The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s exhibit, “Camp: Notes on Fashion” (through Sept. 9) was inspired by Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” which she defined broadly as style over substance characterized by theatricality, irony, playfulness, masquerade and unselfconsciousness. It’s a definition and a show that cuts a wide swath, but in the end it turns out to be less about camp and more about identity — its mutability and its ownership.
The exhibit’s first problem is that it tends to read history backward. So because gay men like hunky guys and the ancient Greco-Romans — here filtered through the Baroque — liked to portray hunky guys, such as the 1630 bronze “Belvedere Antinous” attributed to Pietro Tacca, the ancients and the neoclassicists who followed must’ve been camp. Similarly, because the word is derived from the French se camper, meaning “to posture,” and Louis XIV liked to play the sun god Apollo in ballets while his brother, Philippe, was what we would define as a bisexual cross-dresser, well, they were camp, too.
But I’m pretty sure that to Louis, who used extravagant clothing and entertainments at Versailles as a way to control the aristocracy, and his brother — known as Monsieur, from whom most of Roman Catholic European royalty is descended — “camp” meant a place to quarter soldiers, as it would’ve to the ancient Greeks.
And I doubt that ballet dancers, choreographers, opera composers and singers would describe what they do as camp, just because their work has a heightened theatricality. If camp is, as the show says, “failed seriousness,” then opera and ballet definitely aren’t camp. If anything, most operas and ballets are successfully serious. They’re high art. So “Swan Lake” and the gender-bending Matthew Bourne version aren’t camp, whereas Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which sends up ballet using men in tutus, is delightfully so and Björk’s swan Oscar dress, part of the show, is, well, dumpy.
What is failed seriousness anyway? Sontag’s essay and the show imply that the best camp doesn’t realize it’s camp. But real camp has a wink-wink knowingness. It’s in on the joke and it let’s you in, too, so that you’re laughing with the camp-er, not at him. Bob Mackie’s curtain rod dress for Carol Burnett as Scarlett O’Hara in her takeoff on “Gone With the Wind” for “The Carol Burnett Show” was genius camp. But his gowns for her and even Cher — like the show’s 2008 nude mesh clinger with shimmering leaves — aren’t camp. They’re just sensational gowns.
Conversely, when Ed Wood made all those outer space “B” movies in which you can glimpse modern cars in parking lots, he wasn’t trying to be camp. He was trying to make pictures. But Tim Burton’s brilliant 1994 movie “Ed Wood” — with stellar performances by Johnny Depp as the angora sweater-loving director and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi — has flashes of camp. It understands that it’s being satiric.
By suggesting that almost anything can be camp, the show risks the notion that nothing is. But it also raises the issue of identity — not just the fluidity of gender identity — but the ownership of any identity. What right do we have to apply our definitions of homosexuality and camp — terms that didn’t come into vogue until the late 19th and early 20th centuries respectively, the exhibit tells us — to periods before then? Who defines an identity — the person on the inside looking out, that is, the person who created it, or the person on the outside looking in?
It’s not clear if the show intended to raise any of this questions. Indeed, it seems to have no intent other than to string together a bunch of couture clothes — many of which are over the top but some of which are elegantly wearable. (The same went for the May 6 red-carpet kickoff gala — campy in any year but especially so this year, with Lady Gaga doing a striptease on the staircase of The Met’s Beaux Arts building and Katy Perry dressed as a chandelier. The outfits that succeeded were real clothes, like the floral, strapless lime green Oscar de la Renta ball gown with a red crinoline petticoat peeking out that Huma Abedin wore or the cherry blossom-crusted columnar dress with pink-feathered jacket (the camp element) that co-chair and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour wore. And speaking of dear Anna, who always looks spot-on, and her strictly controlled guests, who often look ridiculous, you have to wonder if the Sun Queen herself is not taking a page from Louis XIV and using clothes not just as armor but a kind of weapon. “L’état, c’est moi” indeed.
In any event, “Camp” is a few tents short of a well-thought out idea.