by Nico Crabtree
“The essential element of Camp is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive.”
― Susan Sontag, Notes On Camp
Long honored for his lasting influence on the art world, French poet Jean Cocteau is often praised for his versatile talent in multiple art forms, which include writing, visual arts, filmmaking, and acting.
Born July 5, 1889 into a commune near Paris, Cocteau became involved closely with the city’s art scene as a young adult. Openly homosexual, he frequently collaborated with his male partners to create profoundly recognized work.
Even during the Nazi occupation of France, Cocteau stayed true to his sexuality, despite the imminent danger toward homosexuals. His directness and candor further defined the gay community in France at the time.
Late in his career, Cocteau made a trilogy of avant-garde films which include the movies “Les Parents terribles,” “La Belle et la Bête,” and “Orphée,” each starring Cocteau’s long-term partner, the French actor Jean Marais. These movies have been commended as some of his best work.
His consistent theatrical style, which revolutionized almost all genres he engaged in, makes Cocteau one of the most wide-ranging artists of our time. In 1963, Cocteau passed away in a commune located in northern France, leaving behind a large bulk of work that has yet to be fully appraised.
During the frigid fall of 1964, one year after Cocteau’s death, prophetic writer Susan Sontag (shown above) released her renowned essay “Notes On Camp”, totally rupturing the art community. In the notes, Sontag reworks an ensemble of cultural understanding; approaching the esoteric term Camp as an intellectual performance and a sensory phenomenon to study from afar. “Notes On Camp” grew extensive popularity, pulling Sontag through a reel of fame, and became critical to the legacy she holds today.
Camp still proves relevant in the contemporary study of art but is mostly used as a substitute for words like exaggerated, flamboyant, saturated, and eccentric. These are good models to understand Camp at its most basic level, but they stray from Sontag’s dedicated approach to sensibility.
“The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
This is probably Sontag’s most cited explanation of the meaning of Camp. Examples of this might include the fantastic ballet “Swan Lake,” the dramatic “Flash Gordon” comics, and the putrid art of John Waters. Numerous things are considered Camp — even Tiffany lamps!
The various meanings of Camp perfectly encapsulate the work of Cocteau. His most notably Camp productions include the films “La Belle et la Bête,” a transcendental realm of exaggerated tragedy; and his avante garde masterpiece “Orphée.” Productions such as “Parade,” a ballet weaved together by extravagant costumes and lavish choreography; “La Machine infernale,” a play prestigious in local France; and his philosophically engaging novel “Les Enfants Terribles” also each fit the category.
All these works include unconventional domains, dramatic proclamations of love, and nonlinear spirituality — themes common in the entirety of Cocteau’s art ― as well as themes that parallel the ethics of Camp.
“Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art and for life a different —or supplementary —set of standards.”— Sontag
By the end of his life, Cocteau had completely revolutionized avant-garde film and redefined what it means to be a polymath artist. Despite much of his craft being completely eccentric, melodramatic, exaggerated, and Camp, he remains one of the most talented French figures of the 20th century.
One can draw obvious parallels between the presence of Camp and certain conventionalized traits associated with LGBTQ+ culture. Sontag acknowledges these ties between sexuality and aestheticism, arguing that Camp isn’t gender or sexuality specific, but has been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community.
This was especially true in the 1960s when communities of LGBTQ+ folks were forming in urban environments against blatant phobia that plagued America. This corresponds similarly with Cocteau’s ostracizing experience in France in the 1940s and his consistent output of art through that time. It’s easy to see the appeal of Camp, as it favors passion and identity over the norm.
The receptivity of Camp is even more prominent now than it was when in 1964. Its influence is notable in present fashion, and underlying contemporary philosophy. In a time where things like information, thought, and creative expression are so easily exhibited in such a concentrated space, it’s important to ground ourselves in historically influential evaluation, in the hopes of understanding and better utilizing the ever-changing environment around us.