“Sweetarts: The Politics of Exclusion, and Camping Out with Susan Sontag at the Met” (2019)
“I have a confession to make, here, lean in a little closer, I’ll whisper it:
I went to the Camp exhibition at the Met, fully expecting not to like it…”
Camp, historically a coded communication of queer identity has been recently dragged out of the closet and into the limelight with the exhibition “Camp, Notes on Fashion” (2019) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While a lot of the fashion that was on display was kitschy, and certainly fun and clever, some of it left the exhibition vulnerable to criticism that it was not actually Camp. Also, an exhibition like this while overtly very gay-positive brings up many issues about the packaging and presentation of queer culture. This essay involves a review of the exhibition itself as well as an examination of the criteria for inclusion or (sometimes deliberate) exclusion of key elements of Camp: the abject, consumerism, and queer liberation to name a few. As well as what self-appointed arbiter of Camp, Susan Sontag inadvertently communicated about her own conflicted relationship with what would eventually become queer culture in her 1964 Partisan Review essay “Notes on Camp,” which formed the theoretical bedrock of this exhibition. Research methodology employs “grounded theory” which seeks to broaden the parameters of “data” to include ethical concerns and the voices of non-dominant groups, who are traditionally excluded from economic evaluations, and normative mainstream concerns. Research methods involve an experiential review of the exhibition itself, as well as a deeper exploration of the themes on display, and an analysis of visual rhetoric and elements of queer political theory that were brought up by this type of display within this venue. As the definition of Camp is political, contextual and in a state of constant evolution, the examination of this in a museum setting provides a rich locus for analysis from queer, visual culture and social theory perspectives. In the spirit of the original Sontag article, a “Camp” list better situated in contemporaneity is also included.
Keywords: Queer theory, politics of representation, fashion exhibition, Susan Sontag, Camp
Full essay published in the Fashion Theory journal:
Sweetarts image. 2019. Photograph by authour.
“True Camp has all the subtlety of Jack the Ripper, it sneaks up on you, but watch out…Camp can be a razor-sharp real-time autopsy on a living subject, far more evisceration than contemplation.” (O’Connell 2019)