Exhibit of the week
Camp: Notes on Fashion
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, through Sept. 8
You don’t have to know what “camp” is to delight in it, said Eliza Brooke in Vox.com. A year after New York’s Metropolitan Museum set an all-time attendance record with a show about Catholicism’s influence on fashion, this year’s big fashion exhibit is tackling “quite possibly the most slippery, hard-to-define concept the curatorial team could have chosen.” The first recorded use of the word appears in a 1671 Molière play about a flamboyant trickster who uses “camp” as a verb meaning to flaunt or strut, creating an association with a hip-forward contrapposto pose that dates to ancient Greece. Three centuries after Molière, in an influential 1964 essay, critic Susan Sontag wrote that camp is “deadly serious” even though it’s all about superficial style over content. This 250-item exhibit doesn’t pretend to nail down a definitive meaning, but that’s fine. The show is “overwhelming in the best way,” inviting viewers to enjoy the antique finery and over-the-top contemporary ensembles, and to draw their own conclusions.
Here’s mine then: This exhibition is “too polite to be camp,” said Tim Teeman in TheDailyBeast.com. By contrast, the Met Gala, held three nights before the show’s opening, had its share of thrills: “There was glitter everywhere, and feathers too,” with Bette Midler, Janelle Monáe, and Ezra Miller among the subset of celebrities who displayed a sure feel for the form. The museum’s sumptuous displays do provide some historical grounding. Camp, in the show’s first section, is embodied in a circa-1630 bronze of a young man in flirtatious contrapposto, in photographs of Oscar Wilde, and in a sampling of museum objects that Sontag cited in her essay. But where is the attempt to engage with the homophobia, and other forms of discrimination, that gave rise to camp as a form of resistance, a way to parody heterosexual grandeur? Camp “didn’t just come from high society,” but you wouldn’t know that from this exhibit. “It’s a rich person’s clothes show, with some history and quotes to scratch your chin over.”
Especially in its antiseptic second half, the show “resembles a town square gone completely retail,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Visitors are bombarded by “an undue amount of Moschino”: 15 dresses or ensembles in all, including a “monstrous” gown with sleeves made to look like the portions of a frozen TV dinner and a latex sheath dress printed to look like prosciutto. Wandering amid the flashy or jokey garments that crowd the final room, you’re also struck by how few designers of color are represented. But this show was bound to be polarizing, and it at least offers substance as it traces the long history of design that plays with our notions of good taste. “Even if you have moments of hating it,” the Met’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion” will keep you engaged throughout. ■