Courting Camp: An Everyday Aesthetic

When postmodernity marked the “aestheticization” of reality, the lines between high and low culture collapsed and a sensibility devoted to seeing the world as a theater for aesthetic experience sprang into being.

Camp, as inventoried in Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”, appeared as a kind of eager handmaiden to the mundane minutia of reality while granting its participant a “way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.”[1] Such a sensibility provided a vital historical corrective to modernity’s artistic exhaustion of isolation and fragmentation by elevating the aesthetics of everyday living over the drumbeat of moral crisis. In the theatricalized world of Camp the extravagance of a feathered evening gown slinked amidst the twilight of the idols—and all of our eyes counted the feathers.

If Camp’s penchant for making extraordinary the ordinary objects around us was originally a reactionary aesthetic to doomsday moralizing, its persistence in contemporary culture suggests that we are still yearning for a world whose objects offer more than their material components grant them. Indeed, the transformative artifice of Camp strikes me as the driving force behind most twenty-to-thirty-something’s understanding of home décor. Here the preference for “style” over “content” that characterizes Camp is seen at its most distilled form: the domestication of the inoperable typewriter, the luxurious gilded frame left vacant and hung slightly askew, the presence of large pine branches in modern Manhattan apartments. While this taste at once signifies an aesthetic appreciation for the utter corporality of matter regardless of use, something Heidegger simply deemed the “thingness” of things, by placing them within the domestic setting we theatricalize the mundane and thereby perpetuate the aesthetic outlook of Camp.

In this sense, Camp’s commitment to experiencing life-as-theater reflects J.R.R. Tolkien’s notion of “recovery” within his own works of fantasy. Just as Tolkien insisted upon the power of fantasy to recover within us the capacity for “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them,” so too does Camp’s elevation of the unnatural recover our awareness of the natural world surrounding us.[2] Tolkien’s fantastic tales free the elements of the primary world from our “possessiveness” in order to become theatrical again. Similarly, Camp’s preference for objects reclaimed from the past, Sontag suggests, reveal that “what was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic.”[3] Whereas the fictional imaginings of Tolkien’s opus return to us a love for the “clay, stone and wood” which compose its structure, Camp’s extravagant sympathy for the outdated reminds us of the magical “thingness” of objects regardless of their utility.

It is this “democratic esprit” of Camp that leads Dr. Gavin Hopps, lecturer of Literature and Theology at St. Andrews University, to ask: “Is there not in the discourse of camp something analogous to a Christian parable, translated into an aesthetic sphere which urges us to see value in failure and elicits sympathy for the lowly and banal?”[4] Drawing upon the discourse of Camp as a potential methodology for exploring the theological significance of contemporary pop music—a medium more often maligned than meditated upon—Dr. Hopps celebrates the sensibility’s charitable willingness to “be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”[5]

Yet Dr. Hopps goes beyond any open-armed endorsement of Camp as such to recommend a “Christianized ‘camp’” that transcends mere stylistics and theatrical play. In exhuming the items of our world and placing them upon the aestheticized stage, a Christianized Camp redeems the possibility of content within culture and locates the “‘iconic’ opening” within all matter.[6]

Upon the stage provided by the drama of Christian belief, the aesthetic of all things gives way to a greater allowance of their being as well as their source.

 

Denny Kinlaw is currently studying for his MLitt in the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. His interests include American Literature and the intersection of literary theory and theology in the work of David Foster Wallace.


[1] Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp’” in Against Interpretation. New York: Picador, 1966, 277.
[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories” in Tree and Leaf. New York: Harper Collins, 2009, 58.
[3] Sontag, 285.
[4] Hopps, Gavin. “Infinite Hospitality and the Redemption of Kitsch,” in Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown. Edited by Robert MacSwain and Taylor Worley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 167.
[5] Sontag, 288.
[6] Hopps, 167.

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1 Comment

  • Leah says:

    Speaking of campy theatrical kitsch you cant go much further than this:
    http://spiritlessons.com/passionofchristpictures.htm
    Remember that this unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter movie was touted as a superb missionary tool for communicating the supposed “good news” of the Gospels.

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