The Strange Story Of ‘Camp’
The term ‘camp’ comes from the French term se camper, meaning ‘to pose in an exaggerated fashion’, and was first used in 1909, although it has long been regarded as etymologically obscure. Back then it was noted to mean ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical or effeminate, but it didn’t stay in those pigeonholes.
The rise of post-modernism made ‘camp’ an aesthetic choice which was not identified with any specific group. It soon came to mean ‘knowing’ or ‘inherently ridiculous’. The two key changes to its meaning rose in the 1960s during the short-lived pop art movement, when the TV show ‘Batman’ explicitly made fun of the absurdity of superheroes and ‘Round The Horne’ sent up traditional comedy, the idea of both being ‘We acknowledge your acknowledgement of the absurdities here’.
‘Round The Horne’s astoundingly rude double-entendres would have been censored if played with a (literally ) straight face. Instead the shows went out on Sunday lunchtimes and were enjoyed by all the family. Here the aesthetic is complex; everyone knew that Kenneth Williams was gay but the scripts played brilliantly with the ‘we know you know’ idea, so that when Williams, playing an elderly trapeze artist, says to a boy he’s training, ‘Come under my wing and I’ll show you a few new wrinkles’, unbounded hilarity ensued instead of affront.
‘Camp’ came to be a literary layering device to introduce meta-fiction. When director Ken Russell was commissioned to make a film of a creaky and not particularly interesting old comedy called ‘The Boy Friend’ he twisted the concept back on itself. The author Sandy Wilson had written it as a parody of 1920s behaviour in the 1950s, so Russell relocated it back in its rightful period, but rewrote it to reflect later cliches arising from the period’s over-familiarity, at one point having the characters lapse into dialogue that had yet to be written by parodists. This kind of cleverness generally spells doom for all concerned.
So ‘camp’ became ‘knowing’, which became ‘ironic’, which gave rise to the humour of the 1990s, particularly ‘The Simpsons’, which consisted of jokes which were only amusing if you had extra knowledge of the subject. The show was stuffed with parodies, meta-dialogue and homages that would have meant nothing to those not steeped in pop culture.
This in turn evolved into books, films and shows that simply replayed other books, films and shows. Everything from ‘Buffy’ to ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ extended the original line of ironic parody into surreal absurdity.
What was lost in the process was the innocence of early camp – bright colours, cheesy music, unsophisticated language. Harold Robbins and 007 and even the first Star Wars were all camp. The new Batman and Superman films took a different angle after the film ‘Batman and Robin’ crushed camp aesthetic to death, and treated the inherently childish notion of superheroes seriously, leading to accusations of dumbing down.
Kitsch and camp were not the same. Kitsch referred specifically to the work itself, whereas camp was a mode of performance, but arguably Joe Orton’s plays traded on camp and kitsch together to produce something much more disturbing and challenging.
Fashion and art traded on camp knowingness, never more so when the DHL T-shirt recently became an overnight fashion icon selling at a couple of hundred pounds in designer stores, when it could still be bought for a fiver online. Here camp became something unpleasant – the power of money to purchase something worn by those without money, a co-option of working clothes by the wealthy.
The period 1954–64 in America and the UK is identified especially with camp because people had more money to spend thanks to the post-war economic boom, but had undeveloped tastes. Today there is a recognition that ‘camp’ is not mere theatricality, but can reflect lives that have become so enmeshed in bad taste that ridicule is the only way out. Donald Trump’s political campaign and Boris Johnson’s legacy of a London wrecked by failed grand schemes spring to mind.
Hopefully the circle has turned fully, so that irony can now be replaced by originality, and camp can return to being something more charming and innocent.