"Notes On Camp", by Susan Sontag

Discussion in 'Et Cetera, Et Cetera' started by D_Ireonsyd_Colonrinse, Oct 24, 2009.

  1. D_Ireonsyd_Colonrinse

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    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.


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    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"
     
  2. HellsKitchenmanNYC

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    Can't wait to dive into this essay!
     
  3. D_Tim McGnaw

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    She a very interesting writer and this is a greta post. She's quite wrong about Wagner though, he's as camp as a row of pink tents. ;)
     
  4. Empathizer

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    If you love Camp & Kitsch, you absolutely must read these books by Umberto Eco. But you might, as a Student of Camp, want to start with either his first really important book, The Open Work, or the ultimate novel of Kitsch della Italia, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.
     
  5. D_Tim McGnaw

    D_Tim McGnaw Account Disabled

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    I'm not sure The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was redolent enough of Kitsch ( Italian or otherwise ), more hopelessly sentimental about the ephemera of childhood.

    I adore "On Ugliness" it's looking up at me now from my coffee table :smile:
     
  6. Calboner

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    I own a book that used to belong to her ex-husband. Does that get me credit toward a skunk-stripe hairdo?
     
  7. D_Ireonsyd_Colonrinse

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    I love Sontag for always speaking her mind.

    She sparked controversy with remarks made within 2 weeks of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks. All of America (even dems) were in a fiercely jingoistic mood following the attacks, not in a mood for reflection or moral ambiguity.


    Directly following the attacks, she wrote:

    "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word 'cowardly' is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."


    Notice she wrote "How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq?" well over a year before the United States invaded Iraq (March, 2003).



    Retaliation on Sontag was ferocious. Talk radio went ballistic. Nobody was ready to judge America's part, blowback, in the unintended consequences for political policies and imperialism so soon after the event.
     
  8. B_Nick8

    B_Nick8 New Member

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    I haven't read this before but Sontag couldn't be more spot on.
     
  9. Bbucko

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    I read Notes on Camp when I was 18: it was a gift from an architect mentor/friend/occasional sex partner whom I adored. It defined an ethos for me as much as From Bauhaus to Our House, Lulu in Hollywood or Edie: An American Biography did a few years later, and I was never able to look at Four Fabulous Faces with quite the same admiration again.

    It was then and still is essential reading.

    Her outspoken nature did not extend to her personal life, however. When she died, her partner Annie Liebowitz was left with so much debt and tax levies owing to Sontag's refusal to have their de facto marriage recognized as such that she was nearly forced to sell the rights to a lifetime of work; it might still happen.

    Susan Sontag's insistence on living in the closet has wrecked her partner's life.
     
  10. Empathizer

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    I didn't even know Sontag was gay! I thought she was a faghag like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

    She may be a horrible politico for staying in the closet, but maybe she was afraid to come out lest Camille Paglia use the only sharp thing that's ever been in or near her skull -- a hatpin -- and bump her off.

    Okay, end of derail. This is an ambiguously-adoring-Sontag thread, not a Neuremberg Trial for Paglia and her Fascisti.
     
  11. D_Ireonsyd_Colonrinse

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    Gay-oppressed, Jew-oppressed, African-american-oppressed cultural senses of humor



    Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" attempts of define a specific outré cultural sensiblity, a love of artifice and exaggeration... a love of the unnatural. Flamboyant mannerisms and double interpretations; being alive to a double meaning in which some things can be taken.


    This "double sense" and love of artifice was taken up by gay men in the mid-to-late 19th century (Oscar Wilde's day) and persists to our own. Gay men in previous decades used and identified with the camp sensibility because it so perfectly matched up with their own duality and sense of "leading a double life". The closet lifestyle. Camp emphasizes style over content. Pure artifice. As Sontag says, it "sees everything in quotation marks". --- In its most extreme manifestation inside the gay community, drag queens are the embodiment of style at the expense of content, of things-being-what-they-are-not. Of duality and flourish.


    Gay men have a history of oppression. African-americans and jews also have a history of oppression. And it seems to me that although these individual cultural oppressions are different, their history permeates and informs their (idiosyncratic, neurotic) humor.
     
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