How Camp went from elitist attitude to marketing tool

text by Riccardo Slavik

“To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”
Oscar Wilde; An Ideal Husband

The essence of Camp is like a volatile gas which in the right concentrations can be poisonous or explosive but in small dosages can slowly but surely permeate everything, which might be the reason it has lately joined irony as a mass marketing tool and filtered into many areas of our society.
Susan Sontag defined Camp as a love of ‘ the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration’.
‘Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. 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 Notes On Camp ( 1964)

Camp sensibility, though not strictly limited to the homosexual experience, has a strong relationship with the secret codes and undercover life of gay life in Pre-Stonewall times of moral condemnation and persecution, like British Polari, it could be used as a sort of Morse code to communicate a shared sensibility, it was thus, at some point, practically synonymous for ‘homosexual’.  Both in Andy Warhol’s Diaries, for example, and ‘Popism’, the artist used ‘camp’ both as a noun and as an adjective to describe people or situations he found particularly outrageous and/or gay.
While Sontag stated that Camp was by its nature de-politicized, Bruce LaBruce, in his own ‘Notes on Camp/ Anti Camp’ argued that ‘camp …is, or was, by its very nature political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations’. This revolutionary aspect of the classic gay camp aesthetic has been, for LaBruce, eroded and practically cancelled in recent years by our culture’s co-optation of Camp.

‘I would go so far as to argue that “camp” has replaced “irony” as the go-to sensibility in popular culture, and it has, at the risk of generalization, long since lost its essential qualities of esoteric sophistication and secret signification, partly owing to the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery, and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused. In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, I will argue that now, in this moment, the whole goddamn world is camp.’ Bruce LaBruce Notes on Camp/ Anti-Camp ( 2012) 

After Irony became the default attitude in the 90s the knowingly exaggerated and over-decorated fumes of Camp have slowly imbued every facet of our lives, as much as RuPaul might protest that Drag will never truly be mainstream, today’s teens know more about the intricacies of contouring and the feuds between winners of RuPaul’s Drag Race than they care to know about Art, History, or even Fashion ( and I mean with a capital F). And if we accept LaBruce’s claim that Camp’s insidious and esoteric aesthetic has a strong revolutionary attitude, once it becomes part of mainstream, or is used in a knowing and calculated way to sell a product, it becomes Bad Camp, or Anti-Camp.
‘Camp is now for the masses. It’s a sensibility that has been appropriated by the mainstream, fetishized, commoditized, turned into a commodity fetish, and exploited by a hypercapitalist system, as Adorno warned. It still has many of the earmarks of “classic camp” – an emphasis on artifice and exaggeration and the unnatural, a spirit of extravagance, a kind of grand theatricality. It’s still based on a certain aestheticism and stylization. But what’s lacking is the sophistication, and especially the notion of esotericism, something shared by a group of insiders, or rather, outsiders, a secret code shared among a certain “campiscenti”.  Sadly, most of it falls under the category of “Bad Straight Camp.” BruceLaBruce Notes on Camp / Anti-Camp

“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.”
– Oscar Wilde: Phrases & Philosophies for the Use of the Young

Gucci’s relaunch by Alessandro Michele, for example, is obviously Camp, but is it Good Gay Camp, Bad Straight Camp or more simply Anti-Camp? Despoiled of any revolutionary element, it’s rather obviously Camp as a marketing device, over-decorated, drenched in irony and superficial. It’s an aesthetic that plays on notions of ‘good taste’ and ‘bad taste’ with a high dose of camp sensibility but devoid of any real message, it’s  counterrevolutionary marketing dressed as Camp Revollution, as Sontag noted ‘What is extravagant in an inconsistent or an unpassionate way is not Camp’.
Gucci’s resounding commercial success is in itself a marker of Anti-Camp, because ‘Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous’ ( S. Sontag) what makes the attempt fall into Camp, is failure, Camp, is a desire to reach great heights which fails, and spectacularly. The simple fact of using deliberate camp to create products that have an instant commercial success puts Michele on a tightrope of Camp, one that’s very likely to break.
Fashion has obviously and historically had  a very close relationship with Camp, but real Camp has to be somehow removed from the vagaries of commercial success and marketing. Dior’s Spring 2004 Couture collection by John Galliano, for example, is a perfect example of Fashion Camp, a show that fused Ancient Egypt, extreme volumes, Cleoptra-in-space drag queen makeup and total impracticality in an iconic way, totally disregarding any thought of sales or wearability. An extremely expensive exercise in style and grandeur with apparently the sole pretext of pushing the limits of Dior’s ateliers, Galliano’s imagination, and maybe sell some perfumes and bags from the pret-a-porter, it is camp because it both succeeds and fails so spectacularly.

Fashion doesn’t need to be bad to be Camp, but very good fashion isn’t Camp.
As I stated earlier, Camp is elusive, there are various degrees of obviousness in its definition, and being a matter of taste, there are many things which can be interpreted as Camp, or Not Camp. Camp can reclaim ‘cultural waste’ and ‘bad taste’ in a knowing and ironic way to turn it with a wink into an esoteric and refined ‘style’,  one which only a chosen few would recognize. But in an age that cannibalizes culture and uses nostalgia as a marketing tool on a daily basis, an age where children celebrate their parents’ toys as ‘ironic’ and ‘cool’ what is left for Camp to do but succumb to capitalism? As sociologist Andrew Ross wrote in No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture ( 1989) : Camp ‘’is the re-creation of surplus value from forgotten forms of labor.” He saw Camp as a personal liberation from the stranglehold of the corporate, capitalist state. ‘Within the capitalist environment of constant consumption, camp rediscovers history’s waste, bringing back objects thought of as refuse or of bad taste. Camp liberates objects from the landfills of history and reinvokes them with a new charisma. ’
When ‘vintage’ becomes inherently chic, ‘ironic’ a matter of fact and ‘trash’ a compliment, what’s left over for Camp to co-opt? Where are the revolutionary new frontiers in subversive gay aesthetics in our nostalgia-soaked times? Are we going to be stuck with Anti-Camp?
‘The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.’ Susan Sontag Notes On Camp 1964 

As Sontag predicted, there is an addictive quality to the discovery of ‘good’ bad taste, but these days, when the limits of good taste are pushed ever further and the length of time something is deemed ‘out of fashion’ and ‘in bad taste’ becomes increasingly shorter, it seems that this once very elite predilection for the illicit pleasures of Bad Taste have become more common than bad sushi. When luxury brands disguise their super expensive wares as cheap knock-offs, or borrow high-street tricks like over-decoration devoid of sense and meaning, how can Fashion keep its relationship with Camp alive? When the whole world is in on the joke, there might be nothing left to laugh about.
Maybe we should decry the demise of The Sensibility Formerly Known As Camp, and from its ashes fashion a stronger, newly elitist esthetic, as LaBruce concluded in his Notes, this new Camp: ‘should almost be defined as a kind of madness, a rip in the fabric of reality that we need to reclaim in order to defeat the truly inauthentic, cynical and deeply reactionary camp – or anti-camp – tendencies of the new world order.’
Maybe Camp is Dead, and so… Long Live Camp!

All images from Gucci FW 17 campaign

Creative Direction: Alessandro Michele

Photographer:  Glen Luchford