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High and Low Camp

If camp can be said to invert hierarchies, it also erects others. One of the most important is the distinction between High and Low Camp. High Camp usually refers to the camping of socially respected performances and objects. Noel Coward comedies are High Camp, but the television series "Batman" is Low Camp because live theater is generally valued above television.

A lava lamp is Low Camp, but an art nouveau candelabra in the shape of wisteria vines is probably High Camp because it is so much more valuable. Grand opera is High Camp, but soap operas are Low Camp. Literary camp is usually High Camp.


Camp also has to be performative, even when the performer is unaware of how campy the performance is. The restaurateur, for example, who designed his eatery in the style of a Spanish galleon, knew he was creating a stage set, that he was engaged in a performance, but he probably took that performance seriously. The restaurant becomes campy for those who cannot take the effect as other than humorous, as missing the mark, as overly self-conscious and exaggerated.

Adam West, the actor who played Batman on the short-lived television series, was disturbed by people who regarded his performance as campy. He wanted to be taken seriously as a satiric performer. Perhaps because he is not as good an actor as he imagines himself to be, the performance failed to be convincing as satire. But as much as it failed as satire, it succeeded as camp--as uncovering the incongruousness of the desire for heroism in modern society.

Camp is marked by its self-conscious artificiality, and many performances that were intended as "serious" performances fail because they become self-consciously artificial. Such "bad" acting is always a prime target of camp perception, and camp performers frequently transform "bad" acting into an art.

For example the drag queen--as opposed to the female impersonator--rarely intends to be taken seriously as a woman; from the outset, the drag artist intends us to see the self-conscious artificiality of the performance. The camp performance, unlike the standard theatrical event, demands not the suspension of disbelief, but the intense awareness of artificiality. The great camp performers--like Mae West--never hide that they are acting, but brilliantly play on their artificiality.

Theater is never unstylized. All forms of art demand both stylization and exaggeration. But there are kinds of stylizations and exaggeration that do not draw attention to themselves and that audiences have been conditioned to overlook or see as "natural."

Camp is so highly stylized and exaggerated that its artificiality cannot be overlooked. We might say that a performance that was not meant to be camp becomes camp when we cannot forget about its artificiality and stylization. Greta Garbo, one of the great screen actresses, has become one of the great camp performers although it is quite clear that she never intended to be campy (except perhaps in the comedy Ninotchka [1939]).

Yet because gay audiences are constantly aware of her artifice, her extraordinary powers of stylization, her theatricality, is now often viewed as campy. "I have always been overwhelmed by the feeling," Parker Tyler wrote in his ground-breaking study Screening the Sexes (1972), "that within [Garbo's] woman's shape, behind all her beauty and feminine postures, a man has hid himself and walked around with her." Garbo has not only inverted the sex roles, but has made Tyler self-conscious of them and of their theatricality.

Sometimes the self-conscious artificiality of camp performances helped protect gay people. Liberace, for example, seemed to be acting the part of the most flamboyant homosexual with his bejeweled clothes, fingers, and cars, his glittering candelabra, and his piano-shaped swimming pools. He so flamboyantly played the homosexual that some people believed he could not possibly be a homosexual. Liberace is not alone in using such a strategy: Peewee Herman is another example.

When does stylization become so exaggerated that it becomes funny, and when is stylization to be taken seriously? The line that separates the unfunny rituals of the church from the hilarious rituals of the Marx Brothers is often a very thin one.

Some very sophisticated artists like to hover above this line so that an audience cannot determine whether to take them seriously.

For example, Charles Ludlam wrote and performed the title role in his play Galas (1983), a reworking of the life of the opera star Maria Callas, a highly stylized but serious performer. In the climactic scene, Galas commits suicide dressed as Madame Butterfly. Ludlam was able to bring much of his audience to the brink of tears even as they were rolling in the aisles.

High Camp often straddles that line between the serious use of the ridiculous and ridicule of the serious. Tony Kushner, in the climactic scene of Part I of Angels in America (1993), has Prior, a man dying of AIDS, remark on the arrival of his guardian angel, who descends in a fiery burst of theatrical lightning, "How Steven Spielberg!"

The line both deflates and problematizes the notions of spiritual salvation. Such a campy remark at the crucial moment of the play deepens the ambiguity of the action and keeps the play from providing simple answers to the problems of AIDS and national purpose by undercutting the sanctimoniousness of the angel's arrival, yet because it is so campy, the remark cannot be taken with entire seriousness. Camp has the power to open up dimension after dimension of ambiguity and undecidability.

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