Time for a Riot: Camp Fashion at the Met, and a Real Riot at the Stonewall

Camp: Notes on Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hilty)
Two serious shows that touch on deep human issues.

Last week, I deployed cute and cuddly dogs to grab summer readership. For this week, I promised sex. Personally, I think nerdiness is a tried and true aphrodisiac. I hope you agree.

Only kidding. Sex and glamour are on the menu. The Stonewall riot 50 years ago is seen to have triggered the gay rights movement. Be Seen: Portrait Photography Since Stonewall is the Wadsworth Atheneum’s smart, focused story of portraiture’s challenge to sexual norms since the riot. It starts at a time and place. The clash between patrons of a dive gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and police on June 28, 1969, was buried inside the New York Times but was the instant talk of New York’s big gay population, a disparate but cohesive community. That moment became a milestone.

“Stonewall” was more than a melee. Goodness knows, the late Sixties served enough of them, and New Yorkers were unusually agitated: about race, garbage strikes, and, oh, the bankruptcy around the corner. The Stonewall riot was an effort to be seen. Resistance — pushback after years of petty police harassment — was a way to shout “look at me,” or, more precisely, “I’m human . . . I’m unique . . . I demand respect.” The portraits in the show, by 27 gay artists, all done after 1969, each present a nuanced story about gay identity or the fluidity of what it means to be male or female. The art’s good, mostly drawn from the Wadsworth Atheneum’s permanent collection.

Camp: Notes on Fashion is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show on the Camp aesthetic’s contributions — and challenges — to beauty and taste. It’s the Costume Institute’s now-annual blockbuster and as exuberant in look and scope as its subject. The catalogue is wonderful. I don’t think its makers want anyone to think of it as one of the many Stonewall commemorative shows, but it is. It doesn’t consider Stonewall at all. On its surface, it’s a fashion show, almost all high-end, sponsored by Gucci and featuring brilliant work by Dior, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, and many others. With 250 objects, flamboyant clothes, Pre-Raphaelite painting, Busby Berkeley, Tiffany lamps, disco, Marlene Dietrich, and lots of horny sailors, it’s mesmerizing. It’s also both a high-culture show and a popular-culture show. It’s a gay-history show, too. Stonewall pushed gay people out of the closet and into the fight for civil rights. It helped make Camp mainstream, too.

The two exhibitions are very different. Be Seen is a traditional art-history show, and almost all photographs and prints. It’s elegant and serious, and it rewards close looking. From beginning to end, it’s about outsiders, almost. It’s the “almost” that links it with Notes on Camp, which wanders back and forth between insider and outsider art — it’s a big, omnivorous, dazzling show — but it’s mostly about mainstreaming. The big crowd there when I saw the show was a broad cross-section of America, or at least New York’s summer tourist crowd. Everyone seemed to love its fun spirit, glitter, and fancy clothes. Audubon never saw so many feathers.

That the Met is doing a big Camp show, as part of its anchor fundraiser, no less, shows that Camp is more than cool. As crazy as this sounds, it’s conservative, embracing customs and traditions we want to keep. Yes, they’re both about gay culture. Both also concern the gradual assimilation of gay culture into the broader culture, making the broader culture stronger and better. “Melting pot” has become a dreaded, triggering term. We’re supposed to be salad bowls, tribal, and identity-obsessed. Ha, ha, the Met and the Wadsworth Atheneum have done melting-pot shows.

“Notes on Camp” has a rigorous intellectual anchor. Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” invested the messy concept of Camp, now part of high culture and middling culture but once both a slummy and a slumming phenomenon, with academic bones. “The essence of Camp,” she wrote, “is its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration.” It dethrones the serious and moralistic, smothering them in playfulness and, often, Olympic-scale vulgarity. Sontag dedicated her essay to Oscar Wilde, who blended the can’t-look-away élan of Beau Brummel, the flounce and bounce of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Irish wit to create many fine plays but also a persona that Victorian dictionaries called “the homosexual-as-type.”

Sontag’s essay is worth reading. It was a staple of American modern-art classes when I was in graduate school 39 years ago. It’s still quite good and fresh. It’s about 60 very short observations, or jottings, each a few lines, so it’s succinct. It’s also 55 years old. It’s about time the Met did a show on Camp.

The Wadsworth Atheneum show starts locally. A giant wall mural at its entrance depicts Hartford’s first Gay Pride march in 1982. It’s a study in fashion as well as many other things. The Stonewall riot was an uprising of mostly drag queens and working-class guys, white, black, and Latino, tossed from their towns and families when they said they were gay. They came to New York, the city that’ll accept everyone with unique magnanimity.

Greenwich Village then was a seedy neighborhood. The Stonewall Inn was grungy. “Gay” wasn’t a term most people knew, and what we think now are ugly, insulting names were the lingua franca. These were people at the margins. The marchers in Hartford in 1982 were middle-class, nicely dressed, high spirited, mostly young, white men and women. “Be Seen” subjects and themes are often as quotidian as those of “Notes on Camp” are fabulous. The Met show has lots of frivolity at odds with the serious, rich scholarship the book develops and parts of the show itself offers.

For most gay people in the early 1980s, AIDS shoved them out of the closet. It was something different from fury at police harassment on a hot summer night in 1969, the night, by the way, of Camp icon Judy Garland’s wake in Manhattan. AIDS was, for gay men, the equal-opportunity, indiscriminate sandwich board and more than a scuffle with the cops. It killed. It touched every town and class, families everywhere, and was both a national story and betrayer of a million secrets. Suddenly, being gay was on the network news every night.

The first work of art in the show is David Wojnarowicz’s One Day This Kid from 1990. Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) came to New York as a middle-class kid, gay and dysfunctional, was initially a hustler and homeless in the 1970s before becoming an artist and dying of AIDS. It’s a self-portrait of the young Wojnarowicz, with the toothy grin, neatly combed hair, and funky shirt of the ubiquitous, innocent, sweet Baby Boomer boy. The autobiographical text records the “electro-shock, drug, and conditioning therapies” he experienced and “the loss of home, civil rights, jobs, and all conceivable freedoms” because the boy eventually “discovers his desires to put his naked body next to the naked body of another boy.” Wojnarowicz’s work is personal and intense, and these are Camp ingredients, but it’s also angry. His art is visual, but images are often combined with words. Camp’s not wordy. It’s usually decorative. It’s ironic, not sad. Camp’s not visceral. When it’s overwrought, it’s tongue-in-cheek.

I loved the show. There’s great work by Mark Morrisroe (1959–1989), another superb artist who died of AIDS. Nan Goldin’s Jimmy Paulette and Taboo came to the Wadsworth Atheneum as a gift stimulated by the show as it was planned. That the show is local is another very smart aspect. The curators are using the permanent collection in an exciting way, and this makes people want to give art when they know it’s going to be seen. The museum is certainly distinguished, with fine curators, a great collection, and shows that always look good.

Be Seen is well organized into sections on community, Andy Warhol and his legacy, performing identity, and the ways gay artists mined old standards from art history. Goldin’s, Morrisroe’s, and Catherine Opie’s work are scenes of everyday life at home — these communities are less Leave It to Beaver and more Rent — and nervy, strong formal portraits. They’re real people, not stereotypes, another reminder that “to be seen” means “I am unique” in a way that I find genuine and gracious, as human dignity always is. Sontag’s essay on Camp describes what could be the essence of Be Seen. The subjects and artists have character. Camp loves extremes and exuberance because it fashions the individual as “one very intense thing,” what she calls “a state of continual incandescence.”

“Reclaiming Art History,” the last section of the show, goes from strength to strength. Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Tad Beck have striking, layered work on view. Beck reinterprets Thomas Eakins’s male nude photographs in the cleverest way. Sepuya’s self-portrait is a nude seen from the back, photographed with a mirror. On the one hand, it’s a pose quoting an Ingres nude. On the other, the pose, though serpentine and languid, was physically painful to hold. Sepuya, who’s gay and black, presents himself as an object, much as Robert Mapplethorpe did nudes of black men treating them as sumptuous sexual creatures and nothing else. White viewers of Mapplethorpe’s black subjects ogle them. They titillate. For black men such as Sepuya, that kind of reductionism hurts emotionally.

John O’Reilly is the oldest living artist in the show, born in 1930. He’s a fascinating, under-the-radar renegade who makes Polaroid montages that sometimes juxtapose his self-portraits against Old Master nudes. Artist and Model from 1985 is in the show. O’Reilly photographed himself when he was in his mid-50s, a geeky nude, skinny and bony and already experiencing the gravity that affects all flesh. He juxtaposes this image against a cut-and-pasted photograph of a painting by Caravaggio of St. John the Baptist from 1602.

The montage is tiny, less than 5 by 4 inches, and black and white. It feels like an Old Master print, which comforts at first but then surprises because it’s not what it seems. It should evoke classicized elegance, until the viewer realizes it’s a middle-aged, nude man engaged with a painting not of the ascetic, older John the Baptist but John as both saint and young, toned and taut body, replete with a saucy smile. It’s a study in curves that unite the two bodies. Caravaggio was gay, and homoerotic art was often part of the Old Master vocabulary. O’Reilly combines his own sexuality — personal and autobiographical — with the academic.

Mickalene Thomas’s Raquel with Les Trois Femmes from 2018 is an enigmatic conclusion. She’s a lesbian but is this gay subject matter? The large photograph is based on Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and odalisque and harem paintings by Delacroix, Ingres, and many other French artists. Their women were sexpots but passive ones. Thomas’s women are beautiful, sexy, and powerful, with agency and authority. The work is about the empowerment and liberation of women. It’s not invested with gay identity. In the show’s very good audio section, Thomas says as much. She was inspired, she said, by her mother and strong, proud black women like her. The work is good for many reasons, but first among them is its many dimensions. Sepuya’s young. Now, he’s doing work referencing Mapplethorpe and invested in racial identity. He’s a better artist than Mapplethorpe. I think he’ll go places that have little to do with race. I look at Morrisroe, Beck, and Goldin, among the other fine artists in the show, in aesthetic terms. Over time, most viewers will do the same.

This seems to be where we are in 2019. Almost all the gay civil-rights battles from the Stonewall riot through the legalization of gay marriage in 2013 are won. For young people, Stonewall is ancient history, as is the terror of AIDS. The humiliating, frightening, soul-destroying closet is something they barely know. The closet and AIDS, as much as same-sex attraction, once created a distinct community with its own culture and codes. A few years ago, a young gay friend was telling me about a visit he made to the Stonewall Inn, now a historic site. He kept calling it “Stonehenge.”

Granted, we in Vermont don’t get out much. I thought, “Were there Druid drag queens?” For him, the Stonewall riot might as well have been Valley Forge. It had nothing to do with lived experience. Young gay people have enormous freedom now. So, whether or not it intends this, Be Seen seems to conclude with the question: “Does gay identity art have a future?” I think it does, for a while at least, but it’s debatable.

I think Notes on Camp — the show — doesn’t think it’s debatable at all. It’s hard to think of Louis XIV as an outsider. He’s a figure in the Met show. Still, his passion for ballet and, by extension, his mastery of flaunting, posturing, and “standing out,” which in Italian means “campeggiare,” was one of the many sources the show offers for the word “Camp.” Versailles, before heads started to roll, was a playground for dress-up and gender bending. Notes on Camp has a good, entirely believable back-and-forth between gay iconography from the 1970s and, say, Classical Greek sculpture. The funniest moment for me is the obvious debt Paul Cadmus owes to El Greco. Fleet’s In, Cadmus’s sexy, bawdy 1934 painting of long-at-sea sailors reaching port and finding anything attractive, is based on El Greco’s Purification of the Temple from 1600. Yes, Mannerism, and El Greco’s work is Mannerist-on-steroids, is Camp. It’s extreme, improbable, raucous, and colorful, so much so it neuters religious and moral feeling. That’s exactly what Philip II hated about El Greco and why he wouldn’t hire him as a court painter.

The best part of the show, content-wise, is the long, winding space between the entrance and the one huge gallery that ends the show. It covers lots of ground but centers on two sensational 19th-century London trials, the Victorian era’s version of the O. J. Simpson trial. The 1871 trial of cross-dressers and female impersonators Fanny and Stella, Frederick Park and Thomas Boulton, put London’s gay, or “molly,” subculture on the front pages. They were charged with “openly and scandalously outraging public decency and corrupting public morals” by disguising themselves as women. They were acquitted after a spectacle-of-a-trial but made gender bending — what we’d call androgyny — and what the two defendants called “camping undertakings” an ingredient in Art Nouveau style. Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trials — there were three — equated flamboyance and wit with homosexuality. His epigram, “It’s absurd to divide people into good or bad . . . people are either charming or tedious,” is, for Sontag, the driving philosophy behind Camp and anathema to Victorian propriety and doggedness.

The problem with the show is that most of its intellectual meat is in this space. The show is designed as a party space. It previewed at the May 6 Costume Institute gala, which is the East Coast social event of the year for the fashion and entertainment worlds and an extravaganza organized by Anna Wintour. This corridor gallery is designed as a transitional space, tight enough to make gala guests move with dispatch to the big gallery, which is a dark, cavernous party space installed with the most important, stunning, and over-the-top costumes. In this narrow space, the Great and the Good attending the party could only see things in fragments and at a glance. They hobnobbed and surely engaged in self-adoration — they’d just walked the red carpet — and possibly noticed the show before heading to drinks and dinner.

For simple country souls like me who saw the show after the gala, it’s a tough space to look seriously at art. It’s too narrow, densely installed, with lots of good material and interpretation. I saw the show three times, once early in the day when it was not crowded, once on a weekend when it was packed and it was impossible to enjoy anything, and again midday when it was less crowded but still tough. It’s a claustrophobic space. I felt I didn’t really appreciate the show’s depth until I read the catalogue, which is a feast.

The big main gallery gives an overwhelming first impression. It’s flamboyant, epicene, extreme, colorful, fun, gaudy, and fantastic. “Nothing succeeds like excess,” Wilde said. The main cases, lining the walls from floor to ceiling, are installed on two tiers, with the things on the top tier so high from the floor the viewer sees them as impressions and not things to be studied. I hate this. It reduces the individual work of art to a design element. The show was designed by Jan Versweyveld, a Broadway show designer, so the art is really a set, with the dressed-to-the-nines partiers the central works of art.

I think fashion is art, and I love the Costume Institute. I like the show, and I’m delighted the gala raised a lot of money. I wish it were presented less as a total, immersive experience and more as a traditional show for inquisitive, art-savvy viewers who, like me, are more likely to wear plaid shirts and jeans a la L.L. Bean and don’t socialize with Lady Gaga.

Seeing both shows fills me with amazement of the pinch-myself variety. They both approach gay subject matter with a frankness, curiosity, and generosity that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Camp style, once outré, is now so embedded in American culture that it entertains more than chagrins or mortifies. Andrew Bolton, the head of the Costume Institute and a superb curator, called President Trump “a very camp figure,” and I immediately understood what he meant. Be Seen is a serious show that feels historical and educational. The show is so good it defies narrow, crimped identities and reaches universally held, human issues of longing for love and respect. Notes on Camp is a serious show perfectly at home in our most unserious time.



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