11 December 2019
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” The Partisan Review, Fall 1964, pp. 515-530.
In this essay, Susan Sontag defines the aesthetic sensibility known as “camp.” She initially describes it as a “private code” whose essence is the “love of the unnatural: or artifice and exaggeration.” Later, the “good taste of bad taste.” The essay begins with a preamble explaining the difficulty of defining any sensibility in written words. (They resist literal description and do not want to be pinned down. A pinned-down sensibility, she asserts, becomes an idea and is no longer a sensibility.) The bulk of the essay is a list of fifty-eight postulates expressing different attributes or qualities of “camp.” For example,
10. Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.
She includes examples of “camp” items within some of these statements: Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley drawings, Swan Lake, for example. However, it is my understanding from this essay that an object cannot be “camp” in and of itself since camp is an attitude and sensibility. It must function within a context, within a culture.
Readers can assume that this list of postulates, dedicated to Oscar Wilde, works as a cumulative definition of “camp.”
How does this relate to scenography?
This essay is important for initiating a conversation about style. It speaks directly about aesthetic objects and their presentation. It is not a stretch to say that is about design and theater itself. It also introduces useful language and concepts for the discussion of contemporary aesthetic sensibilities beyond that of irony and parody. This essay would would be extremely useful for designers who might find themselves employing such modes of expression in their own work – either through their own initiation or through that of collaborators.
Sontag directly mentions theater in several of her “camp” examples: Swan Lake, Visconti’s theater direction, Bellini’s operas, Jean Genet.
Also, at a wider glance, Sontag displays a remarkable breadth of cultural and aesthetic knowledge in this essay. Her references are both high and low, and she mixes them all together into one coherent written statement. Theater designer are called upon to possess vast resources of cultural knowledge, and to process it confidently. I believe they may find inspiration in Sontag’s abilities.