Rising camp: how an arch sensibility got political

Ice skaters in S& amp; M gear, models in panto petticoats, Ricky Martin in tighty whities … were in the grip of a camp detonation and now it has a radical bite

There are few more mercurial culture concepts than camp- or more enduring ones. America’s current king of Tv camp, Ryan Murphy, is winning new accolades with his arch, neon-lit true-crime drama The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The Wintertime Olympics’ breakout starring, ice skater Adam Rippon, set lesbian Twitter aflame by arriving at the Oscars wearing a Jeremy Scott tux and leather harness. Jonathan van Ness, long-haired, plaid-skirted grooming expert of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, has ensured that spectators of the Netflix show now” spray, lag and walk away” when applying cologne.

So far, so fabulous. But also so familiar: camp is, after all, a perennial feature of style for white gay men. Yet camp can also be revolutionary. At Paris fashion week this month, Japanese label Comme Des Garcons presented alternative solutions vision. On displaywere ruffles, clashing polka-dot and tartan patterns, voluminous panto-dame petticoats and endless puckering layers.

‘ Camp represents a value we need’ … designer Rei Kawakubo, whose Comme des Garcons collection indicated at Paris fashion week. Photograph: Bertrand Guay/ AFP/ Getty Images

Designer Rei Kawakubo declared that the collecting had been inspired by the cultural critic Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on Camp, which helped define and explain this culture phenomenon. Kawakubo echoed Sontag’s claim that camp is not simply clumsy over-exaggeration or bad savour.” On the contrary ,” the designer told,” camp is really and truly something deep and new and represents a value we need .”

Kawakubo had a point. When vulgarity has become not only a matter of bad savour in curtains but a political strategy that they are able put you in the White House, camp is an aesthetic tool that needs re-evaluating and freshening. For Sontag, camp was ineffable. Notes on Camp was structured as a series of jottings rather than a formal essay because camp is a sensibility- a route of insuring- rather than a tightly definable idea . Still, she drew out a whole corsage of its possible characteristics.

Above all else, she said, camp is about artifice. Even when it takes nature as its source, it revels in stylising it- like the art nouveau lamps of the Paris Metro which are absurd renditions of orchids, or the ceiling of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, a vaulting arranging of serrated stone leaves.

Camp also blurs high and low culture. The same extravagant artifice of Gaudi’s campy forest canopy can be found in the reality TV demonstrate franchises The Real Housewives or Constructed in Chelsea, where authenticity is repudiated in favour of fabricated drama, all big hair and outsized personalities. Sontag insures nuance of character and the development of emotional intricacy as anathema to camp.” What camp savour responds to is’ instant character ,'” she wrote.” Character is understood as a nation of continual incandescence- a person represent one, very intense thing .”

A country of continual incandescence … Lady Gaga on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Photo: Logotv

This is what constructs camp so slippery. It requires a constant switching of aesthetic and emotional registers, of finding an ironic joy in ridiculous drama while still, somehow, sincerely loving and identifying with it. Strictly Come Dancing could not have survived 15 seasons on knowing irony alone: to read camp, one must recognise how artificial so much in our lives is, and then revel in its glittering falseness.

Arch icon … Vladimir Putin. Photo: Alexey Druzhinin/ AFP/ Getty Images

It’s this puffed-up love of artifice that Kawakubo celebrates. For Sontag, however, the best camp has no notion that it is camp. Fifty years on from her essay, our own arch icon must surely be Vladimir Putin: the frequent photoshoots portraying the Russian premier riding horseback topless, or scuba-diving for Greek urns, are performances of masculinity so overblown they become comic. Putin isn’t playing camp, but we can’t help but read him that style. As Sontag emphasizes,” in naive, or pure, camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails .”

Putin now receives his mirror in the White House. It’s not just his love of parades and big hair that renders Trump camp. His very language is full of camp affect and hyperbolic overstatement, as comedian Peter Serafinowicz uncovers in Sassy Trump, his dubbed reworkings of Trump’s speeches.

For years, gay people have played withthe concept of “butch”, stimulating it silly, sexy and subversive, so it’s no wonder there is confusion between camp masculinity and homosexuality. Camp considers gender as something you can perform. As Sontag said:” To perceive camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role .” She highlights the “corny flamboyant female-ness” of such actresses as Gina Lollobrigida. These days we might consider a ripped Channing Tatum, or an eyelash-fluttering Cardi B, as consciously playing up a camp shtick of gender norms.

Ice skater Adam Rippon at the Oscars. Photo: Frazer Harrison/ Getty Images

Sontag remarked that camp’s obsession with style at the expense of content rendered it” depoliticised … or at least apolitical”- an idea that history has since overruled. Camp’s obsession with playing up, and subverting, the performance of gender and sexuality has clearly had a significant effect on our society, and the fag audience has become a powerful force in the face of discrimination and oppression. A sensibility is a way of insure, eating and enjoying culture; sharing a sensibility in the social media age creates their home communities that can see and talk to itself.

Put another way, how some fag people ingest culture is an art kind in itself. Take RuPaul’s Drag Race, the cult reality indicate where queens pitch themselves in fierce competition for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. The show is pasted thick with irony( it models itself as a take-off of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway ). Drag Race has become a cultural lodestone in gay communities with obsessive championing of favourite queens and endless rumination on tactics making ready-made topics of conversation among strangers. In other words, it’s football for gay people. Social media has amplified and built global this faggot fan culture.

This audience is far from apolitical, as RuPaul discovered. After telling the Guardian earlier this month that he would” likely not” let a trans girl vie on the depict, large sections of its fanbase, as well as former queens, spoke out against him. Despite RuPaul being the titular figurehead, the fans know that what creates the show’s richness is the shared culture created by those who bond over it- and that culture increasingly recognises the role played both in the reveal, and in wider LGBT culture, by trans and non-binary people.

This is what has changed since Sontag wrote her notes: the idea of culture being something produced in one sector and passively consumed in another is over. In the social media age, the audience makes the culture through the sensibility it displays. It attains new connects, remixing and recontextualising cultural objects as it runs. The role of self-defined “creative” in the modern aesthetic economy is not so much one of creating new trends, but spotting them as they arise from the general population, amplifying them and appropriating them. Artists themselves are largely at the compassion of their fans’ ingenuity, and when that imagination is camp, it brings into play powerful forces-out that allow the audience to made new meanings, and celebrate unlikely and dangerous protagonists.

Spray, delay and walk away … Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Photograph: Netflix

Perhaps Kawakubo is right- camp is a value we need. When absolutism is becoming the order of the working day, camp insists upon subtlety. It knows that what constructs something serious and heavy for one spectator induces it hilariously silly for another. And it knows that to fully appreciate culture, all these meanings must sit together in the object, to be wrestled and played with. It empowers the audience to undermine authority, to destabilise meaning, to change art. Camp considers nuance, pleasure and brocade ruffles as virtues in their own right- although it would never be so vulgar or boring as to say so.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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