by Eugene Rabkin

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

"The new exhibit by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Camp: Notes on Fashion, is fraught on many levels, starting with a paradoxical nature of its theme. On the surface (no pun intended) Camp is not hard to spot because it’s so image-oriented. In reality the playfulness and irony inherent to Camp makes it elusive and intuitive. Like any sensibility or a matter of taste, Camp requires from its audience organic growth and (self)education. You can’t really stuff all of these things into a museum exhibit that is aimed at the general public – and the job of the Met is to cater to the general public. It’s especially hard to do because Camp is a fairly niche sensibility – there is something subcultural and underground in it. Camp takes pleasure in being stuck into people’s faces without them getting it. Really, it’s kind of the point.

Nevertheless, the Costume Institute’s curator Andrew Bolton and his team has made a valiant effort to put on an educational and informative exhibit. One of the problems, of course, is that the Met Museum is a serious institution – and one cannot shake off that feeling even with the intent behind Camp: Notes on Fashion. Therefore, the exhibit itself feels like a piece of what Susan Sontag, the intellectual godmother of Camp, described as “naive” camp – a seriousness that fails. On the baseline level the exhibit fails because the heaviness of the Met as an institution, with its didactic and solemn nature, weighs it down. It fails because its contents have serious gaps in the Camp sensibility in fashion (and culture, but more on that below) – there is an especial lack of fashion from the ‘80s – arguably the golden era of camp fashion. And chances are it will fail in getting the masses to understand what Camp is (see the paragraph above).

This does not mean that you shouldn’t see the exhibit, which is actually very good at describing different facets of Camp and its origins. It’s also a way to take the temperature of your own Camp sensibility. As far as that goes, some pronouncements from the Met officials surrounding the exhibit have been eyebrow-raising – even though Sontag expressly stated that Camp is apolitical, Bolton has repeatedly tried to bring politics into his comments about the exhibit. Max Hollein, the new director of the Met, went one further by calling Anna Wintour a “camp idol” during his remarks at yesterday’s press preview. I beg to differ, and judging by her expression as she was leaving the room, so did the Ice Queen."

Full review on SZ-Mag