First published in 1964, Susan Sontag’s essay Notes on Camp remains a groundbreaking piece of cultural activism. Sontag’s achievement was to give a name to an aesthetic that was everywhere yet until then had gone largely unremarked. It was visible in Dusty Springfield’s mascara and beehive, there in late-night TV reruns of old Humphrey Bogart movies; there in Andy Warhol’s screen prints Flowers and Electric Chair – images from advertising and the news media copied and provocatively represented.
Like pop, camp was the future; as Warhol had observed on his cross-country trip in 1963, it was omnipresent, so ubiquitous that it wasn’t simply an aesthetic. It was an environment, a climate, with profound implications for western culture. To notice it, all you needed was the keen eye of an outsider.
In 58 paragraphs, Sontag conducted an intuitive yet rigorous examination of a phenomenon that she defined as “a badge of identity among small urban cliques”. And this “private code” constituted a new mode of perception that collapsed traditional ideas of high and low culture, of elitism and mass appeal. Here was a new hierarchy of taste, no longer defined by the old gatekeepers. Camp was a “way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon”, she wrote, “in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylisation”.
Sontag’s early passages outline the now overfamiliar “so bad it’s good” aesthetic: it could be found in the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, the 1933 film King Kong and Tiffany lamps. Today, Sontag’s observations remind us of how objects and works that were déclassé in the 1960s have become part of accepted taste. She predicted this would happen, of course: “The canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it.”
She notes camp’s affinity with particular activities: interior decor, clothing, classical ballet, opera. In particular, notions of the epicene and the artificial marked the camp aesthetic: nothing natural, clumsy or butch (although that has become another camp mode). Even more important is the idea of excess: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.”
Camp can be used as a weapon, by gay people against gay people, sometimes as practice for dealing with the harshness of the world outside the gay community. The threat of aggression can be cut down by the sharp blade of a queen’s tongue. Sontag, however, prefers to identify a peculiar innocence in the midst of camp’s mockery, as well as a kind of seductiveness. Camp is not only used to repel us; it also aims to draw us in. And, as Sontag discovered, it can be highly effective. She begins her essay sounding slightly irritable and ends up having fun. At the climax of her essay, she observes: “Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. Camp is a tender feeling.”
Notes on Camp did that rare thing: it facilitated a major shift in the perceptions of the culture it defined. The publication of Sontag’s frank discussion in Partisan Review, an east coast magazine that shaped intellectual opinion, legitimised gay culture in a way that continues to resonate.
Behind all the glitz of the fashion world’s big fundraiser, the Met Gala, which took place in New York earlier this week, Sontag’s thoughts remain relevant. They provide the theme for the Costume Institute’s latest exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Camp: Notes on Fashion, which explores the different definitions of camp throughout history, from the court of Louis XIV to 19th-century dandyism. One of the earliest uses of the term appears in an 1869 letter from Lord Arthur Clinton to his lover Frederick Park, who along with Ernest Boulton formed the pioneering transvestite duo Stella and Fanny that scandalised Victorian Britain. Since then, as the Met show’s curator Andrew Bolton has said: “Camp has become increasingly more mainstream in its pluralities – political camp, queer camp, pop camp, the conflation of high and low, the idea that there is no such thing as originality.”
Lady Gaga, Elton John and Cher are featured in the exhibition, highlighting the way in which camp has become mainstream. And yet this aesthetic still remains provocative and challenging. Consider, for example, Irish drag queen Panti Bliss’s famous speech about oppression, remixed by Pet Shop Boys in the 2014 dance track “Oppressive (The Best Gay Possible)”, the victory of Conchita Wurst in the 2014 Eurovision song contest, or Taylor Mac’s 2018 epic show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which included 246 songs sung by Mac in elaborate drag.
It’s easy to see how Notes on Camp was ahead of its time but Sontag’s essay also betrays the prevailing attitudes of her day – most obviously, in her caution about discussing the way in which camp was a predominantly queer code. She delays making this point, but finally observes that gay men “constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste”; it is they who “constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience – of Camp”.
In characterising the camp sensibility as “disengaged, depoliticized”, she also fails to comprehend how it was used by gay men as both protection and provocation. Camp was political because it made the then despised gay subculture visible: in cities all over the US, young gay men would go out “wrecking”, dressing outrageously and flaunting their femininity.
Indeed, 1964 was not a wonderful year to be gay in the US. Homosexuality in America, a prominent article in Life magazine that summer, began with the warning: “Homosexuality shears across the spectrum of American life – the professions, the arts, business and labor. It always has. But today, especially in big cities, homosexuals are discarding their furtive ways and openly admitting, even flaunting, their deviation … This social disorder, which society tries to suppress, has forced itself into the public eye because it does present a problem.”
Gay men were an easy target for police looking for quick arrests and for politicians looking to assert themselves ahead of elections. That summer, there were “crackdowns” by the Los Angeles Police Department against the city’s increasingly visible gay subculture. Meanwhile, on the east coast there were raids on illegal gay bars in an attempt “to clean up the city” in advance of the New York World’s Fair. Warhol’s mural for the New York State Pavilion, Thirteen Most Wanted Men, was summarily painted over.
Yet Sontag’s essay, simply by discussing homosexuality in nuanced terms, caught a liberalising upswing. Notes on Camp gave a huge boost to the various disparate small groups in the US agitating for homosexual law reform. It acted as a spearhead within the mass media for a whole range of ideas, attitudes and images. It joined the dots between the kind of underground culture represented by tiny LA record label Camp – which released the single “I’d Rather Fight Than Swish”, with the B-side “I’d Rather Swish Than Fight” – and the wider manifestation of gay style by bands such as the Rolling Stones, encouraged to be as camp as possible by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham – schooled in the gay milieu of London’s Tin Pan Alley.
Sontag herself entered Warhol’s world in the autumn of 1964, sitting for one of his silent black-and-white “screen tests” at his Manhattan studio, the Factory. The tests were designed to expose the sitter, and Sontag was up to the occasion, oscillating between high seriousness, contempt and a wildly mocking grin.
The following year, Warhol made a film at the Factory with the one-word title Camp, featuring such underground film pioneers as Gerard Malanga, Baby Jane Holzer, Jack Smith and Mario Montez. Gloria Steinem wrote an article for Life magazine called The Ins and Outs of Popular Culture in which, echoing Sontag, she observed the breaking down of boundaries between high and low art, art nouveau and James Bond sweatshirts: “Camp itself,” she wrote, “can be a kind of early warning system for Pop.”
It’s interesting that it took two established female intellectuals to write about this new phenomenon. For an openly gay man to do it in the 1960s would have been impossible: Warhol’s extraordinary fame was often met with abuse. When the band he managed, Velvet Underground, played in San Francisco in the spring of 1966, critic Ralph Gleason described them as “very campy and very Greenwich Village sick”. Even more extraordinary was a Village Voice article that named Warhol as being part of a homosexual conspiracy to control US culture.
But at the time, pop and camp, so often twinned, seemed part of a new opening-up, a cultural expression of the new liberation movements springing up in the wake of the civil rights campaigns. During the late 60s and early 70s, these movements began to shift public opinion, in the long term changing law and politics in the more pluralistic societies of the west.
Notes on Camp is a major liberation document with a long legacy. In 1964, she was principally writing about gay men, yet her notions of camp are now being explored across the LGBTQ spectrum. As expressions of gender and sexual identity have become more diverse – and self-expression has found greater freedoms – camp has become a celebrated feature of a far wider community.
The influence of gay taste and camp on pop culture is now widespread, but Sontag’s paragraphs on androgyny – “one of the great images of Camp sensibility” – have a renewed relevance in a period where gender definitions are up for grabs. “The Camp eye has the power to transform experience,” she observed, and there is steel at camp’s core.