“Camp” and the Culture of Death

The best antidote to the insidious desecration of campiness is reverence.

Katy Perry arrives May 6, 2019, for the 2019 Met Gala (“Camp: Notes on Fashion”) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Katy Perry arrives May 6, 2019, for the 2019 Met Gala (“Camp: Notes on Fashion”) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (photo: Photo by Karwai Tang/Getty Images)

Last May, the Met Gala’s theme was “camp,” based on author Susan Sontag’s 1964 “Notes on Camp,” a short essay originally published in “The Partisan Review.” It is a brief read that 55 years ago foretold our current cultural moment. Campiness, far from being on the fringe, is now mainstream, even encroaching on high culture.

The Met Gala promoted the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit on camp titled “Camp: Notes on Fashion” which will run through this September. At the celebrity-studded Gala, actor Jared Leto, clad in a red Gucci dress, carried an eerie replica of his head. Singer Katy Perry dressed up as a chandelier and a hamburger. Broadway performer Billy Porter, clad as a golden Egyptian sun god, was borne on a palanquin to the red carpet by six muscular men. There used to be a distinction between “high culture” and camp; the Met festivities and exhibition illustrates that the distinction now ceases to exist. But not only has high culture gone into retreat, so has popular culture.

A case in point are the movies Doris Day made with Rock Hudson. When she died at 97 May 13, people recalled those “campy” comedies. In “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back,” Day played single professional women who saved sex for marriage, playfully resisting the advances of the womanizing Hudson. Though such romantic comedies seemed to champion chastity, they were sufficiently risqué that America magazine in 1959 wondered how the Legion of Decency would rate “Pillow Talk.” Its wholesomeness was “edgy.” The movie’s tagline was the titillating “It’s what goes on when the lights go off!”

On the verge of the Sexual Revolution, Day and Hudson’s “sexless” romantic comedies were prurient beneath their seemingly chaste veneer, using the equivocality that camp exploits. With a wink and a nod, chastity was redefined in such an amusing way that few noticed that purity was being ridiculed. Hudson’s “ladies’ man” was viewed as normative, while Day’s character was the oddity.

Campiness is the elimination of traditional definitions to make way for new ones, if any at all. The constant shift in definitions makes communication difficult, if not impossible. As Sontag puts it, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp;’ not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

In other words, camp is about the rejection of objective reality, of the natural and traditional. Its replacement is acknowledged as bogus, but it is a better, more enjoyable make-believe world. This alternate reality allows the actors to set the parameters of the new “reality,” and so, the “dialogue.”

As Carl Schottmiller, a professor of Disability, “LGBT,” and Women’s Studies at UCLA put it this May on the “Aesthetics for Birds” blog, “Historically, LGBT people use camp’s irony, theatricality, parody, humor and aestheticism to help relieve the social stigmas associated with our identities. We embrace theatricality because we’ve had to pass as heterosexual in order to survive… We use irony and parody to subvert the normative gender and sex roles that define us as deviant. And we adopt an ironic and sarcastic bitter wit in order to neutralize the sting of homophobia and transphobia.” Thus, the acceptance of Camp destroys the categories: “normal,” “healthy,” “average,” “natural” for thinking, problem-solving or analysis.

In fact, Sontag defined the “essence of Camp” as “love of the unnatural.” St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of supernatural grace elevating the natural: the sacrament of matrimony raises up natural marriage. Camp, on the other hand, exalts the unnatural.

An example: votive candles with the Spice Girls and Democrat candidate Beto O’Rourke. These candles mock sacramentals and religion. But they also mock the elevation of celebrities and politicians to quasi-sainthood. By simultaneously ridiculing religion and celebrity culture, there is plausible deniability and the ambiguity that camp delights in.

There are also votive candles dedicated to fictional characters from Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars and the video game Fortnite. This is unnatural because it is irrational. The prophet Isaiah mocked the idolatry of false gods (Isaiah 44:9-20); in this case, the objects of “devotion” are intentionally unreal and intentionally not made for true piety- which is justice. Objective reality and natural law are treated as rules meant to be broken, from same-sex “marriage” to so-called “reproductive justice” and “death with dignity.”

St. Paul warns in his Epistle to the Romans, “they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (Romans 1:21). A love of the unnatural degrades into a hatred of the natural, and violence against it. It treats life as the ultimate antagonist. Human life is treated as a burden, especially when suffering is involved. Suffering isn’t “fun,” so it must be ended, even ruthlessly. As Sontag puts it, “Camp rests on innocence. That means Camp discloses innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it.”

The corruption of innocence is a common theme in camp. Watching the Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies, one can see how they play with the concept. In “Lover Come Back” and “Pillow Talk,” womanizing is stylish: the bachelor pad, the parties, the fashion. Hudson’s promiscuity has no consequences. On the surface, both movies seemed to uphold traditional morality; Day’s character “converts” Hudson’s. But adultery, divorce, remarriage, fornication, and going to strip clubs are never condemned, while the rationality and virtue of traditional values go unexplained. What were considered bourgeois, outmoded values upheld while simultaneously laughing at them. These are ironically “chaste” sex comedies.

Sontag explains what is going on here in her description of the importance of irony to camp saying, “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates victory of ‘style’ over ‘content’, ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’, of irony over tragedy.” She added, “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious… One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious… Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”

The “playfulness” of Camp, however, has serious consequences when it comes to religion because camp redefines everything into frivolity. It is unsurprising that Sontag views Munich’s rococo churches as camp. She comments on Antoni Gaudi, “Gaudi’s lurid and beautiful buildings in Barcelona are Camp not only because of their style but because of what they reveal — most notably in the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia — the ambition on the part of one man to do what it takes a generation, a whole culture to accomplish.” She belittles the art by mocking the architects. Genuine devotion and dedication disappear. Sontag sees them as merely Camp, as “church” and “religion.”

Sontag is right, though, in a way that is real, not just theater. Camp has infected religious devotion. According to camp, everything is a matter of taste, including religion. And now we do see liturgy as a plaything, theatricality. One attends the Mass that suits one’s tastes. Music, the priest’s role, servers and lectors, are subordinated to taste, and serving up the concoction to please the audience in the pews.

Finally, Camp is about blasphemy and destruction. In the Second Book of Maccabees, a mother and her seven sons are gruesomely killed for refusing to eat pork (2 Maccabees 7:1-42). For many people, eating pork is trivial, a matter of personal taste and opinion, not something worth dying over. The concept of martyrdom for bacon looks laughable. But for the mother and seven sons, pork is unclean and a violation of God’s laws, and God’s law supersedes human tastes. The motivation of these martyrs is invisible to Camp; the devotion, dedication and love are removed from the picture.

This is when God becomes “God,” the Almighty reduced to an artificial construct, subject to human whims. The Trinity becomes, as Mother Angelica pithily put it, “two men and a bird.” The transcendent is trapped within the limitations of time and space. God is trivialized, religion made frivolous.

The best antidote to the insidious desecration of Camp is reverence, following the Great Commandment to love God above all and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Devotion and gratitude can ward off the culture’s irreverence; through the sacred, one can find the truly serious and truly joyful.

Camp promises fleeting, counterfeit joys, because, as Sontag put it, “camp and tragedy are antitheses.” This is a chilling and heartless mentality in the face of the sorrows and pains of life. But the actual and awesome tragedy of the Cross shows the way to Easter triumph and true joy. As Jesus said after healing the blind man (John 10:10), “The thief comes to steal and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”