Monday, 25 October 2010

Notes on "Camp" I (S. 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 revulsion.

Leonardo chairs (
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...

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.

2. To 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.

3. 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.


5. 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. 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 unpretentious way.

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.


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.


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. 1

4. 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). [...]

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 artifice.

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

18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying.

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 does not mean to be funny. Camping does. [...]

20. Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful. [...]

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. [...]

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 themselves. "It's absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." - Lady Windemere's Fan

23. In 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 enthusiasm.)

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. [...] 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.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Looking at Native Art through Western Art Categories: From the "Highest" to the "Lowest" Point of View (Emily Auger)

"Western categories of high art (such as architecture, sculpture, and painting) and of low art (such as prints and crafts) and the values associated with them were firmly established and promoted in Western art academies between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. [...] The greater value of the high arts was based throughout these centuries on the superior quality of their "artistic expression," which was generally identified according to classicist ideals of beauty. The academy upheld the belief that the representation of such ideals would improve society as a whole.

[...] All art, high and low, always serves the same basic functions. These functions include: 
- substitute imagery, or art made for the purpose of preserving the appearance of something or someone; 
- illustration, or art made for the purpose of recording stories or events; 
- conviction and persuasion, art made to articulate "the fundamental convictions or realized ideals of societies" or to convince people to embrace new convictions or ideals; 
- beautification, art made for the purpose of pleasing the eye and mind. 

Artistic expression is in itself another function of art, but according to Alan Gowans, is not and cannot be a "social function" of the same order as the preceding four. It is not something objectively identifiable that society cannot do without. Rather, it is a way of carrying out the other social functions, a particular skill or aptitude which becomes progressively more self-conscious as time and history moves on.

[...] Folk art, souvenirs, kitsch, camp, mass-produced art, and popular television and movies are some of the low arts which are popular today." (pp 89-92)

Retablo ayacuchano
Folk art: "Also called "naive" or "primitive" art, is a particular form of low art which thrives today as it has for centuries. It is often found on functional objects or made to be functional, as are rugs, quilts, clothes, storage boxes, jars, game boards, hunting decoys, and weather vanes.II The folk artist differs from the high or fine artist in that he or she does not use techniques associated with artistic expression in the academic tradition of art such as chiaroscuro, correct scale, perspective, or the placement of all elements in a unified and coherent space. Instead, the folk artist strives for a high degree of craftsmanship and artistic merit through the incorporation of as much detail as possible into his or her work." (p 93)

Popular arts: "Some kinds of folk art are marketed as souvenirs, especially those which possess a distinctive style associated with a region's tourist appeal. In this way folk art may become part of popular culture and art. Folk art, like all aspects of folk culture, is associated with small, local producers and audiences who know each other and who made what and when. In contrast, popular culture, particularly that of the twentieth century, frequently involves producers who are not named and an audience that is large and in search of entertainment or amusement, not moral or ethical edification, as is sometimes the objective of high art, or the cozy domestic context of folk culture. Popular arts include souvenirs, kitsch, and mass-produced art, as well
as popular television and movies." (pp 93-94)

Kitsch: "Often applied as a synonym for worthless art, artistic rubbish, or simply bad art... Kitsch is condemned by the world of fine art but it is also something that people like and are willing to pay for. For this reason it became the official carrier of ideology in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and is flourishing in capitalistic advertising. How does one recognize today's kitsch? According to Kulka, kitsch is characterized by it subjects and its style:

(1) Kitsch depicts a subject which is generally considered beautiful or highly emotionally charged;
(2) The subject depicted by kitch is instantly and effortlessly identifiable;
(3) Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations related to the depicted subject.

The usual style for rendering such subjects as kitsch is naturalistic or realistic, sometimes excessively so and to the point of sentimental artificiality. Artists of kitsch make no attempt to be innovative in any way." (pp 94-95).

Camp: "A sort of chic kitsch. [...] camp demonstrates an excess of aestheticism, an excess of style at the expense of content." (p 95)

Auger, Emily (2000) "Looking at Native Art through Western Art Categories: From the "Highest" to the "Lowest" Point of View". Journal of Aesthetic Education. Vol. 34, Nº 2. (pp 89-98).

Pastiche (I)

"Whether applied to part of a work, or to the whole, implies that it is made up largely of phrases, motifs, images, episodes, etc. borrowed more or less unchanged from the work(s) of other author(s). The term is often used in a loosely derogatory way to describe the kind of helpless borrowing that makes an immature or unoriginal work read like a mosaic of quotations. More precisely, it has two main meanings, corresponding to two different deliberate uses of pastiche as a technique.

There is a kind of pastiche which seeks to recreate in a more extreme and accessible form the manner of major writers. It tends to eliminate tensions, to produce a more highly coloured and polished effect, picking out and reiterating favourite stylistic mannerisms, and welding them into a new whole which has a superficial coherence and order. Unlike plagiarism, pastiche of this kind is not intended to deceive: it is literature frankly inspired by literature frankly inspired by literature (as in Akenside's poem 'The pleasures of imagination', 1744).

The second main use of pastiche is not reverential or appreciative, but disrespectful and sometimes deflationary. Instead of ironing out ambiguities in its source(s) it highlights them. It cannot be distinguished absolutely from parody, but whereas the parodists need only allude to the original intermittently, the writer of pastiche industriously recreates it, often concocting a medley of borrowed styles [...]. A closely synonymous term, nearly obsolete, 'cento' or 'centoism', is relevant here: in its original Latin form it meant a garment of patchwork and, applied to literature, a poem made up by joining scraps from various authors. Many of the specialized uses of pastiche are reminiscent of this literary game: it may give encyclopaedic scope to a work, including all the previous styles (Joyce's Ulysses); it is used by writers who wish to exemplify their ironic sense that language comes to the secondhand and stylized (George Herbert's 'Jordan I'). And a general air of pastiche is created by many writers who, for various reasons, refuse to evolve a style of their own, and who [...] employ other's cast-off phrases with conscious scepticism.

Frederic Jameson argues that parody has been replaced by pastiche in postmodernism, where all the cultural styles of the past are open to cannibalization and appropriation: 'Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter'."

Childs, Peter; Fowler, Roger (2006): The Routledge dictionary of literary terms. (p 167-168)
Taylor & Francis. London.
Related Posts with Thumbnails