Sunday, November 06, 2005

Susan Sontag on Sunday

"It's good because it's awful . . ."

- Statement of the Camp movement.

Frankie and Susan

Susan Sontag, born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933, later took her step-father's name. She attended Harvard, and earned a master's in Philosophy there. Susan Sontag wrote 17 books in all, about a variety of subjects, from film to photography to breast cancer. She helped introduce the notion of "Camp," the idea than something could be so bad as to actually be good, to mainstream.

In 1998, Susan Sontag was diagnosed with uterine cancer from which she died on December 28, 2004.

"Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility that goes by the cult name of 'Camp'."

- Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, 1964

A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about. The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.

Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free -- as opposed to rote -- human response. Nothing is more decisive.

There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.

Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste.

Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon, not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

There are "campy" movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings. . . . But not everything can be seen as Camp. It's not all in the eye of the beholder. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.

Examples of Camp items:

Tiffany lamp

Aubrey Beardsley drawing

The Cuban pop singer La Lupe

Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea . . .

When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish.

"It's too much," "It's too fantastic," "It's not to be believed," are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.

Perhaps Susan's admiration for the overexposed led her to write about Diane Arbus vividly, a photographer on 'ugly' people.

When Arbus killed herself in 1971 at age 48 she was immediately honored with a major exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art the following year, and no anthology of 20th-century photography would be complete without examples of her art.

The art reflects the depth of sympathy that Arbus, born into a family of wealthy New York furriers, had for human oddities and eccentrics and others living on the fringes of U.S. society from Brooklyn, Central Park and Atlantic City, N.J., to Disneyland and Venice Beach, Calif. She takes her camera into the subway and onto buses, backstage and into hotel rooms, to nudist camps, weddings and masked balls.

Her subjects include disturbingly candid photographs of carnival freaks and circus performers, female impersonators and transvestites, dominatrixes and musclemen, Halloween revelers, the elderly, the dwarfed, a giant and twins and triplets.

There is an exhibition on Diane Arbus, "Revelations" currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (UK).

Diane Arbus at Victoria & Albert Museum

I hope to report on this show next weekend... stay with me

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