Essays

Is Camp Still Camp if the Met Gala Makes It a Theme?

This year’s Met Gala is named Notes on Fashion, in tribute to a Susan Sontag essay. But Sontag also wrote that “To talk about Camp is to betray it.”

Bertrand Guyon for House of Schiaparelli, fall/winter 2018–19 (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019)

It’s the first Monday in May, and that means it’s time for the annual Met Gala. The event has long been an amusing parade of famous people misunderstanding the homework assignment (sometimes outright ignoring it), and this year’s theme is sure to rile up certain observers. While several have noted their dread at how celebrities will tackle the task of dressing for Camp: Notes on Fashion, little has been said about what it means in the first place to have an exhibition on camp, even in this context.

The endlessly elusive idea of camp has been defined by quip (“You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it” wrote Christopher Isherwood in The World in the Evening ), by philosophers (Susan Sontag’s much-cited “Notes on ‘Camp’”: “To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism … not in terms of beauty, but in terms of degree of artifice, of stylization”), by academics (“One such response” to the “world-engulfing experience of called modernity” wrote Matthew Tinkcom in Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema), by culture critics (The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum described it as “a private language”), and by Pope of Trash himself John Waters (to Homer Simpson: “The tragically ludicrous! The ludicrously tragic!”). Camp is a chimera. Research does not necessarily give way to clarity. As a sensibility, a lens, a form of agency, a political weapon, a tool, a language, or whatever else, it is queer, and originates with outsiders.

Jeremy Scott for House of Moschino, spring/summer 2018 (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019)

Whatever form it takes, camp can at least be understood as a rebuke to normative “good taste” (whether intentional or unintentional). But though the Met and its Costume Institute’s head curator Andrew Bolton might protest otherwise, such an institution is all about good taste, elevation, and legitimization. Is it not then at least somewhat questionable, and at worst insidious, for them to co-opt this concept?

It’s true that camp’s relationship to outsider identity and marginalization has changed, in the same way that queer people’s relationship to marginalization and institutions have changed. But even if camp and the language around it (the term’s frequent misapplication notwithstanding) have trickled into the mainstream, this Met Gala and exhibition feel like a nail in the coffin. It’s an example of how the end goal for some LGBTQ activists has not been justice over the institutions and systems that endanger their lives or eradicate their culture, but assimilation into those very institutions. In the process, the work and history behind this culture, often crafted by those most at risk (trans people and people of color) is flattened.

Whether camp can be done intentionally (and it can; see Waters’s films, Elvira, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, George Cukor, Jason Holliday) matters less in the face of wanting to encase it on display to prove it can be taken seriously. Though Bolton asserts that “[Camp] has gained such currency it has become invisible, and part of my goal is to make it visible again,” to canonize and legitimize it within an institution like the Met seems almost antithetical to camp as a project or language. Sontag herself wrote: “To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.” Vivian Gornick said in The Village Voice a year prior to Sontag’s essay that camp was “the private property of American and English homosexuals.” Like Ryan Murphy’s television shows “taking camp out of the closet and into the mainstream” (per Nussbaum), the Met’s goals of “visibility” reek of suspicious politics. Ironically, they sound like a form of depoliticizing for the sake of mass consumption.

Virgil Abloh for Off-White, pre-fall 2018 (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019)

This isn’t the first time a presumed anti-normative philosophy or aesthetic has been consumed by the commercial fashion industry, and then in turn been consumed by the Met. Bolton also curated their 2013 exhibition Punk: From Chaos to Couture. Punk had both an implied and explicit “anti-” sentiment, which was then “made visible” (to use Bolton’s words) by an establishment. Derek Jarman scornfully accused many punks of selling out in his 1978 film Jubilee. Vivienne Westwood hit back with a T-shirt-cum-public-letter … which was later displayed at the Met’s punk exhibition.

Is it too romantic of me to rail against the Met, to still designate camp and queerness as anti-normative or anti-establishment in a world where there is a Drag Race-industrial complex, where priorities around queerness have changed? Perhaps, but it’s worthwhile to at least interrogate the intention and implications of the Met presenting a so-called “private language” to a predominantly straight public.

Marjan Pejoski, fall/winter 2000–2001 (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019)

Political and ideological issues aside, perhaps most confounding is the decision to choose camp as the theme at all. As a friend of mine quipped, it’s like putting a hat on a hat. Conversation around the Met Gala has always been less about the garments themselves than the dissonance between the intention and the execution of the spectacle. “It’s a kind of theater,” Anna Wintour remarked in the documentary The First Monday in May. Look at Kate Hudson in dull white Stella McCartney in 2017, when the theme was anti-utilitarian designer Rei Kawakubo. Or take your pick of the more-racist-than-the-exhibit-itself styles from 2015, the year of China Through the Looking Glass. But though that dissonance is apparent, and a melange of people will comment on it, it’s those in the know who have a name for what they’re seeing. A Met Gala on camp is redundant. We’re not making fun of the Gala; we’re making fun out of it. And “out” — as in outside, as in the queer rejecting those who have rejected us — is the crucial part.

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