camp: notes on craft

In honour of tonight's Met Gala - i.e. the fashion event that is guaranteed to get me in a Twitter froth, every year - I wanted to think about the night's theme in relation to craft. Craft: is it camp? Or is it too earnest, too sincere a mode of production to deserve the label?

I suspect the devil is in the details, which is where he usually seems to hang out when not busy running Hell. If we want a working definition of camp, the starting point will always be Susan Sontag's essay, 'Notes on Camp', which is the basis for the exhibition which opens tonight. Notwithstanding her dictum that "to talk about camp is to betray it", camp is a category which sits in an uneasy relationship with forms of craft and its consumption, and deserves to be dissected. It's a category which struggles for a single, simple definition. It can be a framework for seeing, or an inherent quality in that which is seen. It can be apolitical, or politically radical. Naive, or knowing? To complicate matters, all of these dichotomies can likewise be applied to craft itself; another sticky term with a series of contested and overlapping meanings.

If we see 'craft' as being synonymous with 'decorative art', then craft is undoubtedly camp. Sontag: 'Camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual decor, for instance [...] For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasising texture, sensuous surface and style at the expense of content.' Viewed this way, every non-functional element of an object, every motif and embellishment and stylistic flourish, pushes it further into the realm of camp. This overlaps with the idea of camp as something deliberate, intentional and performative, with shades of 'crafting' a persona or an aesthetic mapping onto the physical act of crafting an object. By extension, then, the more decorative something is, and the more it drips with extraneous and opulent detail, the camper it is. Baroque, Rococo, Art Deco: camp. Neo-classicism, mid-century modern, minimalism: not camp.

But craft is not solely about surface decoration, or the aesthetic quality. Craft is, or can be, about materials, and the deliberate manifestation of the making process. It shifts our contemporary understanding of artifice, as in artificial, fake, insubstantial, back to the older definition, from ars facere: making art. Neither of these things preclude the aesthetic playfulness that so often characterises camp, but they do make it harder to view some aspects of craft as inherently camp. While Sontag characterises Art Nouveau as 'the most typical and fully developed Camp style', thanks to its heavy stylisation and deliberately artificial representation of nature, it would be difficult to apply that same label to Art Nouveau's close cousin, the Arts and Crafts movement. The seriousness of intention behind Arts and Crafts, as both a style and a set of making practices; and the politicisation of making by figures such as William Morris and Charles Ashbee, makes it difficult to position this movement as camp. There is something, too, in how we view different materials, which lends them an aura of camp - or not. Wood, for example, is not camp. Wood is natural (even when varnished), humble (even when mahogany or ebony), and immutable (even when carved). Porcelain, on the other hand, is a champion of camp, for it exists to be moulded into shapes, painted, and - usually - glazed. Porcelain wears its material transformation as a badge of honour, and invites us to recognise its artificiality.

In the context of craft, at least, camp is about the intentionality of the maker. It's about performance, exaggeration, and the deliberate and obvious construction of style. It is arch and knowing, and that is what distinguishes it from kitsch. Kitsch is innocent. Kitsch is your grandparents' bungalow, filled with Doulton pastiches of Bow shepherdesses, because that's what they like. Camp, on the other hand, is Matt Smith’s very deliberate reframing, subverting, and queering, of the porcelain figurine.

Camp has long been conflated with queerness, not least because, in Sontag's estimation, it is inescapably epicene, androgynous, and acknowledges that 'the most refined form of sexual attractiveness [...] consists in going against the grain of one's sex.' (As an aside, it's difficult to reconcile this with her insistence that camp is apolitical, for what can be a more radical act than to insist upon the fluidity and ambiguity of gender, in a society which still reverts to the unimaginatively vanilla heterosexual gaze as default?) Certainly, there are craftspeople working today whose practice engages with queerness - the cheerfully erotic ceramics of James Rigler, all twisting tongues and cartoon phalluses, spring to mind; as do John Booth's rainbow-hued male heads, unapologetically taking up space as colourful, floral manifestations of queer masculinity. Funnily enough, though, the notion that camp=queer doesn't always translate in craft terms ; and, conversely, queer doesn't always equal camp - imagine trying to construe Eileen Gray's severe modernism as camp. Anna Barlow's ice cream sculptures are HIGH camp, inasmuch as they deploy a virtuoso range of slip-casting and glazing techniques to create hyper-realistic piles of melting confectionery, dripping with sickly opulence. But queer? Nope. Again, it's about intentionality, and the qualities which the maker brings to the work of craft.

Mea culpa: my conclusion is a cop-out, because I have no conclusion. Craft is too broad and varied a field to be classified as camp, or not-camp. Tentatively, I do feel that the intentions behind an object matter, and the context in which something is produced and consumed determines whether it is camp, kitsch, or neither. (Incidentally, what is not-camp? IKEA? Heal's? Salt-glaze stoneware? Weaving? Navy blue? Plates?)

Danielle Thom