On “kitsch”, “camp” and Susan Sontag

Paneled family room my mom did that painting in the 50s

This is a RetroRenovation rerun originally published Nov. 9, 2008.

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.

– Susan Sontag, Notes on “Camp”, 1964

Dan the Man at the Houston Architecture Info Forum recently linked to RetroRenovation.com with the following comment:

Here’s a neat blog on mid-century residential design. It tends towards the kitsch, but it recommends many resources and materials for appropriate renovations…

While I am truly grateful for the reco, I found myself reacting harshly at being called “kitsch” and the disparaging connotation. Hmmm. So what is kitsch…and should I care at being lumped in? I went over to Wikipedia to study etymology…

Of course, there was lots of discussion about avante-garde art and capitalist oppression of the masses… as expected. What really caught my attention, though, was this PostModern update, which to my mind,  confirms that this blog is not kitsch – it’s camp. Of this – I am proud!  Here’s more explanation for your Sunday Magazine reading. Warning: please caffeinate first, this is very “deep”:

With the emergence of Postmodernism in the 1980s, the borders between kitsch and high art became blurred again. One development was the approval of what is called “camp taste” – which can be related to but is not the same as Camp as a “gay sensibility.”[2] Camp, in some circles, refers to an ironic appreciation of that which might otherwise be considered corny, such as singer/dancer Carmen Miranda with her tutti-frutti hats, or otherwise kitsch, such as popular culture events which are particularly dated or inappropriately serious, such as the low-budget science fiction movies of the 1950s and 60s. A hypothetical example from the world of painting would be a kitsch image of a deer by the lake. In order to make this Camp, one could paint a sign beside it, saying “No Swimming”. The majestical or romantic impression of a stately animal would be punctured through humour; the notion of an animal receiving a punishment for the breach of the rule is patently ludicrous. The original, serious sentimentality of the motif is neutralized, and thus it becomes Camp. Kitsch is never ironic. “Camp” is derived from the French slang term camper, which means “to pose in an exaggerated fashion.” Susan Sontag argued in her 1964 Notes on “Camp” that camp was an attraction to the human qualities which expressed themselves in “failed attempts at seriousness,” the qualities of having a particular and unique style and of reflecting the sensibilities of the era. It involved an aesthetic of artifice rather than of nature. Indeed, hard-line supporters of camp culture have long insisted that “camp is a lie that dares to tell the truth.”

More… on Susan Sontag and her role in all of this:

Notes On “Camp”” is a well-known essay by Susan Sontag organized around 58 numbered theses. It was published in 1964 and was the author’s first contribution to the Partisan Review. The essay created a literary sensation and brought Sontag her first brush with intellectual notoriety. It was published in 1966 in book form in Sontag’s debut collection of essays, Against Interpretation (ISBN 0-87052-352-X).

The essay codified and mainstreamed the cultural connotations of the word camp, and identified camp’s evolution as a distinct aesthetic phenomenon.

Quotations

Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.
9. Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.
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. [ Yes!]
18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.
41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. [“Yes!”]
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.
[Update: Dan the Man actually saw this post and emailed me to say he kind of just used the term casually. No insult intended. 🙂 In any case, it was fun to explore the difference between camp and kitsch…]

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Comments

  1. troysf says

    While reading this article, my eyes wandered over a column and caught “Should Anna rip out her bathroom floor tile?” under Hot Topics… Pam you’re camp through and through 😉

  2. says

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines “kitsch” as “Art or objets d’art characterized by worthless pretentiousness.” Our common obsessions are far from worthless, even to those who may not share our enthusiasm for all things 1950s. One need only look at the prices being paid for all those precious little chotskis and compare those prices to the original ones. Even adjusting for inflation, most of our treasures have increased in real financial value since they were produced. And some items that were once quite pedestrian are now collected as epitomes of the mid-century design aesthetic, even elevated to the status of icons through placement in museums.
    “Camp” I can definitely accept, even revel in, but “kitsch” I must resist!

  3. kristinski says

    This seems like a pretty intellectual discussion and I generally leave those to intellectuals, but I don’t really see this site as kitsch or camp. It seems to me it’s just a site for people who like and appeciate the same decorating style and possibly yearn for a simpler time. Some people like modern furniture or decorating, some like mission-style or early American. Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I just like and appreciate stuff from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. If anything, I think a lot of us are into this for the hunt. I can’t imagine too many of us just race out and buy the travertine tile and stainless steel appliances that adorn 90% of modern homes. It seems to me we have a more evolving decor. We make do with modern until we can find vintage. It’s like antiqueing. It’s a treasure hunt. I think we also like to surround ourselves with unique pieces and things that make us and those who come to our homes nostalgic for our mothers kitchens or summers at our grandparents. I don’t think there’s anything ironic about us. We just have good taste!

    • says

      Kristinski – I love your post – had never been visited this board, but being that I’m an artist (painter), I am confused that a local antique mall this morning I fell in love with a gorgeous “Paint by Number” treasure. It’s not that I “wouldn’t” appreciate this type of work, I just have collected a lot of other so-called “fine art”! And yet, what is more beautiful that the efforts of those who produced these pieces with probably the very most honest intentions? That would probably be pure love of art, and a sincere desire to participate in the process! I love it – – now that can’t be kitsch, can it? Or, is it “camp”? I have always studied the various styles of painters, but not so much of interior design – – but I think I “get” camp. And I’m with you – had my kitchen totally redone a few years ago, and it seems like I’m always going against the grain a little! I think my designer was kind of disappointed when I wouldn’t have Subway Tiles (not my deal!) and I wanted to keep my 25-year-old hand painted Protuguese tiles instead. We had to leave the tile stove backsplash intact during the remodel, and cut that entire section of wallboard (where it was attached) out of the walls, set it aside and hope it didn’t crumble, while they brought the gas into my new gas stovetop, and built my gorgeous old style vented hood! But I did get to keep what I loved. I am that way about granite countertops too – – everyone has that and I didn’t really want it – so I got 2″ thick white Corian, and it is gorgeous! When I pick design elements, it can take me decades to get tired of them – I think we are blessed to be able to choose by our own tastes, rather than settling for what the current design gig is.

  4. says

    I think I like the word “ironic”, kristinski – out of rebellion at being labeled at all! For that reason – and ironically – I do like the definition of “camp”: “dethroning the serious.” As in: Pardon me while I fart – about all this anyway 🙂

  5. says

    you are camp!!!!

    WordPress is pissing me off, it takes me 20 minutes just to post one line!!!!!! it telle me my password is wrong, I am not a memeber blah blah (hee hee!!!) thats why I have been not been posting!!!!

  6. says

    Trust me – Retro Renovation is SO not kitsch. That said, I think that term “kitsch” is looked down on way too much. But of course, I would say that. : D

  7. MrsErinD says

    First I have to say I LOVE that room you posted!!! The furniture is great and the colors of them, the pinky red sofa, dusty aqua chair and gold bench, love those colors together, the art, and those lamp tables, oh my, they are unbelievable and the lampshades are the best! Just an awesome room, but I’d love to get a closer look at the drapes! ;O)

    Hmmm, ” capitalist oppression of the masses” oh please, lol

    When I think of camp or kitsch I think of things that have a quirky personality and make me happy and smile, they don’t take themselves too seriously. When I look at my collection of kitschy kitties, with their rhinestone eyes, flittery eyelashes or cartoony face, or my sweet lamb planters or chalkware galore, it makes me smile.

    So I may not be as deep as those people, but that’s the gist of it, pink flamingos, boomerangs,and Carmen Miranda make me happy and smile. That’s all. You can call me camp or kitsch or whatever, that’s okay, I’m still smiling. :O)

    • pam kueber says

      MrsErinD, that’s our downstairs rumpus room — our TV room, where I assure you we spend oodles of time. I’ll try and do a feature showing the different elements. It is not a bright room, so it can be hard to get good pics.

  8. Virginia says

    I don’t think “kitsch” or “camp” captures the Retrorenovation ethos.

    “Kitsch”, to me, is an ironic appreciation expressed for mass produced tasteless objects. Similar to “it’s so ugly, it’s cute”. A sky high pretension level underlies the message of “Look how devoid of artistic value this object is that was beloved by the tasteless bourgeois. How arch of me and my higher sensibilities to ascribe value to it.”

    “Camp” involves a gleeful appreciation expressed for middlebrow phenomena, especially when they are accentuated to the point of parody. Sort of a “Look how fabulous tasteless things are when you turn their volume up to 11.”

    Neither description captures the appreciation for the real people who worked for, lived in and loved these objects and homes. Neither description respects those people’s values and tastes, nor sees any connection between those lives and their own.

    That’s why I love Retrorenovation. There is a real respect for and curiosity about how people lived, what influenced them and the connection between their generation and later ones.

    Hopping off soapbox now. ;->

  9. pam kueber says

    Virginia, a year later…another year of thinking and blogging… and for me the key paragraph above is this one:

    41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.

    Sort of what drives the blog (aka me), I think, is not taking the “high brow” part of mid-century so seriously…but taking the way of life of the middle class very seriously. That said, I do – and don’t – both at the same time – take all the accroutements we study, seriously.

    I am gonna get myself the Sontag book/essay and read the whole thing over the holidays.

  10. Virginia says

    I think I will join you in that. It is an interesting concept to consider and I look forward to delving into it more deeply.

    Thanks Pam. Once again, Retro renovation comes through as more than a blog about stuff; it really makes you think.

  11. Annie B. says

    I agree, Pam, that RR itself is not kitsch, but rather a showcase of postwar eclecticism, of which kitsch was an element. In an overly personal example, kitsch is me in frilly, ’50’s girly apron; camp is me in flutterly false eyelashes.

    As I see it, if Mr.and Mrs. Potato Head make your heart sing, then celebrate the fact. If you worship at the feet of Charles and Ray Eames, more power (and disposable income) to you. Regardless of what connects you to this era – wistful remembrance or love of design –
    RR abounds in inspiration for revisiting a special time in America.

  12. says

    I think I was forced to read that Sontag article in design school. I think when the K-word is used you have to look at intent. It can be used in a loving way or a condescending way. The latter is rude and elitist.

  13. eforhan says

    My wife and I have been looking at homes for months.
    Retrorenovations has inspired usto at the very least consider leaving mid-century features in any place we might buy.

    It’s also led to my feeling that something is missing in modern homes. I had read an article somewhere (here?) about colors being so bright and cheery in 50s-60s homes because it reflected how America felt about its present and future. But now, as also noticed by this blog, the trend seems to be industrial: All stainless steel and wood.

    While that has in the past made my heart a’flutter, I’ve often wondered what it says about our society. Where’s the fun? Where are the splashes of color? And what about the history involved?

  14. Rav says

    To me kitsch is the most fun aspect of the post-industrial retro movement. I love lawn flamingos, garden gnomes, flower pot animals with large eyes. Beards, v-neck shirts on men, the color orange or pastel blue. It’s all fantastic. That kitschy lamp in the above photo is absolutely fabulous.

    I wouldn’t consider your blog campy though. Camp is a little too much for me. Those cheesy velvet nude paintings, old issues of Penthouse and Divine eating dog poop at the end of Pink Flamingos. She’s not a woman she’s a “woman”. It’s not art it’s “art”.

  15. pam kueber says

    I am now reading this 4.5 years later. I need to update this story. My ideas have evolved further. Such an interesting topic….

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