There are a few social media accounts whose greatness I guard with duty. I tell very few friends about these and would never comment on them in any public sphere despite devoting most of my working days to writing about things that I like. Sharing precisely what’s so special about these modest accounts with a handful of followers and an amateur approach to self-promotion would risk altering reality as I know and love it. I want them to stay as they are, extreme and even at times unhinged, without the self-consciousness to interfere with them being their pure selves—or the heightened version of these selves that they display on the internet. I want them to stay pure.
These accounts are about as close as I get these days to reliable pure camp, that naïve strain of the sensibility that Susan Sontag rhapsodized in her seminal 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’”—still the most articulate word on this method of appreciation whose ultimate statement, per Sontag, is “it’s good because it’s awful.” The more oblivious to the awfulness, the more pleasing the camp tends to be. “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp,” wrote Sontag. “Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.”
Sontag’s essay predated the intentional camping of peak John Waters, who refined the sensibility into something capable of being conjured and satisfyingly replicated. Waters was nothing short of a magician for that transubstantiation. Attempts at such are usually more ham-handed and groan-provoking, the Sharknados of the world whose sloppiness makes the absurd seem obvious and the driving sense of humor unavoidable. At a certain point this becomes broad comedy; the CGI shark swirling in a cyclone is just a stand-in for a rubber chicken.
A work like Sharknado is so performative in its silliness, it operates like an over-praised child. It seems awfully proud of its stupidity. That movie underscores how hard it is to find that pure, naive camp today, in this world where incompetence goes viral and the feedback echo is louder and more accessible than ever. Everyone watched Rebecca Black go viral in 2011 with “Friday” and awfulness was incentivized. The closest thing to pure camp I found recently was Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, in which Nicole Kidman plays gritty underneath a rubber mask that could have been laughed out of Party City. The self-serious subgenre of Oscarbait is a potential breeding ground for great awfulness, but rarely does it go over the top enough to really tease the art out of artifice.
People say the self-consciousness of our modern connected age is the reason why camp has dried up, and it should be clear that I think that is true. But it’s only part of the story. Another reason is that the liberal elite that has most ardently appreciated this sensibility now has the social imperative of ethical viewing—of affirming, of arguing for the social worth of entertainment, of not saying anything if you don’t have something nice to say. Granted, people are still total shitheads, but I think perhaps the critical eye is simply out of vogue in all but the most elite circles. Sontag wrote that camp is not a judgment, but I disagree; it is a thorough evaluation of multiple conflicting perceptions (how this person/thing is believed to be coming off by itself or its creators versus how the viewer knows it to be coming off). It is a judgment but not a life sentence; one must understand that their perception of camp is just a matter of subjective perspectives failing to align. That margin is a play space for those who are interested in some fun. Others, of course, are free to take these pop-culture objects as seriously as they take themselves. For those raised on a steady diet of hero worship and “Yaaaaas,” it might all seem a little mean to call bullshit, even if the net result is affection so strong you want to get that bullshit between your toes, like a pig flopping around in mud.
All of this is to say that this year’s Met Gala theme of “Camp: Notes of Fashion” presents an impossible task for those who attend. By assigning camp, it is virtually assuring that attempts to follow this theme will fall into the lesser, impure category. If camp, as is argued in the excellent feature-length documentary essay about Showgirls, You Don’t Nomi, boils down to failed realism, it seems the only way to pull off projecting camp (without a Watersian sense of genius) is to fail at failing realism, which is to say: succeed at realism. And how would that work? To pull off pure camp, one couldn’t have the slightest sense of awareness—celebrities pay teams of people to achieve such awareness. They don’t have a prayer.
Compounding the absurdity of the assignment is that the Met Gala is already camp. Camp is Rihanna walking down the red carpet with a giant circular train that people then meme-ify by Photoshopping pizza onto it. Camp is Madonna romping around in a crown, as if to remind us that she isn’t absconding her Queen of Pop throne, which many would argue has been filled and refilled over the past few decades. Camp is a pregnant Kim Kardashian looking like upholstery.
(Camp is not Kanye West in a bedazzled jacket, ripped jeans and blue contacts; that’s just bad.)
“Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style,” wrote Sontag. “It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” The Met Gala has always had that naturally (as naturally as celebrities wearing ridiculously exaggerated fashion can be, that is); introducing the concept of “camp” washes it all in a sense of self-consciousness that would seem to potentially restrain instead of inspire.
But it’s all sort of dicey. Just a few points (Sontag wrote her essay in a series of bullet points as opposed to a body of flowing paragraphs) after underlining the innocence involved in pure camp, Sontag asserts: “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Well, no one walks around in three million feathers innocently; you can’t wear that many feathers without knowing exactly what you are doing and how it’s coming off. The cruelest aspect of camp is that it assumes a lack of awareness about an object. Not everyone is stupid; not even every celebrity.
The net positives of this Met Gala theme are that people are talking about camp again in a culture that has grown increasingly barren of the sensibility. (Reality TV is a source, for sure, but for every clueless participant, there’s a room full of story editors who know exactly what they’re giving to people. Such crossed streams of communication at the point of creation can foster very good camp too—think Russ Meyer directing his cast to play straight Roger Ebert’s preposterous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls screenplay—but savvy threatens purity here. And any reality star worth her salt is quick to detect what’s working and then offer it to her adoring public in spades after a season or so.) It is also possible that true ingenuity will arise and that celebrities will find novel ways to bring this theme to life—whether through force of will or blind stumbling. Perhaps they will commit such failures that their attempts at camp are camp themselves, like a joke that’s so terribly unfunny it’s actually funny. Camp, after all, is a sensibility, an essence, a feeling—we’ll know it when we see it.