How Writer-Activist Susan Sontag Inspired Next Year's Met Gala

Photo: LAURA ANTONELLI/REX/Shutterstock.
If you didn't know who Susan Sontag was when news broke yesterday that next year's Met Gala theme was based off her essay on "Notes On 'Camp,'" it's all good — searches for her name are at an all-time high, which means a lot of people are just discovering one of the most prolific writers of our time for, well, the first time.
On Tuesday, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's curator in charge Andrew Bolton revealed that next year's Met Gala will be all about camp, aptly titled: Camp: Notes on Fashion. It makes sense, then, that the evening's co-chairs are Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Alessandro Michele of Gucci, and Serena Williams — though we're not sure if Williams's style is as camp as it is, well, just her. But that's actually what camp is all about. Camp just is.
Camp is one of those words that you can't always explain. But when you see it, you just know. It can be defined literally as "something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental." It can be embodied as, well, most of what fashion already is, which is why next year's Met Gala is so robust: it'll feature 175 pieces from 37 designers, and will include sculptures, drawings, and more.
In Sontag's "Notes On 'Camp,'" her Partisan Review essay from 1964, she puts words to the idea — which, according to Sontag, is to betray the idea of camp entirely: "Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," she writes in the introduction. "And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques." Though Sontag alludes that camp is elusive in nature yet obvious in practice, her essay contains 58 notes on the idea. That's more than enough for Bolton to reference for his next project.
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Sontag, who was born and raised in New York City, was as controversial as she was revolutionary. She wrote books, which were also turned into plays (like Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea), she was an activist and advocate for women's rights, and was both lauded and criticized for her commentary on American culture. In fact, much of her resolute political writings are just as relevant to today as they were when they were originally published. "The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads," she wrote in 1967, for the Partisan Review.
Sontag's essay on camp, however, is a lot lighter. In fact, one of the many points she makes is that camp "is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously." She supports this with a quote from Vera; or, The Nihilists, a play by Oscar Wilde: "Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it." And with all of the seriousness the world is currently dealing with, it feels like next year's Met Gala is something we can look forward to enjoying as opposed to dissecting — as Sontag did in '64 and as we do, as self-appointed critics, each year.
Though the theme may not be as obvious as those before it — like Punk: Chaos to Couture and Costumes of Royal India — or those that have focused on and honored single designers — like Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace — but that's never stopped the Costume Institute. And ultimately, the exhibit's indescribable, you-just-have-to-see-it nature is what will draw crowds. But it's important to remember the face behind the essay, too. And while Sontag won't be walking the red carpet — she passed away in 2004 — her contributions to the definition of camp will, hopefully, be used to describe the many looks inside and outside of the show.

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