“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.”
(Susan Sontag, Notes On Camp)
IS CAMP STYLE A DEMAND OF OUR TIME?
HAS IT GOT SPECIFIC ROOTS IN THE PAST?
IS IT ANYTHING NEW OR IS IT AN EVOLUTION?
Anthropologically speaking, I think Camp style is a requirement of every era.
Every moment in time has got its own rules, its own proibhitions, its own people with their own roles in society and Camp style has always been a way to react to it, to get a instant of freedom, to laugh about what has been going on. I suppose it deals with a private revolution against everything the community imposed as good and right: humankind feel the needing of something that runs over the ordinary decorum.
So I believe Camp style is a state of mind in which imagination isn’t kept under control any longer, where everything has lost its definite role and is seen without any superstructure; Camp style is something you can play with, in order to free yourself and feel easier.
“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.”
(Susan Sontag, Notes On Camp)
The origins of Camp style could probably be discovered in Ancient Greece, where actresses didn’t exist (women were strictly forbidden from acting) and male actors had to exaggerate female characteristics in order to play also their parts; more over the aim of greek tragedies was the one of permitting spectators to break free from everyday life so that they could liberate their mind.
While during Middle Ages there were not many evidences of Camp, a pocket history of Camp might, of course, carries on 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 Firbank.
But the incubation moved on with personalities such as the painter Francis Bacon, the artist Andy Warhol, the poet and novelist Jean Cocteau and the playwright Truman Capote; and Camp style exploded in the second half of the 20th century with a long list of controversial names, usually linked with the star system world: David Bowie, John Waters, Elvira, Pee-wee Herman, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Richard Simmons, Dame Edna, Divine (Glen Milstead), RuPaul, and Jim Carroll, Boy George, George Michael, and many other singers… Celebrities who are gay icons include Judy Garland, Dame Shirley Bassey, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Carmen Miranda, and Joan Rivers.
More over, the list becomes longer and longer with fashion and interior designers’ and film-makers’ names and so on…
This narration betrays how modern Camp style is a natural evolution of something very ancient, how it progresses through ages and get its nowadays meaning.