The Art of Criticism: 4 Camp : Books : Masterclass

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THIS IS one of the most celebrated essays in modern critical history. Reading it is like discovering a new continent.

Sontag's notes are for Oscar Wilde, and are interspersed with quotations from that camp genius. Sontag defines camp as, among other things: one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon disengaged, depoliticized - or at least apolitical androgynous reeking of self-love effacing nature Old Flash Gordon comics, 1920s women's clothes belong to the "canon of camp"; Greta Garbo and Jayne Mansfield are camp, and so are the cast-iron orchid stalks that frame the entrances to the Paris metro. Camp is often bad or decorative art, and is best defined through lists of often very amusing examples - the speeches of Charles de Gaulle, certain turn-of-the-century postcards.

This essay deluges the reader with things that are "old-fashioned, out-of-date, demode". Old bakelite phones, the sort you get in black and white movies, would be one example, feather boas another. There is a junky eeriness about camp. It comes back at us like those movies with the phones in them, and those smooth, sculpted black cars driven by smokers in suits.

Camp lets us glimpse the terrible void at the heart of style. Maybe it's self-protective and a form of revenge? Down with romantic authenticity, it says. Nature and earnestness, Wilde's twin targets, are frauds. Camp is self-consciously self-conscious: like listening to dialogue that is all monologue. It could, as non-campers like Jasper and McMoon would say, get severely on your tits. Which is perhaps why Sontag writes her essay in numbered notes. In this way, she both reins her subject in and suggests its plenitude.

For Sontag, the "great serious idol" of camp taste is Greta Garbo. Her "incompetence" as an actress enhances her beauty. She is "always herself". This recalls a remark of Jean Cocteau's which haunted Sartre: "Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo." Perhaps camp is a form of alienation? A type of passive existentialism?

Sontag's point number 36 is that there are other creative sensibilities beside the seriousness - both tragic and comic - of high culture and of the "high style of evaluating people". One cheats oneself as a human being if one only has respect for the style of high culture, "what- ever else one may do or feel on the sly".

To define camp more closely, Sontag discusses the kind of sensibility whose trademark is "anguish, cruelty, derangement" - Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud are her examples. Camp, she says, is third among the "great creative sensibilities": thesensibility of "failed seriousness, of the theatricalisation of experience". It incarnates a victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality, irony over tragedy. It puts the world in quotation marks, and is strangely philosophical because it saturates everything with thought and irony. Auden's question in "Mountains": "Am I/To see in the Lake District then,/Another bourgeois invention like the piano?" is a brilliant piece of camp. It comes out of his early Marxism and out of Wilde's habit of seeing nature as culture. Ever since Turner and the Impressionists, Wilde remarks, London's sunsets have improved remarkably. And there is a poem by Elizabeth Bishop in which fireflies are seen rising "like the bubbles in champagne". …