The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.
~ Susan Sontag

I can't resist noding this. Camp is everywhere in society and it is spreading. It is closely bound up with the kitsch and with pop art, and all sorts of TV shows and bands - from Architecture in Helsinki to The Darkness - show that it has arrived, so to speak. The largest piece of evidence is the coining of the phrase "metrosexual". The Oxford English Dictionary says that a metrosexual is -

n. A heterosexual man whose lifestyle, spending habits and concern for personal appearance are likened to those considered typical of a fashionable, urban, homosexual man.

In other words, a straight man who is camp. As campness breaks out of its traditional cultural home - homosexual males - and into the mainstream, it has been redefined as "metrosexual". Plenty of people would label themselves "metrosexual" who would never submit to the appelation "camp" because the latter carries actual connotations of homosexuality for many people. Campness and homosexuality are clearly very different things, which is what has allowed metrosexuality to come into existence; but a continuing confusion as to the two has confused the labelling.

Think about it. Homosexuality is as old as mankind itself, but I don't think the Ancient Greeks went around mincing and saying "WHATEVERRRR" - gestures today that would immediately lead to a young man displaying them to be labelled as "camp". There's nothing about being gay which automatically makes you camp; it's a cultural pose just like any other, which is why it's proved so easily transferable to non-homosexuals under the title of "metrosexuality". Camp is a cultural phenomenon which undoubtedly has its roots in the homosexual community, but it is not inextricably bound up with it: just as dandyism, its closest ancestor, developed outside of the context of homosexuality. Campness has been developed recently and in a specific cultural context, and this needs to be remembered rather than just seeing it as some sort of natural expression of homosexuality.

Camp, especially now it has been mainstreamed, has a real element of artifice about it: it is as if its practitioners are trying to make works of art out of themselves, like the Romantics. But it obviously has its origins in the exclusion and prejudice which homosexuals faced, and their feeling of being opposed to mainstream society. Their response wasn't to hate and revile society, as well it might have been; rather, it was a response of light-hearted gaiety, a refusal to take it all too seriously. Camp laughs at everything, including itself.

This brings me to the question of what exactly camp is, a subject on which a wonderful piece was written in 1964 by Susan Sontag, under the title Notes on "Camp". Sontag was the first person to really note the existence of camp in writing, and she provided an exposition of it which anybody who has ever felt the allure of camp will recognize. Her ideas on the matter can basically be put under the following headings -

1. Camp is, above all, a focus on form above content.

2. Camp clearly has something to do with femininity.

3. Camp is a survival mechanism for coping with modern culture by finding enjoyment everywhere and refusing to take it all too seriously.

4. Camp is also a style of character.

Broadly speaking, camp can apply to two types of things. Firstly, people can be camp; and we're used to hearing the word used with this meaning. Secondly though, art - film, music, architecture - can also be camp. And while what is regarded as camp is going to vary from person to person, not just any old thing can be camp. However 1950s it might be, there are rules, man. Allow me, using Sontag's and my own words, to explain.

Form above content

Sontag wrote:

1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized -- or at least apolitical.

8. Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not.

10. Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman." To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

43. The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness - irony, satire - seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.

Camp can apply to either art or people, but in neither is it rooted in seriousness. Camp doesn't care about content, but just about style: in its genuine forms it is something to be laughed with because it is so obviously an artifice. This is why it bears a close relation to the kitsch in art, things which display "life without the shit", in the words of Milan Kundera - camp bands are those ridiculously twee pop acts with sickly sweet female vocals like Strawberry Switchblade, Architecture in Helsinki or The All Girl Summer Fun Band.

What makes a piece of art camp is its complete disconnection from reality and its idealization of what it presents, which is something that we see in Socialist Realism and fascist art as well. Ever seen the cover of an Ayn Rand book?

To take another example, turbofolk (read the node, listen to some; you won't be disappointed) is the ultimate camp music, and it highlights the superficial affinity between camp and fascist art. Turbofolk is ultra-nationalist music from Serbia sung by impossibly beautiful women, which to the western ear sounds something like a power ballad on steroids. I can't understand the words, and that's probably no bad thing, but the key point which comes across about the music is the total lack of seriousness rooted in unrealistic optimism which it broadcasts about life; the fact that it is supposed to address a political subject would make this disturbing disturbing, but when you can't understand the lyrics that makes it camp. For as Sontag writes: "We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own."

31. This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It's not a love of the old as such. It's simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment -- or arouses a necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility. . . . Another effect: time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic.

Camp and femininity

9. As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility . . . Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one's sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. . . . Allied to the Camp taste for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn't: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.

On a superficial level camp obviously has something to do with feminine characteristics, and in vulgar anti-homosexual understanding this is frequently portrayed as being the result of some similarity between gay men and women. This, of course, is a bit like saying wolves and foxes are the same because they both eat chicken. There's no reason why what are regarded as feminine characteristics and homosexuality have to go together; just ask the Spartans.

Where camp's affinity with femininity stems from is in its love of the accenuated and of theatricality, I would suggest. As a style of dress, for instance, lavish adornments are typically regarded as feminine - make-up, jewellery, and the like. As Sontag says:

25. The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.

Think of the way Xerses is portrayed in the movie 300 - he's the ultimate enjoyer of luxury, adorned to a ridiculous extent and pampered from all sides. Very camp; not gay. There are few ways for a man to express extravagance in style of dress and appearance without bordering on the camp, and the recognition of this is something to do with the growth of the word "metrosexual" as the use of male cosmetic products grows vastly; the new word is of course an attempt to escape from the connotations of the old, but one shouldn't be fooled.

Camp as a survival mechanism

Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.

Nowadays mass culture is the norm and one cannot avoid it; the representation of mediocrity and constant change has even become one of the goals of our highest art. Caught in this maelstrom of shit, the lover of culture essentually has two options: hate the world or adopt new standards and find enjoyment where one can. The appreciation of camp is the perfect way to achieve the latter because it can finds enjoyment in the sheer ambition of a piece of art which tries to portray deep emotions but just ends up looking trite.

23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

24. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish. ("It's too much," "It's too fantastic," "It's not to be believed," are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)

28. Again, Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous. (The curved line, the extravagant gesture.) Not extraordinary merely in the sense of effort.

Someone tuned to receieve camp sensibilities can get them from many places. In fact, it is almost impossible to portray in art many of the highest sentiments, such as romantic love or the love of truth, in a way that does not appear trite. On this point, Sontag quoted Oscar Wilde, who wrote: "What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art. It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art." Yes, art idealizes and often presents the world as it is not, often leaving us underwhelmed by the presentation of a feeling which only the moment of truly experiencing that moment can do justice to, never just the piece of art; but mass culture surrounds us with so many pieces that do not even make a serious attempt to move us.

To realize the joke in all this, to derive pleasure from the cheap imitation because you recognize what it is supposed to point towards and can't help but laugh at the sheer ridiculous effort of the attempt: this is something like what the camp sensibility is.

41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious." One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.

42. One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that "sincerity" is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.

43. The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness - irony, satire - seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.

Nor is it snobbishness.

48. The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted. The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of "character." . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as "a camp," they're enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

The camp character

33. What Camp taste responds to is "instant character" (this is, of course, very 18th century); and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence - a person being one, very intense thing. This attitude toward character is a key element of the theatricalization of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility.

Campness as a personality was, according to Sontag, about combining the elements mentioned above: not taking things seriously but always acting like one is, with hyperbole and theatrical mincing. To be, as she says, one bright thing unashamedly, and to be a thing that joyously drinks its fill from everything the world has to offer. It is likely that the elements of femininity contained in it relate to the artifice and adornment I mentioned above; the desire not to overturn tradition and profess hatred for it, but to mock it with a wink by being different.

Camp is just one way of facing modern consumerism and finding enjoyment where one can, and perhaps pieces of an identity into the bargain. Of course, all styles of living and viewing the world - the kind of thing the phrase "subculture" is generally applied to - are copies and reproductions of what has been done already. But the carriers of every great culture are also shaped in large part by their forebears and those they imitate; if this were itself an argument against culture, there would be none. Camp is a sensibility that laughs at the world, laughs at human nature, and laughs at itself; a fitting antidote, if only a temporary one, to the deadly seriousness of the world around us and the attempts by art to portray this world.

And if that all sounds like I took camp far too seriously for a while there, I rather agree.