Camp enough? The Met Gala thinks not

The Guardian - G2 - - Pass Notes | Shortcuts - Huw Lem­mey

With ap­pro­pri­ate fan­fare and screams from the gallery, the theme of next year’s Met Gala is an­nounced. The red car­pet event is now a ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tion, and for the past 70 years guests of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum’s an­nual fundrais­ing gala have been thrilling the fash­ion world with in­creas­ingly as­ton­ish­ing out­fits, each one riff­ing on the theme of the sum­mer show at the Met’s Cos­tume In­sti­tute. Next year’s ex­hi­bi­tion will be a cel­e­bra­tion of Susan Son­tag’s sem­i­nal 1960s es­say, Notes on “Camp”.

What more per­fect theme for the ball, an event al­ready swim­ming in tongue-in-cheek pas­tiche, than “camp”? Son­tag de­scribed camp as “the con­sis­tently aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence of the world. It in­car­nates a vic­tory of ‘style’ over ‘con­tent’, ‘aes­thet­ics’ over ‘moral­ity’, of irony over tragedy.” More than just sim­ple flam­boy­ance, camp revels in play­ing up the se­ri­ous un­til it be­comes ridicu­lous, “de­thron­ing” it. Good taste be damned — some things are so bad they be­come good. Camp gives us a side­ways look at the world by tak­ing the friv­o­lous se­ri­ously, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that ev­ery­thing, in the end, is ar­ti­fice.

When Son­tag wrote Notes on “Camp” in 1964, the cul­tural land­scape looked very dif­fer­ent from to­day, of course. Se­ri­ous­ness was the order of the day; som­bre ar­ti­cles pro­filed wor­thy painters, who grap­pled with the deep ques­tions on what life, death, and art re­ally meant. The art world was about to get the shock of its life when Andy Warhol and a new gen­er­a­tion of artists ex­ploded on to the scene, with their fas­ci­na­tion with pop­u­lar cul­ture, con­sumer sen­si­bil­i­ties and light-hearted aes­thetic out­look. But their camp was not all silli­ness – be­hind the bright­ness lay an in­tel­li­gent at­tempt to wres­tle with a dif­fer­ent view of the world. Af­ter all, it seemed to be say­ing, wasn’t the cul­ture that came be­fore, with im­por­tant men dis­cov­er­ing im­por­tant truths for so­ci­ety by mak­ing mean­ing­ful drips on enor­mous can­vases, just as silly?

To­day’s cul­tural land­scape owes a lot to pop art’s ob­ses­sion with ar­ti­fice. From movies to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, noth­ing can be pro­duced to­day with­out be­ing in­stantly con­sumed, chopped up, re­pur­posed and iro­nised within hours on so­cial me­dia. Camp is the new cul­tural regime. In fact, if you were look­ing for a good ex­am­ple of mod­ern camp, you could do worse than look­ing at, well, ev­ery Met Gala in the past decade. This year’s theme of the Catholic Imag­i­na­tion saw be­jew­elled cru­ci­fixes and daz­zling mitres a-go-go, with Ri­hanna dress­ing as an arch­bishop, Madonna don­ning a black man­tilla and a golden crown, and Katy Perry ap­pear­ing as an an­gel, com­plete with golden chain­mail and 10ft-high Ver­sace wings. The ques­tion for next year’s com­peti­tors – sorry, guests – is that when both cul­ture and the reg­u­lar Met Gala is al­ready so deeply, won­der­fully campy, how does one go one bet­ter and camp up camp?

Madonna, Ri­hanna (right) and Katy Perry at this year’s Met Gala

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