September 1964: "Notes on 'Camp'"

New York critic and intellectual Susan Sontag (1933-2004) made her name as essayist with the collection "Against Interpretation," a series of writings on contemporary culture and art (twentieth century, and postwar mainly), with which she provided an alternative for the then prevailing modes of interpretation New Criticism, and Modernism. Calling attention to challenges to the canon of high art, Sontag wrote passionately about popular culture (movies, theatre, literature, fashion, arguing for it to be taken seriously as high art. Her political activism penetrated her writings, giving them a pressing topicality, and demonstrating how popular culture embodies its times' ethos. "Notes on 'Camp' " is an attempt to tackle a very visible but nevertheless ignored fascination for forms of art that by all standards would be considered failures (sometimes close to achievement but never quite), but are nevertheless championed by patrons. Sontag claims that camp is an aesthetic sensibility that is characterized by a high degree of, and attention for stylization, artifice, travesty, double entendre, extravagance and unintentional badness. According to Sontag, we find this sensibility especially towards types of art that are closely associated with popular culture, like movies, fashion, design, or television. Sontag claims that in the twentieth century (since Oscar Wilde, she says) the appraisal of camp has taken the form of a cult, of a dedication that aims to challenge the distinctions between good and bad taste. Camp is "good because it's awful." Because, as Sontag writes, "camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation -- not judgment" it can put itself in an outsider position. As such it can be the flea in the fur of proper taste -- a form of buffery, dandyism, or snobbery free from responsibility. Camp is not limited to political and cultural boundaries -- in fact it challenges these by pretending to be about pure aesthetics only. What distinguishes camp from true art is that it fails in its achievement on enlightenment (an argument similar to that of Benjamin). But instead it manages to hold up a mirror to the pretensions and prejudices of the art establishment. And in that sense it is very political.
     -- From "The Cult Film Reader" (2008)

Note: Sontag's essay appeared in the Fall 1964 edition of Partisan Review. While the exact date of publication is uncertain, the edition contains an advertisement of upcoming classical music concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall. The earliest date listed on the ad is September 28, so I'm assuming Partisan Review was published earlier that month.

* Partisan Review, Fall 1964 (Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University): @
* "Against Interpetation: And Other Essays" (Sontag, 1966): @
* Entry on camp (The Chicago School of Media Theory): @
* Susan Sontag Foundation: @
* "Susan Sontag: A Biography" (David Schreiber, 2014): @
* Review of biography (Brain Pickings): @

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