By Ben Kesslen

At the Met Gala on Monday evening, “camp” will be on display. But what exactly is camp? It’s a question many are asking but few can answer.

When the curators and co-chairs (who this year include Lady Gaga and Harry Styles) chose the theme for this year’s annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, they decided to call it: “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” a play on writer Susan Sontag’s seminal essay, “Notes on Camp.”

In 1964, Sontag tried to make sense of the notoriously hard-to-define aesthetic in her bullet-pointed treatise by saying camp is the “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

Susan Sontag holds the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in the Paul’s church of Frankfurt, central Germany on Oct. 12, 2003.Michael Probst / AP file

Camp, she laid out, “sees everything in quotation marks” and is “something of a private code, a badge of identity.” Camp, as Sontag and others have defined it, is often over-the-top, gaudy, extreme and playful.

Now, New York City’s largest museum is paying homage to Susan Sontag, and to camp. The “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibit has more than 200 pieces of “camp” that span several centuries, and there’s an entire room dedicated to Sontag, who died in 2004 at the age of 71. The exhibit will open to the public Thursday and will be on display until early September.

Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, said that since announcing the theme, people keep asking him the same two questions: “What is camp?” and “Why did you choose it?”

Bolton knows the Met selected a notoriously elusive theme. “Camp is a site of debate rather than consensus,” he said.

Kareem Khubchandani, a performance studies and queer studies professor at Tufts University, said one way to see camp is that it “makes profane the things that are sacred.”

Rihanna arrives for the 2018 Met Gala on May 7, 2018, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.Hector Retamal / AFP – Getty Images file

Khubchandani thinks “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” last year’s Met Gala theme, was a good example of camp.

“Religion isn’t thought of as fashion,” he explained, it’s something serious and hallowed. Turning it into attire for an extravagant gala — that’s camp. (Rihanna dressed up as the Pope, very campy).

Bolton agrees last year’s gala was “absolutely” campy. “I think most red carpet is actually camp, it’s about performance, it’s about presenting a more exaggerated side of yourself.”

But if every red carpet is camp, Bolton added, this year’s Met Gala “will probably be more campy than other carpets.”

Bolton thinks camp, which he said is “by its nature subversive,” makes sense as a theme in 2019.

“We’re experiencing a resurgence of camp, not just in fashion, but in culture in general,” he explained. “Camp tends to come to the fore during moments of social and political instability.”



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