Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Susan Sontag: Camp Art and Postmodernism

by Katherine Hayes

American intellectual and author Susan Sontag was born in New York City in 1933. Sontag began writing at a time in American history when high and low class was converging. The political and intellectual climate of the 1960’s and 1970’s allowed her to cultivate her ideas and demonstrated her talent for addressing the social changes of the time. This time period reflected a change in American culture and thought. The radicalization of the college students and protest of the Vietnam War allowed for a more liberal media. Even during these more liberal times Sontag came under criticism for a visit to North Vietnam. Her sympathetic portrayal of the North Vietnamese people earned her criticism from groups that supported the war. Similarly, Sontag earned criticism after publishing her views on the September 11th attacks. During her career as an intellectual and writer Sontag became a kind of celebrity. The cultural climate of New York City at this time introduced Sontag to the leading intellectuals of the world at this time. Sontag was educated at the University of Chicago and Harvard. It was at the University of Chicago that she met her husband, Philip Rieff. Sontag and Rieff divorced in 1958 after the birth of their son David. It may have been because of her marriage and child that Sontag’s career did not begin until she was thirty. Her career began with a work of fiction entitled The Benefactor. Although Sontag is mainly thought of as an essayist, she thought of herself primarily as a writer of fiction. One of Sontag’s most famous works is her collection of essays entitled Against Interpretation, published in 1966. This collection was enormously popular around the world. Sontag offered a new way of viewing art that strayed from the traditional interpretation. She believed that people needed to focus on the individual art and its contents rather then the usual interpretations of high art. This allowed for the appreciation of “lower class” forms of art. Sontag focused on what the art was rather than focusing on what the art meant. Sontag’s criticism of the way people viewed art is perhaps her most defining and popular idea. Although Susan Sontag died in December 2004, her ideas survive in today’s culture. 1

In 1964 Sontag published Notes on Camp in the Partesian Review. This essay has become one of her best-known pieces of work. It is contained in her collection of essays, Against Interpretation. Sontag centers her argument around fifty-eight bullet points. Each bullet point can be seen as mini-theses about camp. In the essay Sontag gives new meaning to the term camp. As a result of her essay, Sontag helped to make the appreciation of camp socially acceptable.

Sontag defines camp by stating, “Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice.”2 Sontag’s definition of camp and the essay itself brought the appreciation of camp into mainstream thought. Liam Kennedy states, “In the culturally saturated, affluent society camp offers a survival of style. Camp is not mass culture, rather it is an aesthetic lens through which to view mass culture, and a highly discriminating lens at that.”3 Before this essay appreciation of camp art was almost nonexistent. A person who enjoyed camp art would be ridiculed by their peers for their poor taste in art. However, with this essay camp the appreciation of art as a legitimate art form. Sontag bases much of her argument on personal taste. Notes on Camp also had a profound effect on the careers of many artists and filmmakers, most notably Andy Warhol.

His campy style of art became socially acceptable and gained mass appeal after the publication of this essay. Today, Warhol’s art continues to be one of the defining examples of camp. In addition to addressing the tastes of all people, Sontag also addressed the campy tastes of gay men. She states “ 51. The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it’s not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap…So, not all homosexuals have Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard and the most articulate audience of Camp.”4 This essay was written during a time of sexual revolution in the 1960’s. Sontag sees the gay men of this time, especially in New York City, being one of the most important groups in the camp art world. While the appreciation of camp art is not shared by all people of this group, Sontag helped to make camp art an important part of culture.5

In her essay Sontag gives the reader some examples of what she thinks is camp.

4. Random examples of items which are part of the canon of camp:

Zuleika Dobson

Tiffany lamps

Scopitone films

The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA

The Enquirer, headlines and stories

Aubrey Beardsley drawings

Swan Lake

Bellini's operas

Visconti's direction of Salome and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards

Schoedsack's King Kong

the Cuban pop singer La Lupe

Lynn Ward's novel in woodcuts, God's Man

the old Flash Gordon comics

women's clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.)

the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett

stag movies seen without lust6

The idea of postmodernism developed during the 1970’s. The turmoil of the 1960’s had led to a redevelopment of modern culture. Postmodernism was developed as a reaction to modernism. Elements of postmodernism are most often seen in art, architecture, and literature. Camp is an important part of postmodern culture. Angela McRobbie states “…since the mid-1960’s camp has also provided a momentum for the creation of postmodern culture, where the boundaries of high and low art are irrevocably blurred and where camp detaches itself from the subcultural world of the gay scene and enters into mainstream, roaming free in the field of popular entertainment, while retaining an affectionate attachment to gay culture.”7 Sontag’s essay on camp is an important piece of postmodern culture. One of the main points of this essay is that it is not important why a person views something as art. The persons individual choice in taste is important to postmodernists. However, postmodernists do not need to see art as a part of the larger picture. They are able to look at art for what it is itself and not for the message it is trying to send society. Postmodernists do not look at the big picture as a whole; rather they look at many small things that comprise the larger picture. Susan Sontag is an important part of postmodernism. Although the term developed after her essay Notes on Camp it was an ideal way of describing Sontag’s views.8

This video is an interesting interview between Sontag and Philip Johnson. They are touring the Seagram building in New York City. Philip Johnston helped to design this building. The Seagram building is a classic example of modern architecture. It was completed in 1958 and was one of the most expensive building projects of the time. The Seagram building is one of many buildings that featured modern architecture in New York City at this time. It is interesting to see Sontag interview Johnson because her work has become one of the greatest examples of postmodernism. Modern architecture stands in contrast to the camp styles of art that Sontag writes about. Modern architecture features a very minimalist uniform design, while camp art is often the exact opposite. Sontag states that “25. The hallmark of Camp is the Spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers…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.”9 While the Seagram building contains extravagant materials in its interior, it does not possess any of the fun qualities of camp. The Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia however stands in stark contrast to the Seagram building. The Cathedral is one of the best examples of Camp architecture.

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This clip features an interview with Susan Sontag and Filmmaker Agnes Varda. This is a good example of a 1970’s era TV show. In this clip Sontag speaks about film and the reality of film. She argues that in film people are perceived the way the director wants them to be seen rather then they way they actually would act in society. This is an important idea for Sontag and it ties into her ideas about camp. For Sontag the realness of a character is important. This is an important idea in camp art. Camp art is traditionally very real. Also, camp art is imperfect by nature and focuses on they way everyone sees something, rather then just one persons idea of how something should be seen.

Susan Sontag became a major cultural icon during the 1960’s and remains an icon today. She was able to transform culture in a way that no other author did with her essay Notes on Camp. This essay proved to be one of the defining examples of her career. With this essay Sontag was able to unite high and low culture. It is clear from the essay that Sontag believes that a person can appreciate both high and low forms of art. This essay made it socially acceptable to enjoy camp works of art. With this essay Susan Sontag helped to bring about a new definition of art and helped to bring postmodern ideas to mainstream society.

Works Cited

Kennedy, Liam. Susan Sontag Mind As Passion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

McRobbie, Angela. Postmodernism and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Rollyson, Carl E. Susan Sontag the making of an icon. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation And Other Essays. New York: Picador, 2001.

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