AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’S TERMS OF ART #29: CAMP & KITSCH

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Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Terms of Art #29:
camp & kitsch

kitsch.jpg

I found this image on the Wikipedia for “kitsch” and it was too good not to share… I mean, it’s like cat memes of the late 1800s. This shit is basically cat breading! And look at its little bell! [source]

Pronunciation: camp… and kitsch rhymes with “pitch” and “ditch”

Definition: Let’s start with kitsch.

Kitsch (adj. kitschy) is basically popular, mass-appeal, “low” art. Think: dogs playing poker and velvet Elvis paintings and Harlequin romance novels. All the shit in grandma’s basement. Or house. Doilies and those little plates with pink messy-painted flowers. All suuuper kitschy.

So uh, yeah, it’s usually a bad thing.

Camp (adj. campy) is related, but not quite the same. It’s all about excess and exaggeration. It’s often theatrical and performative. It’s fueled by a sincere and enthusiastic love of the extreme.

Think: glam rock (David Bowie, Kiss), John Waters movies (like Hairspray or Pink Flamingos), Psy’s “Gangnam Style“, RuPaul’s Drag Race, a building shaped like a picnic basket… anything kids these days would call “extra” or “OTT

So, camp is NOT a bad thing! Camp can sometimes seem like reappropriated kitsch (genuine enthusiasm for the ridiculousness of a restaurant shaped like a hat), but it can encompass much more too (Kiss is not really kitschy, but they sure as hell are campy).

camp1.jpg

RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12 cast (promotional image)

In short:
Similarities between kitsch and camp: both draw from “low”, mass, popular arts.
Differences: kitsch is more mundane, while camp is usually more extreme and outrageous; kitsch as kitsch is usually only enjoyed ironically (your grandma might like it, but she doesn’t think it’s kitschy), while camp is typically enjoyed sincerely; kitsch has negative connotations, while camp has positive connotations…

camp.gif

Ultimate camp filmmaker John Waters explains camp on the Simpsons. (p.s. I made this GIF. You’re welcome, world.)

Fun fact: Camp has important origins in queer culture! (Unsurprising, if you think about the examples.)

Key texts:
Avant-Garde and Kitsch” by Clement Greenberg ← this arch-modernist critic does NOT like kitsch
Notes on Camp” by Susan Sontag ← this awesome multi-hyphenate philosopher offers the original analysis of camp (and the essay around which the 2019 Met Gala was organized*)

*see the related AFB roundtable to learn more about camp

Not to be confused with:
camp – the locus of so many American coming-of-age stories (“One time at band camp…”)

Author: Alex King

AFB Editor-in-Chief. Assistant Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, working in ethics, metaethics, and aesthetics.

4 thoughts on “AFB’S TERMS OF ART #29: CAMP & KITSCH

  1. *carefully puts down Lisa Frank TrapperKeeper*

    Them’s fightin’ words.

    Like

    • yesss. three thoughts:
      1. I just found some bona fide Lisa Frank stickers in a box during quarantine house cleaning and you can PRY THEM FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS
      2. never said I endorse the negative assessment of kitsch! don’t shoot the messenger!
      3. actually Lisa Frank is surely OTT so qualifies as being appreciated qua camp, right?

      Like

      • I wonder about #3. Lisa Frank was probably BARELY OTT during her heyday in the ’80s, and hasn’t gotten MORE extravagant since then; it’s just that the rest of the design world has cooled its jets. I would have to argue that camp has more to do with how a thing is presented or embraced than its form or history. Crap, now I’ve got an argument; guess I’ve gotta write a book.

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  2. Pingback: AFB’S TERMS OF ART #30: ELEGANCE (AND AESTHETIC CONCEPTS) | AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

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