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Enjoying Bad Taste: On Susan Sontag‛s Camp Risa Matsumoto


MET GALA 2019 ©️Getty Images, Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris

Our web magazine includes articles that touch upon a wide range of ideas and offer a different perspective on the festival program. (This article has been shared from the print magazine of Kyoto Experiment 2021 Spring.)

On Kyoto Experiment‛s experimental approaches and showcasing of work that attempts new possibilities for the performing arts, the concepts discussed in Susan Sontag‛s writing about camp may prove instructive for deciphering these. Centering on Sontag‛s essay, the following explores one stance toward the showy and bad taste, and looks back on Sontag‛s interpretation of camp.

The excessively exaggerated and flamboyant clothing worn by drag queens or celebrities attending the MET Gala 2019. When we hear the word “camp,” this is the kind of thing that first comes to mind. The drag queen is indeed a symbol of camp, yet camp is not simply a matter of garish colors and dramatically accentuated sexuality. So, what is camp? According to “Notes on ‘Camp‛” (1964), the monumental text by the American critic Susan Sontag that brought the word into everyday use almost overnight, camp is “a kind of love,” a “tender feeling.” Love? A tender feeling? In what sense is Sontag using these words that seem so far from our image of camp? By following Sontag‛s text, we can try to understand the depth possessed by this word “camp,” which she calls “one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.” From Aubrey Beardsley to the 1933 film King Kong and 1920s fashion (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, and so on), the scope of what Sontag includes as “camp” is wide. Among these, she cites art nouveau as archetypically camp. Art nouveau is a decorative style of art that appeared in the late nineteenth century and employed feminine curves and organic forms. Though possessing a serious side in terms of restoring traditional craftsmanship or liberating the arts from oppressive architectural historicism, it is their ornamentation through excessive curves that leaves the strongest impression whenever we are confronted by examples of art nouveau. Enjoying such decoration that is resplendent to a lavish degree is, according to Sontag, camp.

If this is simply a matter of extolling the flamboyant, then it is not so different from the image of the drag queens and the MET Gala 2019 with which we started. What Sontag is saying, however, is that the quintessence of camp lies in receiving something political or moral created with utmost seriousness, like art nouveau, as something anti-serious. This attitude of enjoying the serious by an aberrant spirit as an excessively decorative, playful style is what Sontag considers camp.

Camp is, Sontag writes, “a seriousness that fails,” but this certainly does not mean the camp is merely something frivolous. Rather, once we are released from moral standards like beauty and sincerity, and are able to relish the joy of failed seriousness, a camp way of seeing things becomes possible for the first time. In other words,
camp is the stance of not abstemiously shutting out bad taste, but instead of accepting that as a pleasure, and loving and enjoying it. As such, tolerance of the aberrant is essential. It is for that reason that camp is “a kind of love,” that it is “tender.”

The camp that Sontag describes is a generous spirit of accepting in an anti-serious, playful spirit seriousness made by an aberrant spirit, and enjoying it. Enjoying and taking pleasure in exaggerated and embellished expression—this is the delight taught to us by Sontag‛s text, which deserves rereading perhaps especially today, when we are trying to detoxify everything. With its proposed attitude of not suppressing what is vulgar or anti-serious, but rather relishing it, her text remains fresh even now.

Risa Matsumoto
Born in 1994, Risa Matsumoto is enrolled in the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University. She specializes in aesthetics. Her writings include “The Perceptive Experience of Grand Rapids Project (1974) by Robert Morris: Focusing on Its Use Value” (Bigaku, vol. 257).

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#playful #ironic #highandlow #exaggeration

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