The problem with this year’s Met Gala theme
The first Monday of May is on the horizon. For most, it signifies the beginning of yet another work week. For the fashion-inclined things aren’t so dreary. Monday is Met Gala (short for Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala) day – an annual fundraising event where Anna Wintour-vetoed celebrities dress to impress and pay a rumoured $30,000 USD to do so. Each year follows a theme; last year’s was ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination'. Others include Punk: Chaos to Couture (2013) and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011).
This year’s theme is ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’. It’s a play on Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 treatise Notes on Camp, which catapulted the term into the mainstream by lifting the fog somewhat on the notoriously nebulous concept. Even today, it’s elusiveness stumps both the fashionably astute and academics alike. Sontag addresses this upfront.
Camp is a sensibility, and sensibilities (as distinct from ideas) are ‘one of the hardest things to talk about’. And it’s esoteric; a ‘badge of identity’ rather than a flashing neon sign. Those who exhibit ‘Camp’ don’t presume to analyse or draw attention to it, despite the obvious ‘Campiness’ of their presence. To talk about Camp is to betray it, she concludes.
It follows that to define Camp is to miss the point altogether, to do it the ultimate disservice. Which is why Sontag’s essay is anything but. Notes on Camp is a compilation of 58 nimble, tentative attempts (notes) to sketch camp’s many dimensions, reigning it in without etching the contours. Some points of note:
Camp is an aesthetic experience. It sees the world not in terms of beauty, but in degrees of artifice and stylisation.
Camp is an extraordinary attempt at glamour, theatricality and extravagance. Or to use modern parlance, to be Camp is to be ‘EXTRA’.
‘The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious.’ Its seriousness goes to the degree of the artist’s involvement. ‘One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.’
Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. It offers a supplementary set of standards instead. To this end, Camp asserts that there exists ‘a good taste of bad taste.’ ‘The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful.’
But this can only be achieved under certain conditions. ‘When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish.’ As Cady Lang put for Time ‘With Camp, it’s less of a delineation of what is good taste or bad taste, but a measure of the extent to which it commits to its goal.’
Camp lends itself strongly to fashion because fashion is, above all else, about self-expression, articulated through aesthetic means. This is particularly so for high-fashion, which revels in excess and which so often forgoes function for form (recall Rihanna’s ‘omelette dress’ last year). And in the context of the Met Gala, the fashion world’s most flamboyant and extravagant event of the year and teeming with performance and sartorial interpretations, one could argue that the costume institute’s annual spectacle is already a ‘Campy’ affair.
But is canonising Camp into a costume not the same as attempting to define it with words? Sontag’s admonition ‘to talk about Camp is to betray it’ has many of us wondering whether this year’s attendees are being lured into a trap of near certain failure.
What’s more, while arriving ‘in a dress made of a million feathers’ is glamorous for sure, it fails to articulate the myriad nuances that are the Camp sensibility. Take Camp’s roots which are firmly grounded in queer and black culture. Camp was traditionally used by marginalised groups to subvert the oppressive forces that be by reclaiming ideas of good and bad taste from the dominating class. Camp is a ‘protestors aesthetic’, as Junkee puts it. ‘The Gala’s red carpet, for the most part, invites guests to flirt with subversion, rather than dive deep.’ Is a group of wealthy, mostly heterosexual celebrities in label-clad gowns and matching sequenced headpieces best placed to embody the Camp sensibility?
Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator, says this year’s theme is less about defining Camp and more about opening up a dialogue. “We want to try to explain it, and then invite people to make up their minds.”
Even so, explicitly dressing to theme, which Sontag identifies as conscious Camp, is ‘usually less satisfying’ than Camp in its purest form. Pure or naive Camp is unintentional; a failed seriousness executed with earnest and sincerity and the ‘proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate.’ Think Rupual, David Bowie or Cher.
Conscious Camp is in on the joke; one plays on being ‘Campy’, which is why this year’s theme theme risks stamping out any accidental or naive Campiness. When the end goal is to exude the Camp sensibility, there’s little room left for failed seriousness (ironically, previous Met Galas have afforded us some of the best contemporary Camp moments yet. See Bjork’s famous 2001 Met Gala “swan dress” which features in this year’s exhibit).
Whatever your views, it’s time to sit back, relax, and judge the poor sods tasked with interpreting the un-interpretable, executing the impossible and embodying the myriad complexities that is the Camp sensibility. A failed seriousness indeed?