Notes on "Camp"  

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"Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility - unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it - that goes by the cult name of "Camp.""--"Notes on "Camp"" (1964) by Susan Sontag


"To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion."--"Notes on "Camp"" (1964) by Susan Sontag


"A pocket history of Camp might, of course, begin farther back - with the mannerist artists like Pontormo, Rosso, and Caravaggio, or the extraordinarily theatrical painting of Georges de La Tour, or Euphuism (Lyly, etc.) in literature. Still, the soundest starting point seems to be the late 17th and early 18th century, because of that period's extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry; its taste for the picturesque and the thrilling, its elegant conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character - the epigram and the rhymed couplet (in words), the flourish (in gesture and in music). The late 17th and early 18th century is the great period of Camp: Pope, Congreve, Walpole, etc, but not Swift; les précieux in France; the rococo churches of Munich; Pergolesi. Somewhat later: much of Mozart. But in the 19th century, what had been distributed throughout all of high culture now becomes a special taste; it takes on overtones of the acute, the esoteric, the perverse. Confining the story to England alone, we see Camp continuing wanly through 19th century aestheticism (Burne-Jones, Pater, Ruskin, Tennyson), emerging full-blown with the Art Nouveau movement in the visual and decorative arts, and finding its conscious ideologists in such "wits" as Wilde and Firbank."--"Notes on "Camp"" (1964) by Susan Sontag

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"Notes On "Camp"" is a well-known essay by Susan Sontag organized around fifty-eight numbered theses. It was published in 1964 and was the author's first contribution to the Partisan Review. The essay created a literary sensation and brought Sontag her first brush with intellectual notoriety. It was published in 1966 in book form in Sontag's debut collection of essays, Against Interpretation.

The essay codified and mainstreamed the cultural connotations of the word camp, and identified camp's evolution as a distinct aesthetic phenomenon. While camp, then as now, is often associated with gay culture, only three of Sontag's fifty-eight theses specifically mentioned homosexuality.

Christopher Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood is mentioned in Sontag's essay: "Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood's novel The World in the Evening (1954), [camp] has hardly broken into print." In Isherwood's novel two characters are discussing the meaning of camp, both High and Low. Stephen Monk, the protagonist, says:

"You thought it meant a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich? Yes, in queer circles they call that camping. … You can call [it] Low Camp…High Camp is the whole emotional basis for ballet, for example, and of course of baroque art … High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it, you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. Baroque art is basically camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love …"

Then examples are given: Mozart, El Greco and Dostoevsky are camp; Beethoven, Flaubert and Rembrandt are not.





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