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Camp Modernism Introduction

What’s perhaps most remarkable about extant scholarship touching on camp and modernism is that it so rarely focuses explicitly on their intersection. Discussing the postwar fate of the avant-garde in Five Faces of Modernity a few decades ago, Matei Calinescu disparaged camp for cultivating “bad taste—usually the bad taste of yesterday—as a form of superior refinement”; in Epistemology of the Closet some years later, Eve Sedgwick would observe that a “gay male rehabilitation of the sentimental” had “been in progress for close to a century under different names, including that of ‘camp.’”1 More recently, Dennis Denisoff has offered a substantial demonstration of how camp sustained “aestheticism’s political utility into the twentieth century,” while Christopher Nealon has illuminated the “camp messianism” of recent “post-Language” poetry.2 Scholars have also shown how camp’s accoutrements were taken up by protomodernist and modernist figures from Whitman, Wilde, James, and Beerbohm to Pound, Stein, H. D., and Proust.3 And in Modernism/modernity itself, we find Wendy Moffat pairing Forster and Liberace, Pamela Caughie pondering Sandra Bernhard in an analysis of passing, David Boxwell exploring drag performances in British army camps, and Sam See bringing camp and queerness to bear on Darwin and Woolf.

Wide-ranging and ravissant as this body of work has been, however, few scholars have devoted substantial attention to camp’s relation to modernism so named.4 In this journal, camp has graced a title only once, in a review of Pamela Robertson’s revelatory Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. Nor does a larger survey of the secondary literature [End Page 1] uncover much. A sweep for couplings of “camp” and “modernism” in the MLA International Bibliography yields but one source that actually places the terms in relation, a 1996 essay by Peter Horne. Perhaps the most pointed recent treatment of modernist camp appears in Nick Salvato’s Uncloseting Drama: American Modernism and Queer Performance (2010), which advocates viewing high modernist closet dramas through the lens of camp as “affectively ambivalent queer parody” (180). Yet even this incitement occupies only a few pages of Salvato’s monograph (180–83).5

In our view, more scholarly attention is due the camp-modernism nexus for a host of reasons. At the level of the particular, we note that the cultural scene we claim as scholars of modernism includes not just the literary icons already named but Josephine Baker, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil Beaton, and Cecil B. DeMille. Our forum accordingly constellates an array of costumes, criticism, little magazines, museums, novels, objects, paintings, performances, photographs, and social networks that speak to some of camp’s many dances with modernism. There are also more general affinities that solicit attention, among which we would mention five.

First, there can be neither camp nor modernism without someone’s going over the top. Daniel Albright has memorably defined modernism as a “testing of the limits of aesthetic construction,” an art of extremes; doing camp means overdoing it, pushing the limits of good taste, soliciting a verdict of outrageousness.6 In camp as in modernism, critical evaluation involves distinguishing successful excess from excess that fails, and in both, such judgments often hinge on how gender is constructed or construed. Second, both camp and modernism enjoy complex relationships to popular culture, which scholars have replotted in recent years. Revisiting the vexed figure of “mass culture as woman” (Andreas Huyssen), scholarship in both areas has rightly called into question gendered hierarchies between the individual and the masses, high and low culture, and hard and soft art.7 Juan A. Suárez’s account of “pop modernism,” for example, explodes the old opposition between high modernism and “the promiscuous, pop-oriented avant-gardes” powered by kitsch and consumer culture, including “the popular gay idiom of camp” (Pop Modernism, 2, 193). As David Bergman notes, the claim that camp “exists in tension with popular culture, commercial culture, or consumerist culture” raises issues of power, privilege, and identity that remain generatively contested.8

Similar complications arise when one tries to extricate cultural work from working it—which leads to our third point of intersection. Camp’s salience, like modernism’s, depends on a canon, a cultural literacy, and protocols of reading. For some, the monuments of camp form an ideal order among themselves, and the relations, proportions, and values of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mommie Dearest toward the whole will inevitably be modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) camp classic among them. Whether or not one enjoys a tussle over this or that artifact’s capacity to shelter beneath camp’s parasol, however, one can see that camp’s way of laying mania on the altar of style bears comparison to the interplay of personality and impersonality animating modernist practice.9 Joseph Allen Boone reminds us that “modernist writing … is nothing if not a self-conscious performance of style, of textual [End Page 2] inscriptions that—like the coded gay body—simultaneously flaunt and conceal ‘meaning’ in a masquerade of allusion and self-referentiality.”10 In drag culture, a “good read” is a cascade of artful insults that play on intimate familiarity, an adroit interpretation; if J. Bryan Lowder is right that drag queens are the “high priestesses” and “monks” of camp, cultural custodians who “must study its manuscripts, illuminating them for future generations through performance,” then how far, really, from Eliot’s historical sense is camp’s hysterical sense?11 And what happens when drag queens—or devotees of modernism—face audiences who just don’t get it?

Of course, when audiences do get it, another form of chagrin may arise, which takes us to our fourth convergence. Both modernism and camp invite questions about whether they die as soon as they’re coherently named, as soon as they’re discussed routinely by intellectuals, or as soon as they become palatable to populations outside the original cognoscenti. Just as Harry Levin’s 1960 “What Was Modernism?” struck some as the death knell for modernist art production, so Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964)—which made camp an object of critical scrutiny—could sound like the exit music of another smashing affair. This brings us to our final connection, which also casts Sontag in a leading role. As James Penner has shown, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which first appeared in the Partisan Review, was among other things Sontag’s assertion of independence from the New York Intellectuals—who received it unhappily. In the magazine itself, John Simon denounced the piece’s undermining of aesthetic discrimination; in 1968, Irving Howe would number Sontag one of the promoters of a “new sensibility” opposed to many of the values (nuance, seriousness, rationality, resistance to the culture of consumption) that the New York Intellectuals had associated with high modernism. For Sontag, clearly, shining a spotlight on camp meant loosening modernism’s hold.12 Yet her predecessor Christopher Isherwood made camp commentary a part of his late modernist practice.

The contributors to our forum address a range of questions about camp’s affections, destructions, and modes of being. If the love that dared not speak its name too often fell silent and camp dares to say too much, how do the inflections of camp love play out across the modernist field? Madelyn Detloff illuminates how such love can be intimate and communal, departing from the alienating affects of modernist irony. Allan Pero declares that “camp dares us to love our shame.” For Scott Herring, camp love may suffuse individual bodies, torquing sexual desire, while for Melissa Bradshaw it can fashion bodies into gilded icons of artistic ambition. Camp may undo High Art, or it may end the tyranny of taste (Pero). But camp can also succumb to formalist analyses (Alexander Howard), to earnestness (Detloff), or to physical violence (Chris Freeman).13 Looking between love and death, meanwhile, our forum discloses a fundamental tension between Sontag’s curatorial mode of privileging objects and canons and Isherwood’s gravitation toward people and performance. The former may seem most congenial to the “material deviance” that Herring examines in Samuel Steward’s handcrafted camp and to Pero’s swag bag of bon mots, while the latter seems to lend itself to Howard’s reading of Ford and surrealism, Freeman’s discussion of camp under fire, and Detloff’s take on Jessica Thebus’s recent production of Orlando. Yet curatorial and theatrical [End Page 3] perspectives can overlap, as we see in the erotic charge of Steward’s objects (Herring), in Ford’s canon making (Howard), in Isherwood’s high and low (Freeman), and in the static monumentality of Edith Sitwell’s Lady Macbeth (Bradshaw). Moving beyond Sally Bowles, the forum reminds us that women have not just been camp’s love objects. They have also been camp’s creators and connoisseurs.

This forum thus makes a start on inquiries we hope more scholars will pursue. Is camp the antidote to modernism’s high seriousness? A distinct form or mode of modernism? Does camp lie curled in the heart of modernism like a boa? Is it time to bestow more attention on camp emotions, camp bitchiness, camp dissimulation as we attend to queer modernism?14 Ought we to consider further how the canon of modernism hides camp in plain sight, and vice versa? How far apart, after all, are surrealist swagger and camp flamboyance? Does anything finally out-camp the “Portrait of a Lady” of T. S. Eliot? And does the “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” not sport a modernist plum?

Some people say I dress too gay,But ev’ry day I feel so gay,And when I’m gay, I dress that way.Is something wrong with that?15

The play of repetition; the delight in the quotidian; the daring to be called out. Surely, Carmen Miranda’s transvaluations abide in the pages of some long gay book, written with flourishes and just beginning to be read. [End Page 4]

Marsha Bryant

Marsha Bryant is Professor of English and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida, and an associate editor for Contemporary Women’s Writing. Her most recent book is Women’s Poetry and Popular Culture; she is also the author of Auden and Documentary in the 1930s and the editor of Photo-Textualities: Reading Photographs and Literature.

Douglas Mao

Douglas Mao is Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production and Fateful Beauty: Aesthetic Environments, Juvenile Development, and Literature 1860–1960 as well as the editor of the Longman Cultural Edition of E. M. Forster’s Howards End and the coeditor, with Rebecca Walkowitz, of Bad Modernisms.