Camp at the Met Museum: A Serious Fail at “Failed Seriousness”

Gallery view of Camp: Notes on Fashion (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty)

Having tackled subjects like superheroes, fashions of first ladies, and the pomp and circumstance of Catholic imagery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual costume exhibition is typically a campy affair. But what happens when it decides to become a little too self-aware (or very self-unaware) and mounts a show entirely devoted to the elusive style that is camp?

Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Met, has tackled that theme for this year’s spring exhibition, Camp: Notes on Fashion (a tip of the chapeau to Susan Sontag’s essay on the subject). Bolton boasts that it “[a]dvances creative and critical dialogue about the ongoing and ever-evolving impact of camp on fashion.” One little point he’s missing, though, is right in the text the exhibition is based off of: “To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it,” Sontag writes. So how can we advance a dialogue on camp if it becomes neutered when we dare speak of it?

Gallery view, Sontagian Camp (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty)
Gallery view, Dandyism in the Age of Mass Culture (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty)

The exhibition is divided into two sections: One, a more historical approach to camp featuring everything from Versailles to Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol, and the other, more modern, a collection of contemporary couture that wrestles with the idea of “camp.”

Upon entering the first, narrow gallery, visitors hear the bright version of “Over the Rainbow” from a young, hopeful Judy Garland, and as you leave you hear a version she sang later in life, shortly before her death, that sounds more like a mournful funeral dirge. Seems campy enough, right? Mostly, it’s just distracting, exacerbated by a cacophonous typewriter noise ostensibly meant to represent Sontag pounding away at her essay on camp, of which difficult-to-read quotations are plastered on the glass all over the gallery to accompany Tiffany lamps and other objets d’art she references in her text as being examples of camp.

Gallery view, Sontagian Camp (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty) 
Gallery view (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty)

In the last gallery, a rainbow of vitrines displays modern couture with a camp sensibility. Each vitrine flaunts two or three ensembles, all assembled to adhere to themes such as, “Being-As-Playing-A-Role,” which features Björk’s infamous swan dress, or “Dandyism in the Age of Mass Culture,” which is just stuffed Gucci logo-emblazoned outfits.

Ensemble, Alessandro Michele for Gucci (fall/winter 2016–17) (image courtesy Gucci Historical Archive, image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo © Johnny Dufort, 2018)

In Sontag’s seminal essay on the style, she describes one of the creative sensibilities of camp as a refusal of “[b]oth the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.”

The problem with the exhibition is that it’s simultaneously too self-aware and too clueless to capture the essence of camp. It’s an exercise to see what from the Met’s permanent collection could be combined with the modern designers they want to showcase (such as a 1934 Cadmus painting of a fleet coming in, mingling with a TV Dinner-inspired cape from Moschino’s last collection). None of it really goes together, let alone encapsulates the theme, and for such a complicated subject, the show is narrowly small. Maybe it’s because last year’s exploration of Catholicism and fashion was the museum’s largest costume exhibition to date, so it had to reign it in this year, but “camp” is certainly not something that benefits from reigning in.

Gallery view, Camp (image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty)
Ensemble, Jeremy Scott for House of Moschino (spring/summer 2018) (courtesy Moschino, image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019)

It’s all too highbrow. Loans from Versailles and Moschino couture sound campy, but it falls short the same way the Costume Institute’s punk exhibition did: It’s not so much about the theme, but rather how that theme trickled up to higher echelons of society.

Where is Divine’s skin-tight scarlet gown from Pink Flamingos? Where’s the Japanese movie poster for Mommie Dearest? Where’s the midnight screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show?

The Met has taken camp to stuffy levels that don’t do it justice. It missed the humor of camp, the democratization it requires — the camp classic Showgirls isn’t brilliant from the standpoint of film scholars, it’s brilliant from the standpoint of Queer people making fun of it. Likewise, this exhibition isn’t even bad enough to be reexamined as a camp classic — it just misses the point entirely.

Gallery View, Failed Seriousness (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BFA.com/Zach Hilty)

One of the most glaring failures isn’t even in the exhibition, but in the gift shop: For $125, you can purchase a silk scarf designed to look like a link of rainbow bandanas, a reference to the hanky code gay men used to cruise each other when openly doing so would be illegal. A highly sexualized secret language has been coopted for and by straight people to make a buck — not unlike the general atmosphere of camp, itself a secret language, improperly decoded for the masses. It’s the perfect metaphor for the Met’s serious fail at exhibiting the “failed seriousness” of camp, as Sontag would put it.

Camp: Notes on Fashion continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 8.

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