camp, kitsch and trash


Here I offer a personal view on the disctinction between camp, kitsch and trash. Now, I'm no student of kitsch, which lately has become an area of some academic interest, and doubtless many of the great minds in humanities departments have investigated the matter in much greater depth and length than I. So I ask the reader to forgive me for the lack of citations in this article, and my general ignorance of the current state of research, as I tread into this rarefied intellectual ground. It is not my intention to barge into the realm of kitsch theorists, or to cut across the various schools of camp theory, or to offer anything which rivals the latest sound and complete theory of trash. This is merely the offering of a humble layman.

Kitsch, the German word for 'trash', was originally applied in the late 19th century to the then-new commercial art for a mass audience, as opposed to 'high art' and 'folk art'. Since then, many of us have reluctantly had to admit that not all mass commercial art is necessarily trash. And besides, the meaning of kitsch has moved on; it now clearly refers to a particular kind of worthless art, and not worthless art in general. So we need a finer-grained definition. I borrow and simplify mine from someone called Dahlhaus [add citation later]. Kitsch, by this definition, is art which aims to evoke some particular emotion, or communicate some message, but doesn't have the resources to do it. It aims high, but its means are too crude and transparent and vulgar. Perhaps the most obvious examples of kitsch are the movies of Ed Wood, which aimed to be thoughtful sci-fi pieces, but were made carelessly on the cheap by a man with no talent. Other examples of kitsch include Forrest Gump, The Matrix, Britpop, certain performances of Liszt, and numerous bad film scores (recent shocking examples include A History of Violence, Crash and Capote). Needless to say, kitsch is always bad.

Camp -- deliberate bad taste -- is in fact the opposite of kitsch. Camp uses more resources than its aims require. Camp puts a certain amount of ingenuity, subtlety and creative talent into a work which is obviously silly, stupid, or tasteless. Camp can be sublime; sometimes artistic truth is found in expressing more than what is needed or strictly tasteful. Even bad camp is usually better than kitsch. Many objects of fandom are camp. Examples of camp include Handel, Vivaldi, Queen, disco, Raiders of the Lost Ark and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Opera, a ridiculously contrived medium, is more or less camp by default. The same goes for any good stage drama.

Trash aims low and is low. Thus, bad camp can also be trash. Sometimes trash is worse than kitsch, sometimes better. Examples of trash include Russ Meyer movies, Troma movies, death metal, most porn, most pop music, reality TV, in fact most television, most advertising, in fact most of the art people get exposed to in their lives.

To clarify the distinction, here is a quick reference guide.

Camp Kitsch Trash
70s rock 90s rock 50s rock
Specifics Universals Generics
Star Wars(1977) The Empire Strikes Back All subsequent Star Wars movies
Vivaldi's and Handel's religious works Ketelby's and Part's religious works CCM
Adam West's Batman Frank Miller's Batman Joel Schumacher's Batman
opera rock opera soap opera
Aliens Alien Alien3
Total Recall Terminator Commando
The Catholic Church The Methodist Church The Baptist Church
Lord of the Rings The Silmarillion The Hobbit
Slouching Towards Bedlam Blue Chairs Vespers
Counter-tenors The Three Tenors Andrea Bocelli
Gilbert and Sullivan Sullivan Gilbert O'Sullivan
The Messiah Jesus Christ Pat Robertson
The Music Lovers Amadeus Immortal Beloved
Dark Forces Bioshock Doom
old Warner cartoons Disney cartoons Hanna-Barbera cartoons
Jacques Chirac Tony Blair George W. Bush
Duvel Guinness Budweiser
coffee Starbucks' coffee Nescafe


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