This week, the Met Gala took place in New York City. The event has always been a showpiece for celebrities seeking to make a splash, from Rihanna in her Pope costume to Katy Perry dressed as a chandelier. This year’s event was designed in homage to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp.” According to Sontag, “camp” is the “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
In reality, camp according to Sontag is something else: a deliberate attempt to tear down boundaries. “Camp taste,” Sontag wrote, “turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment.” “(H)igh culture,” Sontag acknowledged, “is basically moral.” Camp, by contrast, “is wholly aesthetic.” In fact, it “incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” It represents the “solvent of morality” and “neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.” As Kareem Khubchandani, performance studies and queer studies professor at Tufts University, told NBC News, camp “makes profane the things that are sacred.” Sontag said something similar in her essay: Camp is a “sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous.”
There is something inherently insulting about camp — particularly camp exhibited to the tunes of hundreds of thousands of dollars by ersatz socialists who consider themselves the moral superiors of those who live in flyover country. Watching celebrities preen on the red carpet while dressed as stripper Mary Poppins (Lady Gaga) or a Cleopatra knockoff complete with shirtless slaves (Billy Porter) is inherently irritating. There’s something sneering and preening about it. But if you’re irritated, then you just don’t “get it.” You don’t understand the “irony.” You’re too sincere, which makes you a bore.
But sincerity builds social fabric; irony tears it down. Measured doses of irony can be helpful in debunking hackneyed ideas, but irony as an entire philosophy is a universal acid. Barack Obama wasn’t wrong when he said Americans should “reject cynicism.” The only problem is he simply labeled all those who opposed his political agenda as cynics.
In reality, cynicism — the mocking, derisive laughter of those who seek to overturn values — can never build anything. Camp doesn’t build beauty; it tears it down, drags it through the dust and then laughs. Sontag knew that, which is why she spent most of her career tearing down, not building up. It’s not a coincidence the same person who promoted camp as a way of life also denigrated America — perhaps the most sincere country ever founded, given its reliance on creedal truths rather than mere nationalistic connection — with seething hatred: “If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. ... The white race is the cancer of human history.”
A good deal of America’s political polarization right now lies in the belief by those in the middle of the country that elitists on the coasts mock them, deride their pretensions at building as something passe. And those in the middle of the country aren’t wrong. Those on the coasts who spend their evenings laughing at the nasty jokes of Stephen Colbert, tut-tutting at the “deplorables” and giddily tweeting over the Panem-style fashion at the Met Gala are doing serious cultural damage. And telling fellow Americans to lighten up won’t heal those wounds anytime soon.