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“Notes on Camp” by Susan Sontag Essay

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Updated: Jul 17th, 2020

The development of an argument

Up until comparatively recent times, it represented a fully legitimate practice among critics to discuss the significance of a particular artistic style from solely art-related perspective, while remaining ignorant as to specifics of a relevant socio-political discourse, associated with this style. The validity of an earlier statement is best illustrated by Susan Sontag’s article Notes on Camp, in which she strived to define the very essence of Camp artistic style.

According to the author, Camp is most appropriately referred to as people’s predisposition towards deriving an aesthetic pleasure out of representing emotionally charged artistic motifs, extrapolated in paintings, architecture, movies, etc., in subtly derogative context, regardless of the qualitative nature of these motifs: “In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails… (seriousness) which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve” (283).

Such Sontag’s definition provides us with methodological framework for indentifying Camp in the works of art. Also, Sontag had proven herself analytical enough to realize that the very concept of Camp is nothing but the modern equivalent of the concept of dandyism, originated in late 19th century: “Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture” (288).

Nevertheless, the careful reading of Sontag’s article pints out at an undeniable fact that, despite author’s apparent insightfulness in describing the metaphysical subtleties of Camp, she nevertheless had failed at providing readers with the clue on whether the emergence of Camp was dialectically predetermined, or was it purely sporadic – throughout article’s entirety, Sontag discusses Camp as ‘thing in itself’, as opposed to discussing it as something that has been spawned by currently dominant socio-political discourse.

Unlike Sontag, in his article Postmodernism: Art and Culture in the 1980’s, Hilton Kramer did not simply set criteria for recognizing Camp motifs in the works of art, but tried to expose the emergence of this specific artistic style as being indicative of an ongoing process of Western societies growing increasingly marginalized, in intellectual sense of this word.

While agreeing with Sontag on essentially decadent essence of Camp as an artistic style of narcissistically minded ‘sophisticates’: “From the Camp point of view, “they” (philistines) still understand nothing, since “they” don’t get the joke” (6), author had made a point in exposing this stylistic style being socially counter-productive, as it contradicts the laws of historical dialectics: “For history, though it can be revised, can never be repealed, and it is an illusion (induced by Camp)… to believe otherwise” (10) – hence, Kramer’s strongly defined negative attitude towards Camp.

As self-admitted positivist, Kramer ends his article on an optimistic note, while implying that, due to its anti-historicity, Camp cannot possibly pose a legitimate challenge to the artistic style of modernism: “Yet modernism, though now stripped of the nearly absolute authority it formerly wielded in artistic matters, is anything but dead” (11). According to Kramer, Camp should be referred to as a degenerative ‘fad’ rather than an artistic style, in full sense of this word.

I personally think that, despite Kramer’s genuine attempt to undermine the significance of Camp as the form of ‘artistic pathology’, it is namely Sontag’s article, which contains actual insights on why one would be much better off utilizing psychiatric terminology, while discussing the meaning of Camp.

The reason for this is simple – in her article, Sontag had succeeded in establishing links between the specifics of Camp-affiliates’ aesthetic perception and the particulars of their existential identity. To put it plainly, Sontag implied that Camp appeals mostly to those who are no strangers to sexual perversity: “Not all homosexuals have Camp taste.

But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience of Camp” (51). Apparently, a particular man’s fascination with aesthetic mannerism, commonly referred to as ‘dandyism’, reflects the excessive amounts of estrogen in his hormonal system; which in its turn, explains such individual’s unconscious attraction towards flamboyancy, as an integral part of his lifestyle.

In her article, Glick (2001) came up with interesting observation: “A wide range of historians and cultural critics have placed the dandy at the center of debates about the history of the homosexual in the West” (129). When we look at how many Camp artists go about reflecting upon marginalized artistic styles of the past, their hidden agenda of promoting homosexual cause will become perfectly evident.

For example, the color pattern featured in Andy Warhol’s painting Che Guevara, is being clearly reminiscent of the colors of a so-called ‘rainbow flag’.

Another example – even though in his drawing Pierrot, Aubrey Beardsley had strived to mimic the graphic style of twenties for seemingly aesthetic reasons alone, drawing’s motifs unmistakably convey the message of ‘sissiness’, known to appeal to homosexuals that play passive role in bed. Therefore, there can be very few doubts as to the fact that it is namely the ‘sophisticates’ affected by the lack of psychological adequacy, who are most likely to consider Camp a legitimate artistic style.

Evaluation of articles and personal point of view

Nevertheless, I am far from trying to imply that the emergence of Camp style should be discussed in terms of a historical oddity, unrelated to the essence of socio-political circumstances of an affiliative era.

On the contrary – it is because post-industrial realities of today render the increasing number of classical political, cultural and economic concepts hopelessly outdated, and because the number of people capable of appreciating art continues to decline rather exponentially, due to the influx of primitively minded barbarians from Third World into the West, and the declining birth rates among Whites, which explains why today’s overly sensitive ‘sophisticates’ are being tempted to assess the actual significance of these concepts from solely aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) perspective, while simultaneously trying to amuse themselves.

Apparently, a parallel can be drawn between so-called ‘action art’ of fifties and sixties, the practitioners of which strived towards ‘artistic purity’ by actively denying the artistic conventions of the past, and Camp/Kitsch art, which is nothing but more intellectually refined form of artistic nihilism.

In both cases, the actual agenda of promoters of new approaches to art revealed these people’s deep-seated anxieties as to an ongoing process of art’s marginalization, due to a variety of art-unrelated but art-influencing factors. Whatever the illogical it might sound – it is namely due to the fact that advocates of Camp consider avant-garde artistic styles too conventional, which prompts them to resort to utilization of mass-produced artistic vulgarity as the best way to confront such a vulgarity, as ‘thing in itself’.

In his book, Călinescu (1985) states: “The argument that postmodern culture is antielitist because it is popular… seems utterly sophistic” (144). This is exactly why, as Sontag had put it: “The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity” (289). To be more precise – a ‘new-style dandy’ appreciates its own ability to spot, replicate, and exhibit ‘ugliness’, as the ultimate instrument of distancing himself from such ‘ugliness’ – hence, proving its existential psyche intellectually refined to those who happened to be just as decadent.

This is why; one of the most striking characteristics of Camp style is that it aims at emphasizing ‘detachment’ as the only suitable existential mode for true intellectuals. According to Hallberg (1980): “From the Camp viewpoint, politics is stylelessly overladen with content; it can be ignored, because the Camp sensibility is premised on detachment” (569).

Camp ridicules artistic conventions of the past, but it does not make people who indulge in such ridiculing being less affiliated with these conventions ontologically. As it was rightly noted by Sands (1996): “Camp partly acquiesces to the very codes it transgresses” (509).

It would be more accurate to refer to Camp as being not so much of an art, but rather an art-based communicational matrix, which endows degenerative, nihilistic but sophisticate individuals with the sensation of belonging to intellectual elite, and also creates a sub-cultural framework for these individuals to explore their latent sexuality in socially appropriate manner.

Therefore, I can only agree with Selle and Nelles (1984), who pointed out at Camp as clearly sub-cultural phenomenon of modernity: “The adaptation of the exaggerated or the enjoyment of the apparent parody of seriousness (Camp)… only relates, however, to a small subculture” (50).

Yet, I do not subscribe to Kramer’s point of view that people become affiliated with a particular sub-culture (in our case Camp) by necessarily a conscious choice, on their part, which would have given opponents a valid reason to criticize such their choice from rationalistic perspective (as Kramer does).

In its turn, this explains why Camp artistic style has gained popularity exclusively among White ‘sophisticates’- despite having been deprived of their former biological vitality (reflected in their obsession with ‘alternative sex styles’), these people managed to retain intelligence. However, when one’s intelligence is being utilized solely for the purpose of mental introversion, it becomes only the matter of time before she or he would chose in favor of an absurdist existential posture.

While striving to denounce artistic vulgarity by intentionally representing it in hypertrophied form, Camp artists never cease longing for vulgarity’s sheer potency. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to regard Camp as an art per se, because art is nothing but aesthetic manifestation of potency.

Yet, it is specifically the existential impotency of White ‘sophisticates’, out of which the very concept of Camp derives. Just like the sophisticate decadents of early 20th century, who used to force themselves to drink small amounts of poison, so that their skin would appear extra pale (‘aristocratic’), today’s Camp/Kitsch enthusiasts apply a mental effort to affiliate themselves with what they hate the most – artistic tastelessness.

This suggestion resonates rather well with what has been hypothesized upon at the beginning of this paper – in order to realize the true significance of a Camp style, one would be better off conducting a research on what were the objective socio-political preconditions, which predetermined style’s emergence, in the first place, as opposed to discussing it in purely artistic terms. Just as post-industrial economy is best discussed in terms of criminology, and post-industrial politics in terms of economy, post-industrial artistic styles (specifically Camp/Kitsch) are best described in terms of psychiatry.


Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces Of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987. Print.

Glick, Elisa “The Dialectics of Dandyism.” Cultural Critique 48.2 (2001): 129 – 163. Print.

Kramer, Hilton “Postmodernism: Art and Culture in the 1980s”, in The Revenge of the Philistines, New York: The Free Press, 1985. 1-11. Print.

Lancaster, Mark “Andy Warhol Remembered.” The Burlington Magazine 131. 1032 (1989): 198-202. Print.

Sands, Kathleen “Ifs, Ands, and Butts: Theological Reflections on Humor.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64.3 (1996): 499-523. Print.

Selle, Gert & Nelles, Peter “There Is No Kitsch, There Is Only Design!” Design Issues 1.1 (1984): 41-52. Print.

Sontag, Susan “Notes on ‘Camp’” in Against Interpretation, New York: Dell, 1970. 275-292. Print.

Stimson, Blake “Andy Warhol’s Red Beard.” The Art Bulletin 83.3 (2001): 527- 547. Print.

Upstone, Robert “Sado-Masochism and Synaesthesia: Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘Frontispiece to Chopin’s Third Ballade.” The Burlington Magazine 145.1204 (2003): 510-515. Print.

Von Hallberg, Robert “James Merrill: ‘Revealing by Obscuring.” Contemporary Literature 21.4 (1980): 549-571. Print.

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