Whatever camp is, you won’t find it in the Met’s ‘Camp’ exhibit

The Daily Beast

May 7, 2019

Monday’s celebrity-packed Met Gala summed up what ‘camp’ now means: glitter, feathers, excess. The exhibit the gala was celebrating makes the same, LGBT-culture ignoring mistake.

Whatever else the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s much-hyped exhibit Camp: Notes on Fashion (May 9 to September 8) is, it is not camp. It does feature 250 outfits and objects, which are variously sparkly, spangly, striking, and outrageous. But the quantity of glitter you can throw over something doesn’t make it camp. It’s who or what is inhabiting the glitter that makes it camp—and this exhibit is way too clean and posh to examine the complexity of that.

And that’s only one of the problems with this show. It’s too polite to be camp, and it weirdly approaches camp as a concept of very expensive clothes designed for women. Camp-as-drag is about impersonating grandeur, parodying it; not buying it.

The clothes are all carefully curated. The show as fashion exhibit is rigorous. Yet these clothes are all on lifeless mannequins. They are bright, they are extravagant, they have big shoulders and outsized sculptural features. ‘Camp’ has been bestowed upon them, but on what qualitative basis?

The show feels less a celebration of a subculture, and more a weird rewiring job to suit the Met’s own notion of a fashion show. ‘Camp’ has become an accessory, a mass-accessed byword and in-joke. Its grittier, more nuanced LGBT meanings and history have been lost and dismissed in the service of heterosexual entertainment: the swishy character on that TV show, the catty put-down, Real Housewives behaving badly. Now, camp is a game of dress-up and japery for everyone. So is this show.

Basic outrageousness and exaggeration is what ‘camp’ is now synonymous with in the popular consciousness, and this guiding principle was much on display on the red carpet at last night’s Costume Institute Gala to launch the exhibit. This was an epic, fun red carpet, running the gamut of delicious camp to thoughtful camp to experimental camp, as well as big, shiny outfits that could be called lazy camp. There was glitter everywhere, feathers too. There will be none of either left in New York City on Tuesday. But not all that glitters or rustles is camp.

Let’s be brutal judges of last night, as true camp demands. Lady Gaga: camp: Celine Dion: camp. Elle Fanning: camp. Harry Styles: camp. Bette Midler: camp. Billy Porter: camp for sure, possibly celestial. Ezra Miller: a delicious universe beyond camp. Janelle Monáe: Joining Ezra Miller. (Can we come?) Bette Midler, Joan Collins: we bow to you even if you were in burlap sacks. Especially if you were in burlap sacks.

But then: Benedict Cumberbatch: (hot but) trying to be camp. Miley Cyrus: cute not camp. J. Lo: shiny disco era, camp-ish. Kanye West: why did you even bother going?

Now these snap judgments are all in the eye of the camp beholder: my eyes. When someone defines something as camp, it can be a simple, powerful, but mysterious impulse. No one’s notion of camp is the same.

On E! last night, the most anguished question—and this is E!, where anguish on red carpet broadcasts is not traditionally embraced—was, “But is it camp?” They were right to agonize over this: a beautiful shiny dress is not innately camp.

The same question persists when walking through the sumptuous displays of the show itself.

All credit, and a large drink of his desire, to Andrew Bolton, lead curator of this show, for trying to negotiate his way through this vexed, much fought over, thicket of multi-interpretation. The clothes are engaging to look at, gender fluidity among other things is properly considered—but ultimately you are left thinking, “Well, anything could be camp.”

While the show is centered around Susan Sontag’s eponymous 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” the eternal truth is that camp is elusive, but camp’s appreciators know it when they see it or hear it. It’s like a sweet, sweet bell; or a scent on the wind, with that scent smelling of piss or perfume, or both.

That’s what camp is like: high and low doing a jangling pas de deux; a shot of glitter in the gutter; a stinging put-down delivered by someone with big hair and a hangover, a diva singing her heart out, something very meant or very unmeant. It can be a game, or a truth-telling. Sontag called it a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration… style at the expense of content.” She wrote that the essence of camp “is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

It is this, and more and sometimes less. It may not surprise some readers that the only music playing in this exhibit is Judy Garland singing ‘Over The Rainbow.’ It plays on a loop, softly or loudly depending on which room you are in. The song, of course, is a universal song of yearning, but for LGBT people it is something else.

Historically, the drama-beset Garland was a queer icon. Her funeral coincided with the Stonewall Riots in June 1969; the two were not as intimately linked as wish-fulfillment might dictate but their date proximity is a romanticized constant. The song became an anthem of a larger LGBT yearning—for equality and respect, for an endlessly long road we have traveled and continue to travel.

And here the song is in this ersatz show which celebrates something appropriated and cleaned up for a mainstream gallery audience. That’s what becomes more and more annoying as the show goes on: as Judy sings, and the exhibit encourages you to coo over glittery heels and puffed-up gowns and intricate beading, you realize how unengaged this show is with LGBT culture and politics, and by extension, how mainstream culture has—in all its careless pilfering now politely called appropriation—executed a similar failing.

It is fine to come and imbibe LGBT-themed art and literature; it is fine to giggle at waspish put-downs and celebrate and display dandyism and eccentricity. But where is the at-least attempt to engage with the full panoply of LGBT life, the outrage at discrimination and homophobia? Where is an acknowledgment of the black and working class subcultures that fostered camp as a form of resistance, as something that straight culture couldn’t take from LGBT people when it criminalized and stigmatized homosexuality so completely? Camp didn’t just come from high society.

Just as it ignores the depth and texture of this history, the show ignores the present. Right now, in America and other countries, LGBT people are under attack in different forms by various ruling classes. As visitors to this show giggle over dresses and quotes and shower heads spouting glittery trinkets, they are not being encouraged to see the LGBT historical through-line that is the backbone and lifeblood of camp’s history.

Sure, at the start of the show there are historical outfits, and the amazing Victorian scandal of Frederick (Fanny) Park and Ernest (Stella) Boulton, and display cases of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. The exhibit is broken up in to historical time periods, and the wall text and captions are useful, if not sometimes that legible when written on Perspex. But the exhibit is oddly laid out and not conducive to standing still, let alone reading very small type. The gaudy clothes dominate, and the text sadly recedes.

Susan Sontag’s entire treatise has its own section. Her quotes are everywhere. But Susan Sontag’s quotes on camp have been everywhere, floating unmoored like mischievous phantoms, for years. They continue to float here, respectfully acknowledged and yet also completely unengaged with, because, quick, we’ve got a whole final massive room of insane fashion to get to.

And, yes for fashion-lovers, this is a wonderful final room; as if Bolton and his team are throwing every last shoulder-padded, sequined dice at the ceiling. A shimmering Bob Mackie gown is the perfect au revoir, because Mackie is a true artist and he helped make Cher a genuine camp icon too, with clothing that was not just shiny but also challenging of fashion mores. The Cher-Mackie model is one of outrage as a good time: the essence of good camp.

Garland’s singing in this final room sounds even more plaintive. Read the display captions. There are the details of the dress, and there is a quote from Sontag, and quotes from a mass of other cultural theorists about what camp is and what camp isn’t.

By the end you might think camp is a performance, or you might see it as parody. Is it resistance, or dress-up? No one agrees about it, and that’s no bad thing, but there is a disconnect between the clothes—which really are beautiful expressions of aesthetic maximalism—and the repetitive bite-sized cultural theory, which is as bite-sized cultural theory can be—which is to say, like being pecked at by birds that fly at you and fly off again.

Perhaps in these perilous political times for LGBT people, this is what the Met’s Costume Institute thought it could do best to show an awareness and engagement with LGBT culture. But it isn’t a show that encourages genuine understanding. You don’t leave it, LGBT or straight, with an awareness or agitation or excitement that this year, next month to be precise, marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and what they were, and what that means.

In the 1960s, indeed way before the 1960s and after, ‘camp’ and its discontents were cherished necessities of LGBT life. The smartening up of camp in the Met’s exhibit doesn’t address black ‘ball culture,’ as seen on Pose. This exhibit also glosses over British working class culture, a prime engine of camp. This was surely a golden moment for Bolton to introduce the Met’s crowds to some golden-era Coronation Street, with Bet and Elsie arguing in the Rovers Return.

What of Polari, the gay language spoken in the 1960s as its own secret code? What of the roots of drag? For all the finery on display, the exhibit is bizarrely snobbish and elitist. It considers the evolution of camp through marble statues and regal finery. It’s never on the other side of the tracks, and in staying in its imperious lane it utterly ignores camp as a phenomenon that transcends class boundaries. It’s a rich person’s clothes show, with some history and quotes to scratch your chin over if you feel like it.

In that final room, Judy on a loop wondering why oh why she can’t fly as high as those blue birds, you too might be left wondering how not over the rainbow LGBT people are right now—and, as nice as an exhibit devoted to camp is, how it feels so un-urgent at a time of great LGBT urgency.

Mainstream straight culture has appropriated camp, and pasteurized it. And here at the Met it is, dressed up to the nines, celebrated in all its made-safe shiny ridiculousness. There is no danger and subversion on display. A true understanding of camp’s place in LGBT life and culture has been made sober and fleeting.

Camp has helped lighten mainstream culture through laughter and aesthetics. Rather than offer respect, or even basic thanks, for what it appropriates, that same mainstream culture instead legislates against LGBT people—and worse. And now a venerable institution like the Met has made this tangled, glittery, witty, serious, dirty, fascinating piece of LGBT culture all clean and respectable.

It might be camp if it wasn’t so disheartening.