Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Does This Make Me Look Campy? Notes on the Met Gala

Pop singer Ariana Grande's 2018 Met Gala gown is
literally covered in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel
paintings. She looks like a renaissance dream.
Last year I discovered the Met Gala.

I came into work one day and my news feed was overrun with celebrities dressed as religious icons, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, and elaborate stained glass. I had to work, but when I got the chance I spent an embarrassingly long time scrolling through the red carpet best-dressed lists. I didn't want to miss a thing.

I'd heard of the Met Gala before, but I didn't know that it's basically a costume party. Each May the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute throws an extravagant party for the opening of its fashion exhibition. Attendees are expected to dress according to the theme of the exhibition.

The exhibition runs through the summer, but the opening night is one of the most exclusive events and one of the biggest fundraisers in the world. In its 70-year run, the Met Gala has become high fashion's premier red carpet event, attended by everybody who's anybody in the arts, music, fashion, film and society.

Last year's theme was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

Actress and singer Zendaya wasn't the only one
inspired by Joan of Arc, but her ensemble is by
far the most successful of the night. A year later
I'm still infatuated with this look.
A-list celebrities attended the gala dressed in couture clergy robes, wore billowing draped dresses reminiscent of renaissance altarpieces, or accessorized with halos and angel wings. It was spectacular. I hadn't seen anything like it. I'll admit, I only knew who half the celebrities were, but that didn't matter.
I was entranced by these couture clothes inspired by religion and art.

"One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art."
- Phrases & Philosophies for the Use of the Young by Oscar Wilde

Of all the possible Met Gala themes, 2018 was the perfect one to get my attention.

As the 2019 Met Gala approaches, I've wondered how they could possibly top Heavenly Bodies. It seems a lot of others are wondering, as well. I used one of my 10 free New York Times articles to read up on the 2019 theme, Camp: Notes on Fashion.

Camp, you say? Surely not the camp I'm thinking of... Tents, cabins, fishing, campfires... Surely they don't mean for Beyoncé to show up in a fishing hat, or Scarlett Johansson to wear a billowing polyester dress accessorized with collapsible tent-poles. Right?

Right. Not summer camp. Aesthetic camp.

Camp, in terms of style, refers to something which is over-the-top, flamboyant, exaggeration and artifice, "so bad it's good." What the kids might refer to as extra.

In short, this is going to be wildly different from last year's ethereal Heavenly Bodies theme.

Ensemble, Jeremy Scott (American, born 1975) for House of
Moschino (Italian, founded 1983), spring/summer 2018;
courtesy of Moschino. This is one of the 250 pieces in the
Costume Institute exhibition at the Met this summer. Image
courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019.
Camp: Notes on Fashion specifically refers to writer, filmmaker, and activist Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, Notes on Camp. Curious, I read the essay, or rather, series of 58 notes describing what camp is and what it is not.

It's hard to pin down; there's no formula for camp. You might say camp is to the arts as quotation marks are to an ironic statement. Camp is the air-quotes of the arts world.

We often describe bad '90s movies as "campy," but there's more to camp than just cheesiness or poor production. Alessandro Michele, creative director at Gucci, explained, “Camp really means the unique ability of combining high art and pop culture."

"The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," Sontag writes.

"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. ('It's too much,' 'It's too fantastic,' 'It's not to be believed,' are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)," Sontag writes.

As for those bad movies... there is an element of failure in camp. True camp often happens when something (or someone) is too ambitious in its flamboyance and is therefore not taken seriously.

Movies and TV shows like Godzilla, the Batman tv show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), Hairspray, Beat the Devil, and Gilligan's Island are all camp. The (im)famous leg lamp of A Christmas Story is camp. Many operas and classical ballets have developed camp leanings over time. Art Nouveau often blends with camp, as does Pop Art, like Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans.

Well-executed camp can be found in RuPaul's drag
personaes. There's absolutely nothing natural or understated
about it, and that's part of what makes it excellent.
The best camp art is genuine, takes itself seriously, believes it is all that (as much as art itself can believe something), but is rejected by society because society isn't ready for it. "Of course," Sontag reminds the reader in point 23, "not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve."

Sontag is also careful to remind the reader that camp is not always poor in form, technique, or production. The art may be extremely well-executed, wonderful art, but be so exaggerated, ostentatious, or theatrical that it is also camp.

Vogue describes camp as "a kind of winking bad taste." 

Diana Vreeland, former Vogue Editor-in-Chief and special consultant at the MET Costume Institute, passed away in 1989, but she would have loved this 2019 camp theme. "A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste - it's hearty, it's healthy, it's physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I'm against."

Balloon Dog (Yellow) by Jeff Koons
Sontag would probably agree. She writes that camp doesn't ascribe to the good/bad binary.  "What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards." Camp may require a dash of bad taste, but it does so while bringing a third dimension to the question of taste.

At this point, I better bring in some visual art before someone asks if I'm converting my site into a fashion blog. No, See Cailey Color is and always will be about fine art! The camp theme gives me a reason to look with fresh eyes at some art I don't normally appreciate, like the work of Jeff Koons.

Some of Koons's best known art is his Balloon Dog series, five highly reflective stainless-steel sculptures of balloon dogs, measuring 10 feet tall and 11 feet long, each a different color.

Koons is known for following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol, taking ordinary objects and transforming them into art. When taken seriously, Warhool, Koons, and other camp artists force us to reexamine what we consider art and what we consider ordinary. They force us to consider ourselves and how we relate to art, to each other, and to the "ordinary" world around us.

Koons's work has been called camp and kitsch interchangeably. In some circles, kitsch is an insult, to be treated as other than (and lesser than) camp; considered to be the decorative non-art that fell short of even camp status. To others, it's just a subcategory of camp; "camp" referring to the overall aesthetic, kitsch referring to camp art and music. This difference of opinion can lead to a lot of confusion on a subject that's already a fuzzy and hard to define.

Campy Washington by Scott Donaldson. Cincinnati, Ohio. 
For those who hold the first mindset, the difference between camp and kitsch can be hard to pinpoint. Kitsch is considered camp's ugly, stupid little brother. To those of the latter mindset, distinction between the two is a wasted conversation. Every square is a rhombus, but not every rhombus is a square. All kitsch is camp, but not all camp is kitsch.

Koons and his predecessor Warhol are often criticized as kitschy by those in the first group, but those in the second consider it just another label.

For Koons and artists like him, it doesn't matter whether their work is called camp or kitsch or just plain shit. They make art to challenge the status quo of what art is and what it should be; how society is and how society should be.

I happen to love this mural in Cincinnati, designed by Scott Donaldson of Artworks. Campy Washington combines camp, bad puns, and distinctly-Cincinnatian motifs.

The mural is located in the neighborhood of Camp Washington... hence the pun. It includes important Cincinnati imagery like flying pigs, a nod to our annual marathon, the Flying Pig, and more importantly to the city's history in pork production. It contains imagery referring to nearby businesses, tying it to the Camp Washington community. It is George Washington decked out in whimsical Cincinnati camp glory.

Finally, referring back to the origin of camp, Campy Washington is an image of George Washington in colonial drag.

If her history of red-carpet camp is any indicator,
Lady Gaga must be pretty excited for this theme!
In the early days of the term, camp referred to the flamboyance of gay/LGBTQ culture. Oscar Wilde, who was outed as gay, imprisoned, and sentenced to two years of hard labor for his homosexuality at a time when that was socially taboo, has been acclaimed as an early leader of Camp.

Today the term has obviously taken on a wider meaning, though the flamboyant side of LGBTQ culture is still a strong part of it. RuPaul's Drag Race is an example of camp's passionate, exaggerated artifice extending from the LGBTQ community.

RuPaul, Bette Midler,  Elton John, Madonna, John Waters, Liza Minelli, Elvis Presley, Cher, Prince, and Lady Gaga have pushed camp along in recent decades, embracing over-the-top styles in their clothing, personalities, and arts.

In fact, Lady Gaga is co-chair of the 2019 Met Gala, alongside singer Harry Styles, tennis star Serena Williams, and Alessandro Michelle. They'll join long-time Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, who's basically the queen of the Met Gala (and everything else high fashion, let's be real).

It probably goes without saying, but I'm eager to see how the A-listers and their designers interpret this theme. Will the Gala attendees achieve camp, or be merely campy, or worse? We'll find out soon...



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