July 18, 2019

The Emptiness of the Met Gala

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual fundraising gala this year was themed “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” It occasioned much exhausting handwringing among the commentariat, who couldn’t help but note that Susan Sontag, beloved doyenne of the provocative and occasionally flimsy declaration, had once defined camp as a “woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” It’s a definition that equates camp with frivolous excess, except that’s not it exactly, since Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” essay contains 58 different definitions. Arguing about them is far more an aristocratic pastime than camp itself.

Take Sontag’s 38th principle of camp: “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” This principle asserts that camp can appear apolitical while actually being subversive. The camp character is not just a useless decoration, but a political actor who refuses literal-mindedness and its limited modes of expression.

The best place to see Sontag’s camp theory in action in our own era is in fiction. In Suzanne Collins’s fantasy novel The Hunger Games, for example, there is a very camp character named Effie Trinket, who initially appears evil and stupid (she is the government’s pawn), but ends up as a sort of fairy godmother to the book’s girl hero. She wears ridiculous wigs and her job is to shape Katniss’s image, not to care about a human rights agenda—until she does.”

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