Camp and SL
My very many apologies for dragging my feet on this – never meant it to take so long. But without further ado, here is Camp and SL, part three of the “Kitsch and SL” series.
If pinning down a definition of kitsch seems difficult, try camp – it’s made even tougher by so little being written about the subject that tries to lay out a definition. Kitsch fans have the Kulka book to refer to for what is probably as close of a definition as we will get and he does a great job at naming a few qualities which together add up to kitsch. But those wondering what camp is have to contend with Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on Camp, which lays out no less than fifty-eight criteria (“jottings,” the author calls them) for what she is discussing. Bringing in references from art, design, popular culture, literature, and architecture, it’s completely possible the reader may wind up with a slightly more confused picture of what camp is at the conclusion of the essay than when she first started.
But before we go any further, it might be helpful to consider what sort of relationship do kitsch and camp have, and what we can say about camp having (maybe) gotten a grasp on kitsch. I’m going out on a limb here, but from my reading of Sontag and others, I would suggest that an artist knowingly appropriating kitsch from the larger culture is inevitably participating in camp; and that camp has a sense of self-consciousness to it, which is to say that the artist knows exactly what he or she is doing by incorporating this kind of taste (Sontag quotes Wilde several times, my favorite being: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up” from An Ideal Husband).
The creator of true kitsch and the true audience of (true) kitsch (in this case I’m talking about something like Thomas Kincade) must be joined by the desire to have a universal experience – to “be moved, together with all mankind” as Kulka quotes. The creator of a work of camp is pitching to a much smaller audience. It is to an audience that understands that the drag queen might look like an ugly man stuffed into a woman’s dress, but understands also that there is beauty in that. The drag queen fools no one – no one looking at her believes for a moment that she is a woman. But a sympathetic audience’s eyes are trained to see simultaneously the ugly man as well as the glitter and the falsies, to see the drag queen’s humanity and individuality as well as her artifice.
But here are a few of those jottings that I’ll relate to the piece we’re discussing, which is Ichibot and Arahan’s Beyond Human, which was recently installed at BiW, as well as the experience of being in SL as a whole.
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.
>This can be said of all of Second Life. But what artists like I/A do by knowingly incorporating kitschy objects and references into their work is turn the mirror back on the world it’s in.
Take for example the entire snow-globe environment that is used as a framing device for this piece:
We all know that the snow that falls in SL is “fake” – it isn’t actual snow but rather pixels on a screen. But what we have here is an exaggeration of that – it’s not even realistic-looking (even by SL standards) snow that sticks to the ground; it refers to a toy that encases inside itself a fake environment that you can hold in your hand. Placing a snowglobe in SL is like placing a pink flamingo on your lawn – you’re not fooling anyone into thinking it’s somehow a real thing. So the piece begins by being entirely in quotation marks, from the moment you enter it.
23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, 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.
Quotes are scattered throughout the piece, which seem to refer to some sort of religious text. The use of these passages points to the piece having a beating heart – there is an actual message the artists are getting at, even if it’s obscure. The language of religious dogma which tends to be “exaggerated… fantastic… passionate… naïve” fits perfectly into an overall vocabulary of camp – and the artist’s appropriation of it is their bid for seriousness. You can’t help but be struck by the how genuine the quotes sound, even if you know deep down that they refer to something the artists find insidious.
26. Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much.”
How else to approach a subject like religion other than to do so in a way that is “too much”? A piece created to be against organized religion that has been placed in a Chelsea gallery speaks to an audience that probably already is anti-organized-religion – honestly, what would the point be? But here, but putting this work that is “too much” into SL, we are also reminded of how pretty much everything in SL is “too much.”
34. Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.
I suggest that placing in this snowglobe such a variety of objects – happy flowers, melting bodies, a rainbow, the back of a naked man – the artists have leveled the meaning attributed to the individual items and makes us reconsider them in light of one another.
35. Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds – in being what it is and, presumably, in fulfilling the intention that lies behind it. We assume a proper, that is to say, straightforward relation between intention and performance. By such standards, we appraise The Iliad, Aristophanes’ plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, Chartres, the poetry of Donne, The Divine Comedy, Beethoven’s quartets, and – among people – Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola. In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.
This work points to truth, beauty, and seriousness, while flaunting all those things – it’s aware of all those things, but in the end tells them to fuck off. By placing them in this environment so filled with artifice, the artists are taunting you to take them seriously… when they know you really can’t.
36. But there are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.
For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result. I am speaking, obviously, of a style of personal existence as well as of a style in art; but the examples had best come from art. Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter. This sensibility also insists on the principle that an oeuvre in the old sense (again, in art, but also in life) is not possible. Only “fragments” are possible. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human – in short, another valid sensibility — is being revealed.
And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.
Again, I refer to the snowglobe as the ultimate fake environment, and would like to add to that the rainbow that is projected off of the large, white (serious!) cross. The experience of walking through it is at the same time both lowered and raised to the experience of the theatrical. Walking around it, you are acutely aware that you are in the middle of a set – as if it were a set for a play or movie, and yet there is something so off about it, that it makes you veer between being moved by it and being totally removed.
43. The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness – irony, satire – seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.
44. Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.
What got me most about the critiques of this piece is that its sense of humor was ignored – I mean, my god, you have fetal bugs, naked men, rainbows, crosses, dollar signs falling from the sky, religious quotes, and possibly the fakest sun I have ever seen beaming down on you as you walk through it all. And what I most like about this work (and I think this brings us right back to camp) is how it refers to the futility of its being – it dares to ask the question, So what if two guys make a piece attacking organized religion in SL? and to hear the answer, which is Absolutely nothing at all.
Ok, that’s what I’ve got – ultimately, I feel as though I rushed this last part of the articles, but so it goes. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.