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Notes on Art So Bad Its Good

WHILE SONTAG’S “CAMP” IS JUST BAD, THE EARNEST FAILURES OF S.O.B.I.G. ARE AT ONCE DREADFUL AND GOOD.
DISCUSSED
Susan Sontag, “Notes On ‘Camp’”, The High/Low Dichotomy, Quotation Marks, The Canon of Camp, Earnest Failure, The Wicked Buzz of Camp, The Canon of SOBIG, The Apple, The Sublime à La Kant, Catharsis à La Aristotle
by Douglas Wolk
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Notes on Art So Bad Its Good

Douglas Wolk
12 Snaps

“It’s good because it’s awful,” Susan Sontag declared in her 1964 “Notes on ‘Camp,’” is “the ultimate Camp statement.” That essay—which tried to codify a sensibility that had been almost entirely subcultural and intuitive up to that point—didn’t exactly signal the end for camp,1 but uttering camp’s unspoken rules changed the game, and helped start a new one.

It’s not that camp has died, exactly—more that it’s become a sensibility entirely without risk or shock, a cultural flavor like any other. Camp is hyper-­aestheticized, or deliberately overaestheticized; from our perspective in 2004, everything before roughly the time of “Notes on ‘Camp’” seems hyper-­aestheticized in a way that’s indistinguishable from camp. Sontag describes The Maltese Falcon as great camp, Rear Window and North by Northwest as failed camp. Once they hit Turner Classic Movies, could there be any significant difference between their respective degrees of campiness? In fact, viewed strictly in terms of aestheticization, there’s very little difference between Rear Window and instructional films of the 1950s. Watching the latter is a way to get the wicked buzz of camp that belongs to that era’s prevailing aesthetic without, say, Hitchcock’s craft and narrative sense getting in the way.

As camp has become less a club and more a public park over the last forty years, time has engendered the shift from the banal to the fantastic that Sontag described. Virtually every work from the end of Victoria’s reign through the Beatles’ first LP that hasn’t become part of the cultural canon can now be read as camp: every advertisement, every radio drama, every game show, every issue of the Saturday Evening Post… but it’s also possible to reclaim anything from camp, with a little bit of effort. (Enid, in the movie version of Ghost World, understands the artifacts Seymour surrounds himself with first as camp, and then simply as art.) There is no tidy division possible.

Sontag mentions that one of the earliest written descriptions of capital-C Camp is “a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s  novel The World in the Evening (1954).” In the scene in question, Isherwood’s character Charles Ken­nedy makes the distinction between Low Camp (“a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich”) and High Camp (“the whole emotional basis of the ballet, for example, and of course of baroque art… the ballet is camp about love.” Mozart , Beethoven no). But this, it seems, is just a restatement of the more familiar high/low dichotomy. In any case, in the last fifty years, Isherwood’s High Camp has been absorbed wholly into the worn remains of what was once high culture, which is now happy to take whatever aestheticism it can get. The ballet is now ritual about ballet, and has nothing to do with love; Beet­hoven is no more or less campy than Mozart; and impersonating Marlene Dietrich is no longer itself camp, but a reference to camp in heavy quotation marks.

The quotation marks, as Sontag notes, are themselves a precondition for camp (“not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman’”); they are also far more commonplace and less costly than they were forty years ago. A drag queen impersonating Marlene Dietrich is wearing a double set of quotation marks on his wig, but he is also a cliché. You’d have to be a woman impersonating a drag queen impersonating Marlene Dietrich to work up any kind of functional camp frisson at this point.

By 1970 or so, camp had become fully integrated into mass culture. (Perhaps it happened at the moment when “Holiday for Strings” could no longer be used as a straightforward mood piece.) Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares was camp for mass consumption—not because of the gay overtones in the way he talked, although they didn’t hurt, but because his sole purpose was to infect the serious discourse of a quiz show with unseriousness, to be a guide to the “private zany experience” Sontag describes. By the end of the nineties, with private zaniness a pillar of the culture in­dustry, camp had lost the last of its force and surprise; the final coffin nail was signaled by the Onion’s 2001 headline “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-to-Door Trying to Shock People.”

In the meantime, the landmarks of camp had themselves shifted. The most surprising element of Sontag’s essay is her list of “part of the canon of Camp” ca. 1964—a vivid illustration of how impermanent that canon was, and is. She mentions Scopitone films, which still fit the bill now, but beyond that, all of her examples would now need to be qualified or abandoned. The first, Max Beerbohm’s highly affected, satirical 1911 novel Zul­eika Dobson, has passed into a file-and-forget corner of the greater canon; in 1998, it was reprinted as one of the Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century,” quoting E. M. Forster on the back cover (“a great work—the most consistent achievement of fantasy in our time”).

Continuing down the list, Tiffany lamps now represent a particular kind of historical sensibility, but not an especially campy one; the (long-demolished) Brown Derby restaurant, the singer La Lupe, and the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett are now mere curiosities. Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings, Swan Lake, and Bellini’s operas have become fully canonical (and indistinguishable in significance from their less dramatically aestheticized contemporaries). Schoedsack’s King Kong is now simply iconic—the Turner Classic Movies effect. (De Laurentiis’s King Kong might be camp of some kind if it weren’t so bland and ineffectual.) “The Enquirer, headlines and stories,” may be the equivalent of the contemporary Weekly World News’s headlines and stories—Ed Anger is as campy as they come. Women’s clothes of the twenties are no longer campy, but rather vintage, as are all clothes made through the sixties. (Clothes of the seventies are camp-heading-toward-vintage. Clothes of the eighties are ugly-heading-toward-camp. Clothes of the nineties will soon be ugly.)

Sontag also cites “Lynn Ward’s novel in woodcuts, God’s Man,” by which I’m guessing she means Lynd Ward’s novel in woodcuts, Gods’ Man. Ward’s work now has a certain kind of cult status as a godparent of the modern graphic novel, rather than as an example of camp—not so much status that Sontag’s errors have been corrected in the past forty years, but enough that those who seek it out aren’t looking for its quotation marks. And as for “stag movies seen without lust,” one may simply have to raise the pornographic bar, since there’s now no lustful way to see “stag movies.”

With its final Wildean paradox of “it’s good because it’s awful,” however, “Notes on ‘Camp’” suggests the beginning of a new and related sensibility, or aesthetic ideal, that’s split off from camp and mostly supplanted it. The new ideal doesn’t exactly have a name, but it’s been a growing cultural presence for the last couple of decades. The closest anyone’s come to a description of it is “so bad it’s good,” so let’s call it SOBIG, with a nod to the computer virus of the same name. As Sontag did with her “Notes,” I’ll attempt to sketch the contours of SOBIG, with the understanding that they necessarily resist ab­solute description.

Sontag hedges her bet on the good/awful thing—“of course, one can’t always say that”—but that’s the key to SOBIG’s difference from classical camp. To be SOBIG, something must be both good and awful, and its awfulness must depend on its goodness as much as the reverse. One can’t attain SOBIG through badness or laziness alone: at the very least, a SOBIG work must have the best of intentions, and must be carried out in all seriousness. Camp requires a certain self-consciousness concerning its own failures that SOBIG rejects; camp winks, where SOBIG cannot. The controlling Intelligence behind the SOBIG work must be absolutely in earnest. It is, in fact, impossible to be intentionally SOBIG, because that can only be delivered with a sneer—see, for instance, the Austin Powers movies, which, as entertaining as they are, are textbook examples of failed SOBIG doomed by the attempt itself.

“The pure examples of Camp are unintentional,” Sontag notes; “they are dead serious. The Art Nouveau craftsman who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voila! The Orient!” Well, exactly—those pure examples are the side of camp from which SOBIG descends. That “craftsman” is telling, too: SOBIG without craft is just bad.

Camp, Sontag continues, finds “success in certain passionate failures.” SOBIG expands on that idea: it finds glory in ambitious, or energetic, or earnest failure, in terrible ideas carried out with zeal, vigor, and elegance. Unlike camp, SOBIG needn’t have a theatricalized or hyperaestheticized element (al­though that doesn’t hurt), and it’s often far less refined than Isherwood’s High Camp, but it has a desperate desire to entertain. Very often, it tries frantically to charm, and sometimes succeeds at charm of one kind or another. It usually has some element that’s uniron­ically enjoyable or even delightful, overshadowed by gross conceptual fallacy.

In tribute to Sontag’s list, I offer a small cross-section of the canon of SOBIG, fully realizing that it may not seem so in much less than forty years:

✯  The Beach Boys’ album Love You (Pet Sounds is just good, 15 Big Ones is just dreadful, Love You is SOBIG)

✯  R. F. Laird’s book The Boomer Bible

✯  Jack Kirby’s midseventies comics (again, his Fantastic Four is good, Captain Victory is embarrassing, Devil Dinosaur is SOBIG)

✯  ’NSYNC fan-fiction, the more literate and expansive the better

✯  Song-poems, of the kind assembled by aspma.com

✯  “The Star Wars Holiday Special” (but not The Phantom Menace, which is a grand endeavor but simply bad, or a dress made of 3,000 Jar-Jar action figures, which would be conscious camp)

✯  Ron Jeremy

✯  Disco records by Santa Esmeralda, Cerrone, Sphinx, and Love & Kisses

✯  Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried, not that you or
I have ever seen it

✯  The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo

Perhaps the finest example of SOBIG is the utterly compelling, utterly appalling 1980 film The Apple. Written and directed by Menahem Golan, who would go on to produce a whole lot of eighties exploitation movies as half of the Golan & Globus team, it’s a quasitheological science-fiction disco musical set in the terrifying future of 1994—sort of Rocky Horror via “Can’t Stop the Music” via Fischerspooner and Matthew Barney, except with thousands of glittery triangular holographic stickers that say “BIM” on them, and messianic­-Jewish overtones. At its premiere, patrons of the Paramount Theater in Hollywood damaged the movie screen by hurling their souvenir soundtrack LPs at it;2 reviews were few and brutal. The Apple scurried back into oblivion almost instantly, and remained unseen until someone had the bright idea of reviving it as a midnight movie early this year.

An LA screening proved so successful that it moved on to New York, and then to a few other cities, and to airings on late-night cable TV. A bootleg videotape is making the rounds. I have now seen it six times, and most of the people I’ve shown it to have demanded a copy of their own. The Apple was plain dreadful when it came out, a painful waste of everyone’s hour and a half. It is now not just so bad it’s good, but so bad it’s a luminous masterpiece of the cinematic arts. What happened in the last twenty-four years to change the way we see it?

For one thing, twenty-four years passed. One of the necessary preconditions for SOBIG is time—at least a few years, usually, for any example of it to mature. Its true nature is rarely apparent straight out of the gate. (Showgirls became a camp classic immediately upon its release, because every frame of it oozes insincere high drama, but it will never be SOBIG—the same goes for Battlefield Earth.) For another, between 1980 and 2004, many more people learned to appreciate SOBIG.

A quick summary of most of The Apple may help to illustrate some of the precepts of SOBIG. The movie begins with a gigantic international song competition—a thinly disguised version of the Eurovision Song Contest. (Eurovision is itself a fine exemplar of SOBIG.) In front of a mammoth, sparkling “1994” sign, Pandi and Dandi (Grace Kennedy and Alan Love), a duo-with-band whose collective glitter is blinding, are performing their hit, “BIM,” a fist-in-the-air anthem about the importance of both moral relativism and their record label:

Dandi: There ain’t no good!

Pandi: There ain’t no bad!

Dandi: There ain’t no happiness!

Pandi: There ain’t no tears!

Dandi: There ain’t no love!

Pandi: There ain’t no hate!

Both: There’s only power—BIM IS THE POWER!!

Hey, hey, hey, BIM’s the only way!

Precept (1): SOBIG is gen­uinely spectacular. It does everything in the biggest way it can, with whatever resources it has at its command.

Precept (2): SOBIG often has serious philosophical aspirations. It is absolutely certain about the way the world works, and not even the world itself will sway it.

Precept (3) SOBIG may miss the forest, but it trims the hedge. In this case, somebody realized that “sad” would’ve been a lazy rhyme, and “fixed” it.

Backstage, the demisatanic head of the BIM entertainment conglomerate, Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal, Polish film composer turned character-actor—he was Kronsteen in From Russia with Love), and a couple of his mincing henchmen are gloating over their imminent victory. Their costumes, dialogue, and general demeanor are Low Camp in Isherwood’s sense: “swishy” barely begins to cover it. One of them, Shake (Ray Shell), has an emerald and a ruby on his two front teeth. When Alphie and Bibi (George Gilmour and Catherine Stewart), a couple of young hopefuls from Moose Jaw, start to sing their godawful power ballad “Love, the Universal Melody,” the audience seems to like it more than “BIM,” so Boogalow and company broadcast a mood-altering tape over the PA system that makes the crowd turn on the hapless couple.

Precept (4): SOBIG can, although it need not, encompass camp or references to it. (What it can’t do is acknowledge the SOBIG aesthetic overtly; that gives the game away.) Its declarations of taste are based on ideology rather than judgment—note that The Apple’s filmmakers intend the disco songs to be “bad” and the emotive ballads to be “good.”

Precept (5): Where camp burlesques or exaggerates the way people actually behave, though, SOBIG is innocent of understanding hu­man emotions and motivations.

Precept (6): Camp originated in gay culture, and often has a gay subtext, direct or ironic; SOBIG is sexual-orientation neutral, since it gets all of them wrong.

Alphie and Bibi visit a celebratory party at BIM headquarters, where one of Boogalow’s henchmen has just introduced the aforementioned BIM stickers; Boogalow announces that “you’re all going to wear them from now on,” and tells Alphie and Bibi that he can make them stars. Dandi tries to seduce Bibi (another musical number is involved), and kisses her in front of the whole party. Nonetheless, in the next scene, Alphie and Bibi go to wait for their appointment in BIM’s office, represented by a terminal of the Berlin airport, in which a huge ensemble does a song-and-dance number about how “life is nothing but show business in 1994.”

Precept (7): SOBIG is never short of ideas—it just can’t distinguish the good ones from the
bad ones.

Precept (8): No matter how big its budget may be, SOBIG skimps somewhere it really shouldn’t.

Boogalow insists that Alphie and Bibi sign their contracts on the spot so that they can be whisked away on tour. Bibi signs, Alphie doesn’t—and suddenly the office turns into Hell, Boogalow has grown a horn (yes, one—told you he was demisatanic), and Dandi (in golden minibriefs, skin and chest hair painted gold) is offering them “the master’s special hors d’oeuvre,” a gigantic apple, about which he sings a song. Alphie rejects it and skedaddles, while Bibi starts her training for BIM-controlled stardom and Boogalow speak-sings a reggae song about how masterful he is.

Precept (9) Failures of taste occur on every level in SOBIG—as above, so below. Did nobody notice that it was maybe not such a good idea to have the two black actors in the cast sing the backup part that goes “he knows how to be a mast-ah”?

Precept (10) But SOBIG is also genuinely entertaining; its creators usually have some expertise at playing to an audience, and it is, if nothing else, not boring. (This is why The Brown Bunny, for instance, isn’t SOBIG.)

(I should mention at this point that, aside from a few horrid ballads, all of The Apple’s songs—credited to George S. Clinton [no relation], Iris Recht, and Coby Recht—are extraordinarily catchy, and the performances and production are actually pretty terrific, too. You go out humming a whole lot of tunes. Yet there seems to be something curdled within every one of them. It was probably a mistake, for instance, for Bibi’s big solo rock/disco number to have a shriek of “SPEEEEEEEEED!” as every fourth line.)

Bibi becomes famous, while BIM increases its influence; it’s now illegal not to wear the BIM sticker on one’s face, and at 4:00 every afternoon, everything in America comes to a halt so the country’s entire population can do a synchronized dance routine to the company’s latest disco hit.

Meanwhile, Alphie’s hit the skids; nobody wants his songs, and his only ally is his landlady, who says things like “you kids today—you’re so meshuggah.” (She’s played by Miriam Margolyes, one of the few actors whose career survived The Apple; most recently, she’s been playing Prof. Sprout in the Harry Potter movies.) Finally, he decides to go after her.

Precept (11): SOBIG often indulges in the crudest stereotypes—not out of malice, but because it’s simply incapable of subtlety.

At a gigantic, decadent party/
orgy at BIM headquarters, Pandi seduces Alphie, and sings her big showcase, “Coming,” which is a near-soundalike for Donna Summer’s 1976 album track “Wasted,” and remarkable for its total failure of double-entendre. Sample lyric: “Now I’m coming / Coming for you / Make it harder and harder and faster and faster / And when you think you can’t keep it up / I’ll take you deeper and deeper and tighter and tighter / And drain every drop of your love.” The second half of the song is mostly a female chorus making sex noises, accompanied by a dance ensemble doing some pretty impressive choreography on mattresses.

Precept (12): Camp is guarded or coded about sex; SOBIG may be as well, but it also tends to err on the side of too much information.

Precept (13): SOBIG is unintentionally Brechtian; it exposes the mechanics and overworn de­vices of art and society through its ineptitude.

That’s about enough. I will not spoil the last twenty minutes, ex­cept to say that no other dram­atic production has ever embraced every meaning of the phrase “deus ex machina” quite as vigorously as The Apple.

*

A work that is SOBIG isn’t beautiful (even in the manner of camp’s exaggerated beauty), or good (on the whole), or agreeable, and yet it gives pleasure. So what is it? There’s one category that remains in Im­manuel Kant’s taxonomy, and it fits SOBIG neatly. The sublime, Kant writes in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, “is what pleases immediately by reason of its op­position to the interest of sense,” and that’s a fair description of SOBIG, too. In comparison with SOBIG, as with Kant’s sublime, “all else is small.” The feeling of the sublime is “at once a feeling of displeasure… and a simultaneously awakened pleasure,” or “a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction produced by one and the same Object.” Most importantly for our purposes, it leads to “astonishment amounting almost to terror.” Hold on to that “terror” for a minute, and note that the physiological response to a really amazing example of SOBIG is identical to terror.

I’ve been speaking of the SOBIG sensibility as if it were entirely a good thing, and that’s misleading. SOBIG also has an unsavory side, and one that camp often manages to avoid. Camp, Sontag notes, “is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism.” Because SOBIG is al­ways unconscious, it is, or at least was at some point, legitimately the realization of somebody’s taste—its maker’s taste, certainly, and (in the case of examples of SOBIG that have attained mass-cultural success) its original consumers’ taste, as well. It only seems generous and uncynical.

As with camp, its “detachment is the prerogative of an elite”; beneath SOBIG’s veneer of affection, it has an undercurrent of cruelty that what remains of camp lacks, a sort of schadenfreude of taste that sometimes conceals a less pleasant mean-spiritedness. SO­BIG’s sense of style, unlike camp’s, is not admirable—only its gumption. (Mullet-watchers who see eighties metalhead haircuts as SOBIG, for instance, are engaging in thinly veiled class contempt.)

Camp is amusing; SOBIG is funny, and its laughs are at the expense of whoever thought it was a good idea in the first place. There is certainly a tenderness in experiencing something as SOBIG, but it’s a condescending tenderness. The SOBIG artist’s passion, skill, labor, and feverish belief in a disastrous work ultimately inspire pity: “If only those powers could be used for good!”

So: terror and pity are the end-products of SOBIG, and if you think you’ve seen that particular combination before, you’ve probably taken a college philosophy course at some point. According to Aristotle, terror and pity are what tragedy evokes in its audience in order to permit catharsis. Camp, in its heyday, burlesqued tragedy, at a time when tragedy in art could no longer be taken entirely seri­ously—as Sontag pointed out the year before “Notes on ‘Camp,’” tragedy has been on its deathbed for centuries.

SOBIG, though, effectively replaces tragedy for an audience now wholly inured to tragedy in art. Its terror and pity are responses to art’s inspiration, form, and circumstances, rather than its content. If we can no longer feel terror and pity for Oedipus or La Bohème’s Mimi—if we can only coolly appraise the production values, the set design, the directorial vision, the funding strategies—we can still experience the sublime terror of watching The Apple, and a chortling pity for its creators and cast. It may be the closest thing to true catharsis we can get.

One final note and apology. “It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp,” Sontag writes. “One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.” I would be de­lighted to have run only an equivalent risk, but there can be no such thing as “an inferior piece of SOBIG.” It’s an all-or-nothing affair; furthermore, as I’ve mentioned, acknowledging that the SOBIG sensibility exists bars one from it. I can only hope that, in attempting to describe it, I haven’t contributed to the de­struction of something degraded but necessary.

1. She capitalizes it; those who came after her, like me, don’t.
2. Was this the last actual anti-art riot of Western culture? Nobody would throw things at a screen these days. Even at The Brown Bunny’s infamous Cannes premiere, people didn’t throw things, they just talked shit about the movie afterwards.
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