Paweł Malinowski
Paweł’s Soundcloud



Since my first engagement into camp, I was totally aware of inconvenience with formulating this aesthetics in a typically theoretical disquisition. Definitions of the camp have changed during last 50 years, furthermore, many works of art affiliated to this aesthetics is ambiguous. It is important to ask a question about musical involvement into camp.

In the breakthrough Susan Sontag’s essay ’Notes on “Camp”’ she wrote:

Camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasising texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content. Concert music, though, because it is contentless, is rarely Camp.
S. Sontag ‘Notes on “Camp”’

Nevertheless, in my opinion we could find some examples of composers using camp aesthetics gladly, those particularly associated with reflexive modernism strand (Relationale Musik). On the other hand, from the philosophical point of view, Sontag’s contention is rejected by Harry Lehman’s Gehalt-Aesthetic turn. However, it is necessary to attempt defining camp term before focusing on particular examples.

Definitions outline. Prominent texts.

Started in the beginning of 20th century aesthetic turnabout, breaking with the mimetic art paradigm and social transition, especially in USA and Western Europe, led artists to develop new vocabulary responsive to modern reality. It is necessary to emphasise importance of minority (Sontag mentioned homosexuals and Jews as the most creative minorities [Ibidem.]) and development of urban culture – the above minorities native environment.

The first known text that specifies camp behaviours and work of arts was the 1954 novel The World in the Evening by Christopher Isherwood. Difficulties with defining this phenomenon started even then. Here, I quote the excerpt of the conversation between Steven, the main character of the novel, and dr Charles, his therapist.

Quick plot synopsis: ‘World in the Evening’ is the story about emotional development of Stephen Monk, who finds his homosexual tendencies. The action takes place during 2nd World War, before Japanese invasion on Pearl Harbour, in 1941. At that time, Stephen passes convalescence after dr Charles Kennedy.

You have to mediate on it and feel it intuitively, like Lao Tze’s Tao. Once you’ve done that, you’ll find yourself wanting to use the word whenever you discuss aesthetics or philosophy or almost anything. I never can understand how critics manage to do without it.
Christopher Isherwood, The world in the evening, p. 111

However, in fact, this conversation is just a sneak peek. After Isherwood, many authors will be trying to answer the question what  the camp really means.

In 1964, Susan Sontag publishes her ‘Notes on “Camp”’. Though again, there is no accurate camp definition. The form of the essay – compilation of several dozen tangential notes interspersed by Oscar Wilde quotations, deflects from the typical thesis construction intentionally.

Sontag dedicated ‘Notes’ to Oscar Wilde. Przemysław Czapliński acknowledges 29 05 1895 (Wilde’s sentence for homosexual contacts), as the begging of the camp. Similar concepts are articulated by Moe Meyer in the essay “Unther the Sign of Wilde”.

It is worth having a look at Sontag’s examples of camp works. It is obvious, that all of those pieces were created before any attempt of defining camp, Sontag by herself appreciates the most works, which are becoming campy unconscious. Let us consider some of her expressions on camp:

Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style.
Intending to be campy is always harmful.
Many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé.
Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment.
Camp sees everything in quotation marks.
Camp and tragedy are antitheses.
Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralises moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.
The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.
Sontag Notes on <<Camp>>.

Undoubtedly, it is important to remember the importance of this text as a milestone and the first developed attempt of defining camp aesthetics. Nevertheless, many authors disputed with Sontag’s ideas. As the representative example, I have  chosen the essay by Mark Booth Campe-toi On the origins and definitions of Camp (1983).

All aboved mentioned  texts are critically analysed by Booth. In his opinion, The world in the evening did not exhaust a topic. However, in the Isherwood’s novel he noticed an interesting dependence. Mentioned by the Goodbye to Berlin author, campery of Mozart he qualifies not as the camp per se, but the way of listening of his music. We could find similar conclusion about baroque. Baroque as the period of artistic style isn’t campy, but it’s 20th century reception.

What is more, he imputes ‘Notes on “Camp”’ inconsistency of chosen examples and formal disorder. Examples given by Sontag are in Booth’s opinion inner contradictory, furthermore, Sontag couldn’t find proper examples because of broad-based criteria.

In my opinion, more important is the Booth’s attempt to camp definition.

If you… try to amuse yourself by watching an awful old film, you are not being camp. You only become so if you subsequently proclaim to others that you thought Victor Mature was divine in Samson and Delilah.

Being campy is to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits.

Mark Booth  : ‘Campe-Toi! On the Origns and Definitions of Camp’. In ‘Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: a Reader’, edited by Fabio Cleto,p. 66–79.

Now it is possible to compare similarities and differences between camp characterisation in all of described works.

Isherwood (1954) Sontag (1964) Booth (1983)
origin Dostoyevsky, modern Freud’s psychocamp Mannerist artists erm se camper first used in Theophile Gautier’s Le Capitaine Fracasse – dignified, but unstable self-presentation
cultural pattern Dandy 17th Century France, court of Louis XIV
what is the camp? Mozart, El Greco, Dostoyevsky Art Nouveau, movie criticism (lists of the 10 Best/Worst), Richard Strauss operas,The Maltese Falcon, stag movies seen without lust, Sagrada Familia Wilde, Warhol, baroque art and Mozart’s music reception
what is not the camp? Beethoven, Flaubert, Rembrandt Beethoven (concert music), Wagner, Eisenstein’s Ivan The TerribleDivine Comedy , Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon – pop culture, swank without sense of humour, kitsch
camp characteristics hidden soriousness contrast between extravagancy of content and overloaded form, ambiguous appraisement of aesthetic value, morality outrage neutralisation aspiration to be in the spotlight, sense of humour, detachment
camp goals making fun, seriousness realised by humour fun without judgement self-presentation, self-parody, encourage in negligible ideas


All of those three texts do not exhaust the topic completely and many aspects remain still quite unclear. Andrzej Serafin’s essay, The Short History of Camp Course could be helpful with resolving those doubts. Authors points out – identifying camp and kitsch, while we couldn’t do this, mainly because of camp’s immanent self-awareness. In Serafin’s opinion, camp always is reflexive and key to it’s understanding is irony and relevant to it detachment from thyself and the world.

A Serafin, ‘Krótki kurs historii kampu’, in: ‘CAMPania. Zjawisko campu we współczesnej kulturze’, edited by P. Oczko, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warszawa 2008, p. 15

Intending camp and its association with post modern culture.

After ‘Notes on “Camp”’ publication in 1964 it is possible to introduce the intending campterm [Ibidem.]. From my point of view it is a significant phenomenon which could lead to determining works of art time frames, created after major camp qualities articulation. Being aware of mentioned issues with defining camp and criteria of determination in further part of this text, I will be focusing only on pieces featuring intending camp qualities.

And just one more remark about time frames. In my opinion, it is worth staying focused on today composers who incorporate elements of the discussed aesthetics. All of those artists are interrelated with urban community and all of them abandoned absolute music paradigms based on Adorno’s thesis. Finally, all of them are totally aware of transitions in contemporary culture.


Music of Alexander Schubert (1979) combine numerous of musical styles and genres -composer by himself mentions among his inspirations free jazz, electronic music, techno and popular music)
Many of his works focuse on sensor-based gestures. Schubert is also one of Ensemble Decoder founder. His Bird Snapper (2012) for singer, saxophone, electric bass, electric, drums and midi keyboard, is in fact a rock song performed by contemporary music ensemble. The piece is a part of Ictus Ensemble project This is NOT a Pop Songwherein composers associated on the first glimpse with high culture tried to cope with the typical popular mainstream music form.

What is important, this piece is not a pastiche. It is not in opposition to pop culture, although it interfuses and connects two totally different worlds at face value. The new concert situation for the ensemble usually performs pieces by Romitelli or Varèse is also very significant. From the typical analysis outlook, the piece is the perfect realisation of Booths cultural slum tourism

Trond Reindholdsten (1972) is a Norwegian composer and performer, the founder of household opera house (The Norwegian Opera). It is important to point out here, that in vast majority of productions, Reinholdsten is not only the composer, but also the actor and moderator of the performance. The overdrawn form, parodying the genre, with psychedelic costumes and sceneries is the dominant layer. Composer uses midi sounds, autotune and mocks all of the classical opera culture shamelessly, reduce it to absolutely abusive level.

The choir from his opera, Orpheus could serve as a clear example:

In this case the whole composer’s image seems to be campy – his website or way of leading The Norwegian Opra.

Total Mountain by Jennifer Walshe – complex piece with dramatic elements for voice and video (with importance of scenography and costumes of the performer) with plentiful contexts and references to modern culture. In this piece Walshe mixes genres, explores Internet reality and recognises all of the pop culture phenomena (e.g., memes, ASMR, celebrities) with the great refinement. Whereas the advertisement breaks are peculiar intermezzos. Although Walshe completed classical composition education, she’d never rejected her interests in pop culture. In her project Grupat she created nonexistent artist collective. Even though she created all of Grupat works, the whole project functioned as a secret between 2007 and 2009 with accompany of fake exhibition guide, story, press reviews, etc.

All of those example are just a selection of works of many composers, who incorporate camp into their music. It is possible to find campy elements, for instance,  in Simon Steen Andersen’s Buenos Aires (particularly in the I act set in recording studio), series of Public Privacy cover pieces by Brigitta Muttendorf, or Jagoda Szmytka’s multimedia project Lost. What is further distinctive for those artists is their consistent, pop culture establishment and social media activities.

This text is just the one of many possible contemporary music outlines. Perception of camp phenomenon has changed, once selecting proper criteria is dilemmatic till today, however understanding this aesthetics trial could be the endless inspiration in critical studies or artistic work.