What Camp “Is”

The Met’s manic new exhibit gives up on trying to define camp. And so should you.

Promotional art from the Met's show on Camp.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images, John Lamparski/Getty Images, Hyacinthe Rigaud/Louvre Museum and The Met.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Susan Sontag, culturally insatiable, was a constant visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So when she sat down to write “Notes on Camp,” her career-launching 1964 essay intended to “snare a sensibility in words,” it was natural that she construct her trap using material—paintings, clothes, figurines, “lamps”—from the museum’s collections.

This was fortunate for Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met’s wonderfully manic new exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” since it meant that a good chunk of what he needed was just down the hall. This synergy between writer and institution enables one of the show’s more remarkable tableaus, a large gallery in which Sontag’s piece explodes into three dimensions: An LED message strip ringed around the ceiling streams the essay in its entirety, frenzied typewriter sound effect included, while the display cases below contain many of the actual objects, or examples of artist or style, that it addressed. All this, presented alongside pages from a draft manuscript of “Notes” and iconic portraits of Sontag by Peter Hujar and Andy Warhol, creates something of a shrine—not just to a critic, but to an individual piece of criticism.

The show’s justification for such a grand tribute hinges on the notion that Sontag elevated camp from subcultural “whisper” to serious aesthetic theme, something like arranging an obscure folk song into a respected symphony. True—though one might meditate on why we needed a literary journal and its readers to rule on this seriousness when legions of gay men and other queers had already been theorizing and living camp for decades. Still, Sontag undoubtedly stands as camp’s most visible interpreter, and her centrality in the Met show only serves to recapitulate and amplify her influence. We wouldn’t be here without her! the essay-as-room trumpets. Fair enough. But in reflecting on the exhibition, associated Met Gala, and larger flash of camp discourse they’ve inspired, I have a question: Where are we, exactly? Where has the Sontagian approach to camp taken us?

Axiomatic, I think: Camp should be fun. Has the cultural conversation of the last few weeks, especially around the Gala, felt fun to you? I have felt variously confused, agitated, and exhausted. Certainly stressed. “Getting it” seems to be the goal if all the articles, social media posts, and conversations devoted to definition I’ve encountered are any indication. What’s the motivation? Solving a puzzle? Beating a game? Capturing an elusive, mysterious power so that it can be wielded over friends, followers, or one (or more) of Lady Gaga’s pink carpet looks? This moment feels like camp-as-competition, camp-as-prize, camp with winners and losers—all fight, no fun.

Which … none for me, thanks. And you don’t have to have any, either. Just like one can leave the “Sontagian Camp” gallery, one can walk out of Sontag’s brain and into a less oppressive headspace. One can have a relationship with camp not marked by acrimony. But getting there requires recognizing how we got here.

If we now approach camp as a puzzle or challenge—in essence, as a problem that needs solving—the seeds of that adversarialism can be located in “Notes on Camp.” No one questions the essay as a showstopper of form and erudition; many of Sontag’s individual “jottings” that the Met displays are themselves insightful, amusingly provocative, or at least intriguing. But her overarching orientation to her subject has a violence to it that has unfortunately become endemic to camp discourse.

I used to think this mainly had to do with the weirdly dismissive attitude Sontag, a bisexual not exactly fond of group identification, displays toward gays in the piece, wherein she ignores us (by name, anyway) until the last few notes (50–53), only to hem and haw about our “peculiar relation” to camp and determine that it needn’t been seen as all that essential: “Yet one feels that if homosexuals hadn’t more or less invented Camp, someone else would.”

Revisiting the essay now, however, this posturing seems less relevant than the tone Sontag takes toward camp itself. Consider just the introduction: It crackles with aggressive energy as verbs like “betray,” “defend,” “goad,” “offend,” and “snare” ramp up a sense of conflict, predation, threat. Christopher Isherwood: “lazy.” Most people: “naïve.” Camp, “alive and powerful,” whips Sontag between feelings of “sympathy” and “revulsion.” (Revulsion!) It must be “brought under the sovereignty of reason.” Even the dedication, the earlier draft on display at the Met that reads, “I dedicate these notes to the memory of Oscar Wilde,” ends up having the blunt air of harsh term-paper feedback: “These notes are for Oscar Wilde.” So much flexing and drama so quickly, but it serves Sontag’s purpose: We’ve got a cunning, unruly, possibly dangerous beast here in camp, and we’d better approach it with caution—or better yet, leave the taming to the professionals.

The public acceptance of this dynamic benefits Sontag’s critical reputation, but I’ve come to believe it actively hampers our ability to engage with camp, at least in a way that would make the engagement pleasurable. Just look at how everyone posting about Met Gala outfits or opining about the exhibition’s curatorial choices seems somehow agitated, a little (or a lot) on guard, particularly with respect to something meant to be flamingo-pink and frivolous. We’re all apparently looking for the “right” answer, the “real,” “complete” definition or identification of camp that will demonstrate that we, too, have it under control. If Sontag wrote a trap for a sensibility—a trap that the Met has now sort of hilariously staged with actual walls and guards—we’ve all gotten ensnared as well, good and tied up in her desire for domination.

So how do we get out? Can we find an approach to camp not predicated on defining it to death? Having once written a good deal about the “true” nature of camp myself (some of which, full disclosure, made its way into the Met exhibition without my involvement), I worry I’m not the right person to ask. When I used “we” above, I meant it—I’ve had my moments of being as declarative, as “Sontagian,” about camp as anyone else. But more recently, particularly in this Met-inaugurated moment, I’ve noticed my own thinking leaning away from definite knowledge and venturing instead toward experience—toward what camp feels like and the conditions that make that feeling possible.

Another part of the Met exhibit helped bring this shift into focus. Bolton, the curator, organizes a series of introductory galleries on historical genealogy and etymology by part of speech, highlighting camp’s extraordinary grammatical fluidity. (A campy camp camps campily: a complete sentence having nothing to do with tents.) The exhibit dedicates space to verb, adjective, and noun, building from nebulous European aristocratic attitudes and gender-transgressive behaviors to a recognized type of person: the swishy homosexual of Wilde’s demimonde. A corner dedicated to Isherwood’s division of camp into “high” (the ballet) and “low” (drag) shows how by the middle of the 20th century, all these senses of the word had evolved together into a target fit for Sontag’s pen.

But camp can occupy another part of speech, one that shows its sensual side and becomes something more like a mood than a discrete quality: the interjection. Interjections are the words in a sentence that convey expressive context, like oh, oops, ha, or hmmm. They are open forms in which an array of subtle meanings might take up residence. They make space for an infusion of subjective emotion that can then alter our perception of whatever’s happening around them. When I think about how I encounter camp in my own life, this behavior feels the most familiar: Camp interjects little jabberings of possibility into the dreary sentence of the everyday.

What does this look like? It depends. One nonaggressive word choice of Sontag’s I really like: “zany.” (“Notes on Camp” No. 17: “Behind the ‘straight’ public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.”) Recently, my gay family out on the town sent me, working at home, a picture.

Photo of a scene in a store window. It is zany.
Cam McDonald

At first glance, the thrift shop window display suggests a den: Persian rug in mustard and burgundy, wide-set antique rocking chair, throw pillow dotted with bits of white and turquoise rag. But further glances make things hard. The hulking swivel mirror—why tilt it forward over everything? A bit menacing. And what to make of the even larger easel, the one bearing a blown-out portrait of a heavily made-up woman staring off into the mid-distance? If you cock your head just so, her expression seems to shift from cool indifference to something else: apocalyptic resignation. Maybe she sees it coming, a threat on the horizon that the mannequin lounging on the floor—ready for a springtime stroll on the beach in light coral sweater, blue-striped capris, and sunglasses—cannot.

Will she say anything? Maybe if it was a living room; living rooms feel more suited to bad news than dens. Then again, the mannequin has a little satchel on, so maybe she has all the essentials already packed. That just leaves the question of the empty nude pumps (always the question of the empty nude pumps). Are we waiting for someone to return? Or was it already decided that heels aren’t the thing today? The mannequin has chosen flats …

Translating my private, zany experience of a photo of a thrift-shop window into words necessarily impoverishes it, but it captures something of the camp interjection in action. Moreover: How I filled that tiny miracle of space may bear little or no relation to how the photographers filled it, or how any other camper passing by might. We share only an openness to the camp mood, a readiness to slip into pockets within “straight public sense,” zany little havens of our own creation where camp might find some breathing room.

The pleasure, the fun, of camp lies in the slip. One feels gently rebellious, for example, misappropriating an assemblage of sale-tagged items for one’s own purposes. But the camp mood just happens to be one in which you are inclined to take things the “wrong” way. If this all sounds a bit too zany, maybe try to remember how it felt to “play pretend” as a child, when you could freely make up what mattered in a given scenario. Adults are meant to know what matters. Camp says that we can, at least for a moment, forget. Camp says: Screw “matters,” take a turn on my Slip ’N Slide of value instead.

I don’t know if that makes full sense. Camp, an agent of nonsense, resists this exercise. Or actually, like a child, kind of ignores it and wanders elsewhere. A funny thing about this Met situation: Red carpets and museums are well-known traipsing grounds for camp, littered as they are with things that “matter.” Having it made explicit in them has generated, for me, a particularly toddlerlike recalcitrance: I only want to look at the man in the FaceTime screen beside Anna Wintour or listen to the singular way a middle-aged mom coos, “Oh, I loooove that,” at a too-gay-to-function Gautlier disco sailor ensemble. Perhaps not the kind of fun Anna, queen of costumes, had in mind, but there you have it.

I described “Camp: Notes on Fashion” as “wonderfully manic” earlier. A Google search defines mania in part as a “lability of affect”—a reference to a serious mental condition, I realize, but also relevant to camp. The show, if we are interested in judging success, succeeds in failing to contain camp’s affective lability. Once unleashed in the Met’s Gallery 999, camp sloshes from academic history to Sontagian BDSM to shady musings about designers’ intentions, finally overwhelming the floodgates in a hall packed to the roof with a self-described “cacophony” of outfits and accessories and critical doodles. A curator cannot capture camp, and he certainly can’t create it. But this, a room so stuffed and distracted that it can’t hope to control camp’s interjections and wanderings, reveals itself, over a visit, as something better.

Better because it abdicates the throne of “is.” I have not used is in this essay until now because is is the problem. Is is a trap. Is kills the camp mood because is is all about telling you what matters. There are lots of voices in that last room, lots of voices in the culture currently, going on about what camp is. So many, in fact, that it is clear that no one is right (or wrong)—not Sontag, not me, no one. Let’s lean into that—lean into it like people in the room who kept leaning too far into the display cases and setting off alarms. Let the is and the warnings echo and clash and merge into a hum, let that hum fade into the background, and then replace it with whatever zany tune camp sneaks into your head.

Hearing it won’t be easy. We live in a moment thrumming with alarm: There is a great deal of pressure to be useful and focused right now, to get behind a cause or with a program, to agree on the important things and be serious about them. Some of that is necessary, but not all of it. Seek the spots where you can interject, ignore, wander, ghost. Cultivate possibility at the expense of certainty. Slip the grip of is. The guards of culture might not like it, your breaking past the plane of acceptable engagement. But camp will be waiting just on the other side—a reminder that, sometimes, escaping a trap is simply a matter of opening the door.