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.
|70s rock||90s rock||50s rock|
|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|
|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|
|old Warner cartoons||Disney cartoons||Hanna-Barbera cartoons|
|Jacques Chirac||Tony Blair||George W. Bush|