Opinion

Shifting From Catholicism to Camp, Met Gala Tries to Update Susan Sontag

This exhibition should feature a wax replica of Donatella Versace, RuPaul’s extensive collection of wigs, and a sliver of John Waters’ mustache — but I fear the Met’s exhibition will be business as usual.

Franco Moschino for House of Moschino, spring/summer 1991 (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018)

How will the Metropolitan Museum of Art follow its record-breaking catechism on Catholic fashion, Heavenly Bodies, after expending so much time, energy, and money glorifying the papal church? By making a complete 180-degree turn toward sacrilegious visions of vainglorious “camp” within the fashion-sphere.

Hold my wig.

The Costume Institute’s Andrew Bolton will curate Camp: Notes on Fashion, which plays upon Susan Sontag’s famous 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’,” the 58-point treatise that arguably brought the term into mainstream use. The critical theorist once defined camp as a homosexual lampoon of aristocratic taste. “Even though homosexuals have been its vanguard,” Sontag writes, “Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste.” She continues to describe camp as the “good taste of bad taste” that enjoys, rather than judges.

Christian Francis Roth, 1990 (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018)

In the 54 years since Sontag introduced the term, however, it’s debatable whether or not camp has become a term separable from queerness. Authoritatively addressed, Sontag’s formulation of the term is pleasingly democratic but not entirely prescient. Who embodies the concept of camp best? Think about that question and you’ll undoubtedly imagine the faces of queer figures: John Waters, Ryan Murphy, RuPaul, and Harvey Fierstein. Lady Gaga is an exception that proves the rule; the majority of her decade-long career as a musician has been one long homage to queer artists, drag queens, and an aesthetic of camp.

Bolton’s comments to The New York Times about the exhibition defines camp in such over-broad terms that it raises a serious question about the validity of the upcoming fashion spectacular. “We are going through an extreme camp moment, and it felt very relevant to the cultural conversation to look at what is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful political tool, especially for marginalized cultures,” the curator said. “Whether it’s pop camp, queer camp, high camp or political camp — Trump is a very camp figure — I think it’s very timely.”

Undoubtedly well-intentioned, Bolton’s description of the exhibition will likely raise the perennial concerns of critics who believe that the Costume Institute does not maintain the same high scholarly standards of other departments at the Met. How concepts of “pop camp” and “political camp” are separate from “queer camp” is not very clear; nor are these common terms used to describe different avenues of the aesthetic. Bolton’s desire to connect the exhibition’s themes to President Trump’s political grandstanding is also understandable as an advertising soundbite in New York City, but its misleading. Camp describes a transgressive satire that deconstructs existing systems of inequality and class whereas Trump’s entire platform is a harbor of America’s demographic of wealthy white men.

In the context of the Met’s previous fashion exhibition, which aggrandized the Catholic Church amidst several thousand accusations of sex crime coverups by papal authorities, the Costume Institute’s reluctance to fully embrace the queerness of camp is not a good look. Rather than an implication of bias, I think that this framework for camp is a marketing decision that exposes what the Met’s largest money-making department must sacrifice to play the pop cultural field.

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, fall/winter 1988–89 (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo ©
Johnny Dufort, 2018)

The annual gala for the fashion exhibition on May 6 is another symbol of the show’s apparent reluctance to keep queer. Anna Wintour will co-chair the party with understandable additions like Lady Gaga and Alessandro Michele of Gucci. Stranger choices include Harry Styles and Serena Williams, who are certainly popular figures, but have little apparent relationship to camp.

Will camp be fashion’s latest victim? In an industry all about image, it seems more likely that criticism will seem voiceless against the torrent of flamboyant looks. Like every year, we will be swept away by the likes of Marc Jacobs and floored by the floor-length gowns of Gaultier.

Alessandro Michele for Gucci, fall/winter 2016–17 (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018)
Thom Browne, spring/summer 2017 (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018)
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