so bad, it's good" concept. For some, like watching Bette Davis in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" I am going to give limited, selected notes from "Notes on Camp" (then provide a link to the full essay). I hope you enjoy her spectacular prose and boundless knowledge and thrilling grasp of this alternative sensibility as much as I do. -------------------- 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. These notes are for Oscar Wilde. "One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art." - Phrases & Philosophies for the Use of the Young 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. ----- 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. ----- Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp: Tiffany lamps The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA The Enquirer, headlines and stories Swan Lake Bellini's operas the Cuban pop singer La Lupe the old Flash Gordon comics women's clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.) the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett stag movies seen without lust ----- Camp 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. ----- 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. "The more we study Art, the less we care for Nature." - The Decay of Lying ----- All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy . . . ----- 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. ----- 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. ----- 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.) ----- 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. ----- 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. ----- "To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up." - An Ideal Husband 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. ----- 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... ----- 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.) ----- "It's absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." - Lady Windemere's Fan In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. ----- The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers. ----- 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 as Camp. ----- 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. ----- Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of "style" over "content," "aesthetics" over "morality," of irony over tragedy. ----- 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. ----- "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." - Oscar Wilde, In conversation Susan Sontag: Notes On "Camp"