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Camp is an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value. Camp aesthetics disrupt many of modernism's notions of what art is and what can be classified as high art by inverting aesthetic attributes such as beauty, value, and taste through an invitation of a different kind of apprehension and consumption.  Scholarship at Oxford University suggests that Oscar Wilde's particular brand of aristocratic, amoral aestheticism is the precursor to modern Camp.
Camp can also be a social practice and function as a style and performance identity for several types of entertainment including film, cabaret, and pantomime. Where high art necessarily incorporates beauty and value, camp necessarily needs to be lively, audacious and dynamic. "Camp aesthetics delights in impertinence." Camp opposes satisfaction and seeks to challenge.
Camp art is related to—and often confused with—kitsch, and things with camp appeal may also be described as "cheesy". When the usage appeared in 1909, it denoted "ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical", or "effeminate" behavior, and by the middle of the 1970s, camp was defined by the college edition of Webster's New World Dictionary as "banality, mediocrity, artifice, [and] ostentation ... so extreme as to amuse or have a perversely sophisticated appeal". The American writer Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on 'Camp'" (1964) emphasized its key elements as: "artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and shocking excess". Camp as an aesthetic has been popular from the 1960s to the present.
Camp aesthetics were popularized by filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar, Jack Smith and his film Flaming Creatures, and later John Waters, including the latter's Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, and Polyester. Celebrities that are associated with camp personas include drag queens and performers such as Dame Edna Everage, Divine, RuPaul, Paul Lynde, and Liberace. Camp was a part of the anti-academic defense of popular culture in the 1960s and gained popularity in the 1980s with the widespread adoption of postmodern views on art and culture.
Origins and development
In 1870, in a letter produced in evidence at his examination before a magistrate at Bow-street, London, on suspicion of then-illegal homosexual acts, crossdresser Frederick Park referred to his "campish undertakings"; but the letter does not make clear what these were. In 1909, the Oxford English Dictionary gave the first print citation of camp as
ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals. So as a noun, 'camp' behavior, mannerisms, et cetera. (cf. quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behavior.
According to the dictionary, this sense is "etymologically obscure". Camp in this sense has been suggested to have possibly derived from the French term se camper, meaning "to pose in an exaggerated fashion". Later, it evolved into a general description of the aesthetic choices and behavior of working-class homosexual men. The concept of camp was described by Christopher Isherwood in 1954 in his novel The World in the Evening, and then in 1964 by Susan Sontag in her essay and book Notes on "Camp".
The rise of post-modernism made camp a common perspective on aesthetics, which was not identified with any specific group. The attitude was originally a distinctive factor in pre-Stonewall gay male communities, where it was the dominant cultural pattern. It originated from the acceptance of gayness as effeminacy. Two key components of camp were originally feminine performances: swish and drag. With swish featuring extensive use of superlatives, and drag being exaggerated female impersonation, camp became extended to all things "over the top", including women posing as female impersonators (faux queens), as in the exaggerated Hollywood version of Carmen Miranda. It was this version of the concept that was adopted by literary and art critics and became a part of the conceptual array of 1960s culture. Moe Meyer still defines camp as "queer parody".
Much of the cult following of camp today grew rapidly during the transition from black-and-white to color television in the early 1960s. Network programming during that time sought entertainment content that would display the new medium with the use of bright colors and high stylization. The concept of the comicbook superhero (an individual in a highly stylized, outlandish and possibly impractical costume avenging otherwise serious matters such as murder) could be interpreted as camp. However, since it was aimed initially at children, it is camp only in a secondary perspective. It was not until the 1960s television version of Batman (one of the more famous examples of camp in popular culture, 1966–1968) that the link was made explicit, with the inherent ridiculousness of the concept exposed as a vehicle for comedy. The villains of series as divergent as Batman and The Mod Squad (1968–1973) were costumed as to take advantage of new colors and changing fashion styles, in ways that took advantage of camp.
Ironically, even Batman fell victim to contemporaneous parodies, with the release of Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific, which layered extra camp onto the already overladen superhero concept. The stylized content of Batman may have possibly jump-started television campiness, to circumvent the strict censorship of comics at this time (after Dr. Fredric Wertham's essay Seduction of the Innocent which led to the comics' industry-sponsored Comics Code), as the Batman comic books were very dark and noirish until the 1950s and from the 1970s onwards.
Television series such as The Avengers (1961–1969), The Addams Family, The Munsters (both 1964–1966), Gilligan's Island (1964–1967), Lost in Space (1965–1968), The Wild Wild West (1965–1969), Get Smart (1965–1970), Are You Being Served? (1972–1985), Charlie's Angels (1976–1981), Fantasy Island (1977–1984) and CHiPs (1977–1983) are enjoyed into the 21st century for what are interpreted as their "camp" aspects. Some of these series were developed 'tongue-in-cheek' by their producers.
In a Monty Python sketch of their television show (Episode 22, "Camp Square-Bashing", repeated in their film And Now for Something Completely Different, 1971), the British Army's 2nd Armored Division has a Military "Swanning About" Precision Drill unit in which soldiers "camp it up" in unison.
TV soap operas, especially those that air in primetime, are often considered camp. The over-the-top excess of Dallas (1978–1991) and Dynasty (1981–1989) were popular in the 1980s. The Channel 4 series Eurotrash (1993–2004) was a television programme produced using the inherent ridiculousness of its subject matter for comedic effect, often using camp dubbing in regional accents and exaggerated stereotypical characterizations (such as an aristocratic artist based on Brian Sewell) to puncture the interviewees' pretence of seriousness. However, an obituary to Lolo Ferrari was given straight dubbing as a mark of respect at odds with its irreverence. However, the subject matter would have offended many British viewers and fallen foul of OFCOM if it was done with any seriousness. Again, this is an example of doing a programme in a camp manner to get around the likelihood of censorship. Mentos television commercials during the 1990s developed a cult following due to their camp "Eurotrash" humor. In the Season 8 episode "Homer's Phobia" (1997) of the American animated comedy series The Simpsons, gay secondary character John (played by gay director John Waters) defines to Homer Simpson the meaning of the word camp to be "tragically ludicrous", or "ludicrously tragic": Homer gives a misinterpreted example of camp as "when a clown dies".
The Comedy Central television show Strangers with Candy (1999–2000), starring comedian Amy Sedaris, was a camp spoof of the ABC Afterschool Special genre. The ESPN Classic show Cheap Seats without Ron Parker (2004–2006) featured two Generation-X, real-life brothers making humorous observations while watching televised camp sporting events, which had often been featured on ABC's Wide World of Sports during the 1970s. Examples include a 1970s sport that attempted to combine ballet with skiing (ski ballet), the Harlem Globetrotters holding a televised exhibition game at the notorious Attica State Prison in upstate New York, small-time regional professional wrestling and roller derby. The television series Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007–2010) is a current example of camp, using inspiration from Public-access television productions, early morning infomercials, and the use of celebrity status in telethons and other televised charity appeals.
Some classic films noted for their camp tone include:
- John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953, starring Humphrey Bogart), an exaggerated film noir send-up.
- Filmmaker John Waters directed a number of camp films such as Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), Desperate Living (1977), Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), Cecil B. Demented (2000) and A Dirty Shame (2004).
- Filmmaker Todd Solondz uses camp music to illustrate the absurdity and banality of bourgeois, suburban existence. In Solondz's cult film Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), the eleven-year-old girl protagonist kisses a boy while Deborah Gibson's "Lost in Your Eyes" plays on a Fisher-Price tape recorder.
Films such as Valley of the Dolls (1967), Mommie Dearest (1981), Showgirls (1995), and Burlesque (2010) gained camp status primarily due to the filmmakers' attempting to produce a serious film that wound up unintentionally comedic. Award-winning actresses, like Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls and Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, gave such over-the-top performances that the films became camp classics, especially attracting fanfare from gay, male audiences.
Educational and industrial films form an entire subgenre of camp films, with the most famous being the much-spoofed 1950s Duck and Cover film, in which an anthropomorphic, cartoon turtle explains how one can survive a nuclear attack by hiding under a school desk. Its British counterpart Protect and Survive could be seen as kitsch, even though it is very chilling to watch (it was never shown on grounds of national security and would only be broadcast if an attack was deemed likely within 72 hours). Many British Public Information Films gained a camp cult following, such as the famous Charley Says series. Charley's voice is performed by the camp surrealist comedian and Radio DJ Kenny Everett, who came from an advertising background as a copywriter.
Some films are intentionally and consciously camp, such as The Toxic Avenger (1984) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Quentin Tarantino's black comedy crime film Pulp Fiction (1994) has also fallen into this category, with film critic Nicholas Christopher calling it "more gangland Camp than neo-noir". In British cinema the archetypal camp film cult is the outrageous long-running, 30-film Carry On series (1958–1978). Another cult is built around The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Preaching to the Perverted (1997), written and directed by Stuart Urban, broke out of traditional British comedy style to portray the fetish and BDSM scene under assault from Christian crusaders and the authorities. It portrayed both the fetish scene and the Establishment in a cartoon, stylized visual manner. Lambasted by most traditional critics, lauded by gay, music and fashion press, it went on to build a lasting cult reputation.
Movie versions of camp TV shows in recent years have made the camp nature of these shows a running gag throughout the films. In Grizzly Man (2005), a documentary by Werner Herzog, the protagonist, Timothy Treadwell, describes the wild life of bears with camp mannerisms. Inspired by the work of George Kuchar and his brother Mike Kuchar, ASS Studios, launched in 2011 by Courtney Fathom Sell and Jen Miller, began making a series of short, no-budget camp films. Their feature film Satan, Hold My Hand (2013) features many elements recognized in camp pictures.
American singer and actress Cher is often called the "Queen of Camp" because of her outrageous fashion and live performances. She gained that status in the 1970s when she launched her variety shows in collaboration with the costume designer Bob Mackie and became a constant presence on American prime time television.
Dusty Springfield is a camp icon. In public and on stage, Springfield developed a joyful image supported by her peroxide blonde beehive hairstyle, evening gowns, and heavy make-up that included her much-copied "panda eye" mascara. Springfield borrowed elements of her look from blonde glamour queens of the 1950s, such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, and pasted them together according to her own taste. Her ultra-glamorous look made her a camp icon and this, combined with her emotive vocal performances, won her a powerful and enduring following in the gay community. Besides the prototypical female drag queen, she was presented in the roles of the "Great White Lady" of pop and soul and the "Queen of Mods". More recently South Korean rapper Psy, known for his viral internet music videos full of flamboyant dance and visuals, has come to be seen as a 21st-century incarnation of camp style.
Lady Gaga, a contemporary exemplar of camp, uses musical expression and the body motions of dance to make social commentary on pop culture, as in the Judas video. Her clothes, makeup, and accessories, created by high-end fashion designers, are integral to the narrative structure of her performances.
Distinguishing between kitsch and camp
The words "camp" and "kitsch" are often used interchangeably; both may relate to art, literature, music, or any object that carries an aesthetic value. However, "kitsch" refers specifically to the work itself, whereas "camp" is a mode of performance. Thus, a person may consume kitsch intentionally or unintentionally. Camp, as Susan Sontag observed, is always a way of consuming or performing culture "in quotation marks".
Sontag also distinguishes between "naive" and "deliberate" camp, and examines Christopher Isherwood's distinction between low camp, which he associated with cross-dressing practices and drag performances, and high camp, which he considered as part of a cultural heritage that included "the whole emotional basis of the Ballet, for example, and of course of Baroque art".
Around the world
Thomas Hine identified 1954–1964 as the campiest period in modern US history. During this time, Americans had more money to spend, thanks to the post-war economic boom; but they often exercized poor taste. In the UK, on the other hand, camp is an adjective, often associated with a stereotypical view of feminine gay men. The term has been in common use for many decades. Gay comedian Kenneth Williams wrote in a diary entry for 1 January 1947: "Went to Singapore with Stan—very camp evening, was followed, but tatty types so didn't bother to make overtures." Although it applies to gay men, it is a specific adjective used to describe a man that openly promotes the fact that he is gay by being outwardly garish or eccentric, for example, the character Daffyd Thomas in the English comedy skit show Little Britain. "Camp" forms a strong element in UK culture, and many so-called gay-icons and objects are chosen as such because they are camp. People like Kylie Minogue, John Inman, Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen, Lulu, Graham Norton, Mika, Lesley Joseph, Ruby Wax, Dale Winton, Cilla Black, and the music hall tradition of the pantomime are camp elements in popular culture. The British tradition of the "Last Night of the Proms" has been said to glory in nostalgia, camp, and pastiche. Thomas Dworzak published a collection of portrait photographs of Taliban soldiers, found in Kabul photo studios. The Taliban book shows a campy esthetics, quite close to the gay movement in California or a Peter Greenaway film.
The Australian theatre and opera director Barrie Kosky is renowned for his use of camp in interpreting the works of the Western canon including Shakespeare, Wagner, Molière, Seneca, Kafka and his 2006 eight-hour production for the Sydney Theatre Company The Lost Echo, based on Ovid's Metamorphoses and Euripides' The Bacchae. In the first act ("The Song of Phaeton"), for instance, the goddess Juno takes the form of a highly stylized Marlene Dietrich, and the musical arrangements feature Noël Coward and Cole Porter. Kosky's use of camp is also effectively employed to satirize the pretensions, manners, and cultural vacuity of Australia's suburban middle class, which is suggestive of the style of Dame Edna Everage. For example, in The Lost Echo Kosky employs a chorus of high school girls and boys: one girl in the chorus takes leave from the goddess Diana, and begins to rehearse a dance routine, muttering to herself in a broad Australian accent, "Mum says I have to practice if I want to be on Australian Idol." See also the works of Australian writer/director Baz Luhrmann, in particular "Strictly Ballroom".
Since 2000, the Eurovision Song Contest, an annually televised competition of song performers from different countries, has shown an increased element of camp—since the contest has shown an increasing attraction within the gay communities—in their stage performances, especially during the televised finale, which is screened live across Europe. As it is a visual show, many Eurovision performances attempt to attract the attention of the voters through means other than the music, which sometimes leads to bizarre onstage gimmicks, and what some critics have called "the Eurovision kitsch drive", with almost cartoonish novelty acts performing.
The first post-World War II use of the word in print, marginally mentioned in the Sontag essay, may be Christopher Isherwood's 1954 novel The World in the Evening, where he comments: "You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance." In the American writer Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'", Sontag emphasized artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and shocking excess as key elements of camp. Examples cited by Sontag included Tiffany lamps, the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake, and Japanese science fiction films such as Rodan, and The Mysterians of the 1950s.
In Mark Booth's 1983 book Camp he defines camp as "to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits". He carefully discerns the distinction between genuine camp, and camp fads and fancies, things that are not intrinsically camp, but display artificiality, stylization, theatricality, naivety, sexual ambiguity, tackiness, poor taste, stylishness, or portray camp people, and thus appeal to them. He considers Sontag's definition problematical because it lacks this distinction.
According to the sociologist Andrew Ross, camp engages in a redefinition of cultural meaning through a juxtaposition of an outmoded past alongside that which is technologically, stylistically, and sartorially contemporary. Often characterized by the reappropriation of a "throwaway Pop aesthetic", camp works to intermingle the categories of "high" and "low" culture. Objects may become camp objects because of their historical association with a power now in decline. As opposed to kitsch, camp reappropriates culture in an ironic fashion, whereas kitsch is indelibly sincere. Additionally, kitsch may be seen as a quality of an object, while camp, "tends to refer to a subjective process". Those who identify objects as “camp” commemorate the distance mirrored in the process through which, "unexpected value can be located in some obscure or exorbitant object." The effect of camp's irony is problematic, insofar as the agents of cultural redefinition are often of upper- or middle-class standing who could, "afford, literally, to redefine the life of consumerism and material affluence as a life of spiritual poverty".
In Ross's analysis, camp aesthetics became the site of 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. In doing so camp creates an economy separate from that of the state. In Ross's words, camp "is the re-creation of surplus value from forgotten forms of labor".
Ross suggests that camp often faces criticism from other political and aesthetic perspectives. For example, the most obvious argument is that camp is just an excuse for poor quality work and allows the tacky and vulgar to be recognized as valid art. In doing so, camp celebrates the trivial and superficial and form over content. The power of the camp object may be found in its ability to induce this reaction. In a sense objects that fill their beholders with disgust fulfill Sontag's definition of the ultimate camp statement, "it's good because it's awful." From flea markets to thrift stores, the 'bad taste' of camp has been increasingly reinculcated with the cultural capital that it had intended to break away from. In an attempt to "present a challenge to the mechanisms of control and containment that operate in the name of good taste", the camp aesthetic has been appropriated by artists. Their fame is only enjoyed at the expense of others, as Ross writes, "it [the pleasure of camp] is the result of the (hard) work of a producer of taste and 'taste' is only possible through exclusion and depreciation."
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- Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1976 edition, sense 6, [Slang, orig., homosexual jargon, Americanism] banality, mediocrity, artifice, ostentation, etc. so extreme as to amuse or have a perversely sophisticated appeal
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- Entry "camper", in: Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, ninth edition (1992). "2. Fam: Placer avec fermeté, avec insolence ou selon ses aises.] Il me parlait, le chapeau campé sur la tête. Surtout pron. Se camper solidement dans son fauteuil. Se camper à la meilleure place. Il se campa devant son adversaire. 3. En parlant d'un acteur, d'un artiste: Figurer avec force et relief. Camper son personnage sur la scène. Camper une figure dans un tableau, des caractères dans un roman." (Familiar: To assume a defiant, insolent or devil-may-care attitude. Theatre: To perform with forcefulness and exaggeration; to overact.
To impose one's character assertively into a scene; to upstage.)
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An English example of how the life has gone out of lieux de memoire concerns William Blake's hymn about the building of a New Jerusalem. it is still sung every year in London 's Albert Hall on the Last Night of the Proms. But it is in a fervor without faith. It brings tears to the eyes, only it is in a mixture of nostalgia, camp, 'post-modernism' and pastiche.
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