The Camp Aesthetic (DRA2167.01)

Maya Cantu

An elusive sensibility that defies definition, camp is everywhere in 2023, as fueled by the worldwide juggernaut success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Sometimes seen as gaudy, perverse or excessive, camp is a sophisticated and consummately theatrical style, doubly viewing life as theater and gender as performance. Camp’s essence “is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” as Susan Sontag argued in her epochal and controversial 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” Developing historically as a language of the closet, the camp aesthetic has long since migrated from LGBTQ+ communities to the mainstream, even as it remains deeply rooted in queer sensibilities. Starting in the late nineteenth century and traversing into our current “extreme camp moment” (as described by Andrew Bolton), this course will explore a varied canon of theater and film stemming from the camp imagination. We will study theatrical work by playwrights such as Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams and Charles Busch; influential theaters like the Caffe Cino, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company; and creator-performers of feminist camp such as Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Eartha Kitt. We also examine films by Jean Cocteau, John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar, Ulrike Ottinger, and Anna Biller, among others. As students explore these theatrical and cinematic works, they will learn about camp’s shifting dualities of meaning: as a sensibility of both irony and affection; as object and gaze; as both art-for-art’s-sake style and subversive political tool that—in the words of Charles Ludlam—“turns values upside down.”

Learning Outcomes:
Students will:
o Become fluent in the historical, social, aesthetic and theoretical contexts of camp.
o Learn about the multiplicities and diversities of camp expression in theater and film, within its larger interdisciplinary contexts.
o Understand how the camp aesthetic has developed and transformed among various media, and movements and genres.
o Learn how camp has been variously utilized as both aesthetic expression and political strategy by queer and feminist artists, artists of color, and artists from both American and global backgrounds.
o Strengthen research, critical thinking, collaborative, writing, and oral communication skills through a mix of close readings, discussions, research presentations, and writing assignments. 

Delivery Method: Fully in-person
Course Level: 2000-level
Credits: 4
M/W/Th 8:30AM - 9:50AM (Full-term)
Maximum Enrollment: 20
Course Frequency: Every 2-3 years

Categories: 2000 , All courses , Drama , Four Credit , Fully In-Person , Literature , Media Studies
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