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
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).
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…
Fun fact: Camp has important origins in queer culture! (Unsurprising, if you think about the examples.)
“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…”)
May 7, 2020 at 7:47 pm
*carefully puts down Lisa Frank TrapperKeeper*
Them’s fightin’ words.
May 9, 2020 at 2:45 am
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?
May 11, 2020 at 6:53 pm
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.