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Related: aesthetics - aestheticization - intellectuals - kitsch - nobrow - parody - postmodernism

Films considered camp: Barbarella (1968) - Mommie Dearest (1981)

Key texts: Notes on Camp (1964) - Susan Sontag - Camp (1965) - Andy Warhol

Connoisseurs: Moe Meyer - Andrew Ross - Susan Sontag - Andy Warhol

[t]he difference between kitsch and camp is often hard to establish, partly because camp could be said to be in the eye of the beholder. Camp could be called a self-conscious kitsch and that self-consciousness can, indeed, exist on the part of viewer rather than the producer of the otherwise kitsch product. --Professor D.F. Felluga

The Producers (1968) - Mel Brooks [Amazon.com]


As an adjective, camp, or high camp, refers to an ironic appreciation of that which might otherwise be considered outlandish or corny, such as Carmen Miranda with her tutti frutti hats. The term is often applied to popular culture events that are particularly dated or inappropriately serious, such as the low-budget science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s and the multi-genre pop culture of the 1970s and 1980s. As Moe Meyer (1994, p.1) puts it, "queer parody."

Though camp is now a common "take" on aesthetics and not restricted to any group, the attitude was largely identified with pre-Stonewall gay male communities or culture where it was the dominant cultural pattern (Altman, 1982, 154-55) and originated from the acceptance of gayness as effeminacy. The two components of camp originally being feminine performances: swish and drag (Newton 1972, 34-37; West 1977; Cory 1951). With swish featuring extensive use of superlatives, and drag being (often outrageous) female impersonation (or lack thereof), camp became extended to all things "over the top", including female female impersonators, as in the exagerrated Hollywood version of Carmen Miranda. (Levine, 1998)

As part of camp, drag meant (Newton, 1972, 34-36; Read 1980) "womanly apparel, ranging from slight makeup and a few feminine garments, typically hats, gloves, or high heels, to a total getup, complete with wigs, gowns, jewelry, and full makeup" (Levine, 1998, p.22). Also camp were feminine interests such as fashion (Henry, 1955; West, 1977), decoration (Fischer, 1972, 69; White, 1980; Henry, 1955, 304) "with fancy frills, froufrou, bric-a-brac and au courant kitsch," opera and theater (Karlen 1971; Hooker 1956; Altman 1982, 154), bitchy humor (Read 1980, 105-8), old movies (Dyer 1977), and celebrity worship (Tipmore 1975). (Levine 1998, p.23-4)

Another part of camp was dishing, a conversational style including, "bitchy retorts, vicious putdowns, and malicious gossip," (Levine 1998, p.72) associated with the entertainment industry (Leznoff and Westley 1956; Hooker 1956; Hoffman 1968; Read 1980) and also called "fag talk" or "chit chat" (Read 1980, p.106-8). Clones adapted dish, often keeping the feminine pronouns, expanding it to dirt, gossip and rumors, and dish, bitchiness and viciousness. (Levine 1998, p.72)

As a verb, the word in the above senses is closer to its apparent derivation from the French slang term camper, which means "to pose in an exaggerated fashion," as in "camping it up."

Camp is an ironic attitude, an explicit re-introduction of non-dominant forms. It claims legitimacy, but instead of aiming at timelessness, it wants to live only a short life. It does not want to present basic values, but precisely to confront culture with its waste, to show how any norm is historical. Camp, says Andrew Ross in No Respect (1989:149), such as produced by people like Andy Warhol, is a problematizing of taste itself. It rejects the imposition of arbitrary boundaries of taste presented as essential and transhistorical.

As a cultural challenge, camp can also receive a political meaning, when minorities appropriate and ridicule the images of the dominant group. The best known instance of this is of course the gay liberation movement, which used camp to confront society with its own preconceptions and their historicity. But, as Andrew Ross (1989:160-161) convincingly shows, female camp actresses such as Bette Davis also had an important influence on the development of feminist consciousness: by exaggerating certain stereotyped features of femininity, they undermined the credibility of those preconceptions. According to Meyer (ibid), camp is "political and critical", and he defies "existing interpretations that continue to define Camp as apolitical, aestheticized, and frivolous...Camp is not simply a 'style' or 'sensiblitity' as is conventionally accepted. Rather, what emerges is a suppressed and denied oppositional critique embodied in the signifying practices that processually constitute queer identities...Camp is political; Camp is solely queer (and/or sometimes gay and lesbian) discourse; and Camp embodies a specifically queer cultural critique."

On the other hand, camp can be an aristocratic attitude when it is taken by intellectual elites towards lowbrow and middlebrow culture. It allows them to yield to the pressure of mass culture while at the same time taking distance from it. It is then a way of judging popular culture without having to take it seriously. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp [Nov 2004]

So bad, that it's good

Camp - essentially, something that is so bad, that it's good, as cultural critic Susan Sontag defined camp aesthetics in her famous essay collection Against Interpretation in the 60's.

Kitsch: the daily art of our time [...]

Harold Rosenburg described Kitsch as "the daily art of our time ... all those cheap, cute, sentimental artifacts found everywhere in western industrial societies ... an inevitable consequence of the industrial revolution, a mass produced art for a middle class philistine in their tastes because they lack formal education and have lost contact with traditional folk culture." --Harold Rosenburg

A private code among urban cliques

Camp is esoteric - something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques. --Susan Sontag, 1964

High Camp, Low Camp

There are definitions of both "high camp" and "low camp" -- "good good", "good bad", "bad good" and "bad bad" were the categories under which any cultural product could be placed. Though the concept of camp can be applied to any product of popular culture (or lifestyle, as in gay culture), here it is used synonymous to what is usually called "trash". --author unknown, accessed Jan 2004, http://www.phinnweb.com/links/cinema/camp/


1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of . 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. --Susan Sontag, 1964

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