CAMP: A sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, theatricalization, irony, playfulness, and exaggeration rather than content, as Susan Sontag famously defined the term in her short essay, “Notes on ‘Camp.'” According to Sontag, “Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical”; however, some postmodernists, feminists, and queer theorists have explored the ways that camp (for example, the drag show) can trouble the belief that gender is “natural” or inherent, and can therefore work against heteronormativity. As Sontag argues, “Not all homosexuals have Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard—and the most articulate audience—of Camp.” By exaggerating sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms, such queer-inflected camp could be said to contend that all behavior is really performative. Camp is also tied to postmodernism. As Sontag puts it, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp; not a woman, but a ‘woman.'” In this way, the term resembles Linda Hutcheon’s very similar understanding of parody, which Hutcheon offers as one of the major characteristics of postmodern art. (See the Hutcheon module on parody.) Camp’s relationship to kitsch is a close one; camp could be said to be a self-conscious kitsch. As Sontag writes, “Many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch,” though she also acknowledges that “some art which can be approached as Camp… merits the most serious admiration and study.” Sontag also distinguishes between “pure camp,” which amounts to a kitsch that takes itself so seriously that we can now see it as hilarious (in other words, the camp sensibility is on the side of the audience not the author of the work), and “Camp which knows itself to be camp” and is, therefore, already making fun of itself. (Click here for Sontag’s article.)
So, as to the answer to the quiz in light of the above definition, Elvira is nothing but artifice, theatre, irony, playful and exaggerated in her appearance, the heavily exposed large breasts, big hair, body hugging lycra black vamp wear and heavy black eye makeup. She is meant to out-Goth Goth with humor based on puns that play on ghoulishness and sexuality. However, Garbo while certainly capital on theatricality when she is striking that pose of lanky, half-swooned moony lover with her head thrown back or glam acting in the high camp style required of her day and era in the movies, she is not ironic nor playful, though she does seem to be “lover” and “glamorous” in overdrive. She is exaggerated glamour as she throws herself into the men she loves on the screen. Though more subtle, Shimizu teases with artifice (Is she male or female?), stylization, irony and playfulness as well as exaggeration riffing on gender typing. She is also theatrical with her bleached shorn hair, bare breasted slip tease from her unquestionably masculine tailored suit and her almost garbo-esque or Bowie-esque pose as the thin white (Asian, in this case) duke. My answer is that all three are to a more or less degree, some aspect of camp, a wide open self-conscious space of commentary on gender, sexuality, genre, art, and much more.
2 Replies to “Shorter Definition of Camp”
I believe Garbo only became “high Camp style required of her day…” via the filtered historical gaze of hindsight. As you point out, “…Garbo while certainly capital on theatricality when she is striking that pose of lanky, half-swooned moony lover with her head thrown back or glam acting in the high camp style required of her day and era in the movies, she is not ironic nor playful, though she does seem to be “lover” and “glamorous” in overdrive. She is exaggerated glamour as she throws herself into the men she loves on the screen.” In her day and era this style of acting was the expected as most films were shot in a manner that resembled the overtly exagerated projection style required of theatrical performances. Although certainly toned down a bit for the camera because of the inherent ability to have more control over audio quality and volume, filmmaking was still new enough for actors and directors alike to believe filmed performance still required the broadness found inherent in stage performance.
Yes, excellent observation. She may not be camp though she sure looks it in hindsight. I thought the three images were representative of slightly, or not all, Shimizu as modern camp and Elvira as extremely and overtly camp.