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Campy Lessons in Kitsch.
A serious discussion about flaky pop

Do you own a Velvet Elvis? You know the one that lights up Fat Elvis' face in black lighting to reveal the single tear rolling down his supple cheek? I did. A joke gift from a friend...that we started passing around to each other in our little "entourage" whenever someone "cheesed" out on us. It was actually sought after at one point; we went over the top in our efforts to regain the prized painting. We hit an all-time low in humor, taste and style. The entourage soon started fading and crackling until it was forgotten, over time in some dark corner of life's "attic" like that hula lamp you bought on vacation. I think my little knot of friends could no longer withstand the anti-pop and it wilted. I miss those guys sometimes.

I also miss the Velvet Elvis.

Are kitsch and camp the beginning, end, way-point or deification of pop culture? Is it generational, commercial or historical? I think it's relative. There is no accounting for taste but we sure do have opinions about it. Which, of course, once shared reveal your taste, taste we can't account for. But we do need to define the two words. So let's use that hip, new fad the "internet" to at least get on the same page:

kitsch

Pronunciation: \kich\
Function: noun
Etymology: German
Date: 1925

1 : something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality
2 : a tacky or lowbrow quality or condition

camp

Pronunciation: \kamp\
Function: noun
Usage: often attributive
Etymology: Middle French, probably from Middle French dialect (Picard) or Old Occitan, from Latin campus plain, field
Date: 1528

1: exaggerated effeminate mannerisms exhibited especially by homosexuals
2 a: something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing
b: a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture <a movie that celebrates camp>

Once we agree on the definitions we can discuss the differences and then you can gauge where you stand in the spectrum of style. The very first thing I found interesting about the 3rd version of the word "camp" in the dictionary is that it's associated with the mannerisms of some gay men. I find this ironic since in pop culture, they are the trend setters, guardians and stewards of style. I know I risk over-generalizing this point but I do "generalizations" best...it's a skill. Mostly harmless. Just something to think about.

It's in my opinion that kitsch tends to be associated with objects and camp with the time or moments around those objects. I believe the objects of kitsch can range from paintings and sculptures to fat shoe laces, to trends like disco. I believe camp tends to be more associated with people. In other words if you decorate your lawn with antique pink flamingos you've collected that would be kitschy. While the Austin Powers series is campy. An Austin Powers ceramic doll series from the Franklin Mint would be kitschy while a Discovery Channel documentary on Mike Myers in the groovy stylings of his movie could be campy. Kitsch is harmless idolatry, camp is a humorous homage to something we missed out on.

I think kitsch is a snapshot in time of that which mattered the most to people that aren't the avant-garde. In fact, I would argue that the birth of kitsch is the love child of the avant-garde and entrepreneurs (figures it's a French baby). People want to be cool and trendy. Hip (which itself is a kitschy word) is what matters in the instant gratification, constantly changing world of "cool". Well, smart business folks can see money in trends. They snatch up what's cool or popular and immortalize it in "things". These "things" immortalize the person, place or thing and then, over time, become kitsch. It's just really good marketing I guess.

Where kitsch is a snap shot in time, taken in the moment; camp is a retrospective that simultaneously pokes fun at and celebrates pop from the past. Batman and Austin Powers are both great examples. I've characterized camp as a retrospective because every generation looks back on the pop culture they missed out on. My theory is that in adjacent generations the newer makes fun of the older. We try very hard to contain "pop culture generations" into decades. So the 60s made fun of the 50s, the 80s had a grand old time laughing at the 70s. But once the generations get two or three decades apart the retrospective begins. So the Batman series made fun of the patriotic, nationalistic and idealistically unflawed super-heroes of the late 40s and early 50s. Austin Powers takes a stab at the free and open lifestyles of the late 60s and early 70s.

Our culture works very hard to have black and white definitions, that's why lawyers are so rich, but I think everything has some "grey area" to exploit. This essay is no exception. I think you can have campy kitsch. I don't think you can have kitschy camp. But, nonetheless, they aren't mutually exclusive (this is the classic rose/flower point). My example here is the bobble-head doll phenomenon. I think that bobble-heads are an excellent example of kitsch we find campy. I want to use this as my closing point because I believe it will articulate my essay the best.

The bobble-head (which you can now have made in your own likeness if you like) is an enduring form of kitsch that allows popular figures to be immortalized as little idols to place in your memorabilia shrine. They're animated, brightly smiling caricatures of humans that made you feel good. They are purposefully whimsical and no one takes them too seriously.

This leads to my method for distinguishing the two words clearly: kitsch are objects offensive to most and idolized by few, while camp is a humorous, tongue-in-cheek tribute to things we were thankful to miss out on but now consider cool. But the bobble-head doesn't take itself too seriously an idol of worship. So it's campy as soon as it's kitschy.

| patrick |

 

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