- 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...