Monday, April 20, 2009

Is Camp a Corruption of Beauty or a Commentary on the Lack of It?

"One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art."
- Oscar Wilde, Phrases & Philosophies for the Use of the Young
Still thinking about this article Beauty and its Corruptions, which I blogged about before. I haven't gotten very far but here it is so far.

I've noticed a lot of a kind of popular art that is not quite kitsch but definitely not great art either. It doesn't even purport to be great art. It seems to be kitsch but with a satiric edge. I would call it "camp" but on googling the term I find it has various meanings some of them unsavory. Still, it's the best word I know for what I mean, so I'll define "camp" here as either intentional or unintentional kitsch with an ironic and subversive twist that brings it outside the category of kitsch proper. For unintentional camp, you have to think Ed Wood. His life and work themselves are admittedly weird kitsch, but the attitude of his present-day viewers is ironic and affectionate. So it becomes total camp. Bohemian Rhapsody is as campy as it gets, though you may have taken it seriously back then, and I don't have a clue what Freddy Mercury thought at the time. My guess is that like Ed Wood he just LIVED camp, may both their souls rest in peace!

Some people intentionally do camp and actually succeed. Monty Python perhaps fits into this category. Here is an admirable production which has to fit into the camp category -- where else could it go? Star Wars -- John Williams' the Man. That's as good as it gets, and it's intentional, and it's camp, so it has to be good intentional camp.

We have distinguished between intentional camp and unintentional camp. Now let's make a distinction between "good camp" and "bad camp". An increasing number of commercials are bad camp. Their intent is obviously campy but they have no talent for it. We may call bad camp "trash". Much of the later Saturday Night Live is like that too. Unintentional camp, that is, solemnly meaningful for the originator but kitsch/camp for the audience, can be good or bad camp, and so can intentional camp. Some of the articles I read said that all camp has to be unintentional to the creator in order to be good, but I wouldn't go that far.

Now, is "good camp" actually GOOD; that is, is it allied with the forces of good or evil? This is probably the biggest question on my mind. Does it fit into the "corruption of beauty" category? Or somewhere else? Does what the article says of kitsch apply to camp as well?

Simply put, kitsch is a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture. The Disneyfication of art is simply one aspect of the Disneyfication of faith -and both involve a profanation of our highest values. Kitsch, the case of Disney reminds us, is not an excess of feeling but a deficiency. The world of kitsch is in a certain measure a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them.
The easy road would be to say that it's a corruption.... somewhere in the continuum between kitsch and desecration, a kind of deficiency of reverence and sincerity. And in a way, I agree. Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" are interesting to read in that light. Camp originated in an urban clique environment and was essentially sterile in that it fed off of bourgeois culture even while deconstructing it (that's not what she is saying, exactly, but what I gathered from some of what she was saying).

Perhaps one could say, though, that it's a desecration or reversal of kitsch, and thus, the friend of the friend of the Good, the True and the Beautiful the way "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". In that case, it could pass as a sort of clever lament for the absence or corruption of the Real in so much of our lives. Historically it came about after kitsch, as a reaction to it. In that case you could say that "camp" falls into somewhat of the same category as "comedy" as defined by Aristotle. It's a conscious remark on cheapness and ignobility. .... in a way, a sort of light sorrow and anger.

Tragedy, we have been told, aims at the katharsis of pity and fear and thus must represent the actions of "good" or "noble" (in a moral or ethical sense) human beings. Comedy, Aristotle tells us, represents the opposite kind of character, which we can designate as "base" or "ignoble." Moreover, comedy represents such characters,

"not in regard to every kind of vice, but in regard to the ridiculous, a subdivision of the general category of moral and physical deformity. For the ridiculous is some error and deformity which is not painful or destructive--the example which immediately comes to mind is the comic mask which is ugly and distorted but which does not cause pain." (Poetics ch. 5)
In support of that, I happen to know a lot of intelligent, responsible, devoted people who are also fond of what I've defined here as camp. Many liturgical abuses are basically kitsch. ... .truly dreadful, unreflective kitsch like this. On the other hand, orthodoxy is quite often associated with some affection for camp of some sort, whether it is admiration for bad (or good but weird) sci-fi movies, manga, pirates, old Sunday comics, superheroes, debates between Elmo and Aristotle or Stephen Colbert liturgically dancing.

My guess is that camp is a running commentary on the kitsch so endemic in our culture that it is like the air we breathe. If kitsch is the mass-produced, the banal, the horribly done, the propagandistic whether in support of socialism or capitalism or religion, then camp could be the irreverence towards what ought not to be revered. I can't decide, then, whether it's a proportionate reaction or a distraction, or a sort of barrier against one's sensibilities being offended again and again by tripe.
"Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it." Oscar Wilde
Something else that is interesting -- camp sometimes goes further into a sort of serious reverence for the effects of kitsch, so it almost becomes a dialogue within itself. For example, if you love the sillier forms of retro or the Gilligan's Island theme song, you are not being kitschy, because you're aware that it's camp. But to admit disdain for the theme song or the rounded green refrigerators with the chrome handles would totally miss the point.... you have to adopt a campy-in-itself relish for the kitschiness. I find that most of the people I know who have some affection for some kitsch will distinguish at least in attitude between good kitsch and bad kitsch. Good kitsch has good intentions or at least good associations, like Peter Parker's Aunt May. Whereas bad kitsch is usually trying to take over your life somehow with pressing solemnity, like Bertie Wooster's aunts and girlfriends. Sometimes, then, you see camp as a sort of sideways respect for some good kinds of kitsch. Susan Sontag says:

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. .... 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 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.

Still thinking.

1 comment:

Chari said...

Did you really mention a QUEEN song on YOUR blog???? :)

The kids find that surprising. :)

BTW, did you know that only the Beattles are higher than Queen in all-time popularity in England?

Or, that it took, what was it, four months to record Bohemian Rhapsody? :)

Hmm...Queen was my favorite group in high school :)

Bet you never knew that about me? lol

I am listening to Josh Groban right now..........but I just might switch over to Queen :)

.....some comparison, eh, Clare?