Justin Lieberman answers to
Chris Sharp’s essay on
Neo Camp

Forrest Bess, Chinquapin, 1967
Courtesy of Christies images

Chris Sharp is rightly ambivalent in his excellent essay on the current uses of camp and dandyism by the artists who are the subjects of his essay CAMP+ DANDYISM = NEO CAMP? Nevertheless, the critic’s trap is that the truth is in the annunciation. As an artist, that’s not really my problem, so I thought I would respond to this piece about this particular type of work that NY can’t seem to get enough of. I actually like some of these works myself, but it seems like there is something wrong as well. So rather than address any of the artists here, I would level my critique at the attitude that is producing them. The strategic timeliness of this attitude cannot be overstated, as it plays upon certain recent political shifts for its reception. In terms of the market, it comes in the form of a critique of earlier art whose politics amounted to little more than the prerequisite anti-bourgeois sentiment of artists since Courbet, and who represent these politics with an aggressive affect. (As Sharp points out, neo-camp is highly sublimated.) The critique, which is by no means false, can be likened to Alain Badiou’s maxim,

“It is better to remain silent than to contribute to the already existing means by which which empire can express itself.”


This critique says to artists that subversive behavior ceases to be subversive once it is for sale. This is not wrong. Neo-Camp responds by ceasing all activity that might be considered subversive within the gallery contexts which sustain its activity, creating a polemic between its own smoothly functioning system of production and distribution and the hypocrisy and naïveté of those who would even bother to bite the hands that feed them. Well, problem solved then! It is as though everything has been purged which might be unappetizing to a collector. Let me then ask this question, “What if there was no ugly alternative, no crusty, junky messy art by which these clean odorless works might disdain?” The polemic would disappear, and I suppose they would find their place quite easily in the pages of fashion magazines and the high-end furniture stores. There is indeed a critique, a j’accuse, being enacted in this art, but it is no longer leveled at the vacuity of modern life, the art market, the institutions of art, or political repression. Instead, it is leveled at those artists who would continue a (probably misguided) struggle against these things in their studios. Given that neo-camp is ironic and funny, what is the joke exactly? And who is laughing? Neo-camp reminds me of a rich kid in high school laughing at a poor kid’s crappy clothes. Do I now sound like a structuralist witch-hunter?


The hollow laughter of neo-camp is muffled by the poker face that Chris describes, which says, while winking, that there is nothing outside of the work which lends it meaning.

Carl Andre stated in the 70′s that Duchamp’s readymade was little more than a reversal of labor value with exchange value. And while neo-camp does not seem to be strictly tied to the readymade (many of these works are very carefully crafted by the artists and their assistants, by which I mean everyone whose labor goes into making them look good) it is clear that neo-camp is reliant on this dialectic for its meaning. We might say, as did Beuys concerning Duchamp, “the silence of neo-camp is highly over-rated.” After all, we’re not dealing with On Kawara or Roman Opalka here.


And since we are discussing camp, what would Jack Smith have to say about this work? Smith embodied both camp and dandyism with a moldy precision that defined these terms (through negation, subtraction, and refusal) for quite a few successive generations of artists, myself included.

For me, one can only really discuss camp when Jack Smith is involved. For Smith, true camp required an unwavering commitment to those things deemed unworthy of consideration. But Smith was not some kind of anthropologist, looking to sell his research on obscure subjects to an audience with money. (Neo Camp can here reply, “Neither are we! We like bath towels! See how unimportant those are!”) For Smith, there was a consistent self-marginalization, as though it were important that HE HIMSELF was unworthy of consideration. Smith’s position is totally absurd and unsustainable, not to mention unstable. Like a real live person, Smith’s camp and dandyism was political precisely because it could not be pinned down. He caused endless problems for those who would have made him into the “important figure” they thought he should be, and likely, which he knew he was. Smith knew that the smooth functioning of art in the art world is always a sign that something has gone wrong. Kippenberger knew that too.


In the light of these examples I would like to supplement Chris’ exposition with a third and older term, and one which could not possibly be more unfashionable at the moment : bohemia. Of course, any true Marxist is unimpressed by bohemianism. “Scratch a bohemian, find a bourgeois.” What happens if you scratch neo-camp? I bet a lot of family money falls out. But who cares? Both are surfaces, appearances, and ultimately it does not matter what lies beyond them when we are speaking about art. Art’s job is to appear, and the strength of neo-camp is that you can take it at its word. Only a fool would criticize a fashion magazine for being superficial. Perhaps that is why we don’t really want to scratch the seductive surfaces of neo-camp, whereas revolutionary and existential attitudes espoused by bohemians are practically begging to have the air let out of them. I guess that is why it is such a problem when a protester can afford a cell phone. What if we consider bohemianism AS a surface, one which is no more or less artificial than camp and dandyism? An attitude, a way of thinking that no less than the other two, is part of what it means to be human? Without bohemianism, camp and dandyism can seem a bit empty. There may be a hierarchy of temperance that goes on here. Camp, which can grow into a vulgar spectacle otherwise, is tempered by dandyism. Dandyism in turn, which risks cosmopolitain vacuousness, is tempered by bohemianism. Of the three terms, it is only bohemianism that is tied to ideas of collaboration and communal thought. So who are the true practitioners of camp in painting and sculpture today? The reference to the sublime in the works of B. Wurtz set the stage for the pathos-laden camp of his work. Slightness of materials and means is their dandyism. Oddly, the Whitney Biennial seems to have gotten it right as well. Tom Thayer’s weird trashy little installation of painting, sculpture and video comes immediately to mind. The little papier mache ibises, gazing at spinning records, the hanging miniature cardboard staircase to nowhere. Nicole Eisenmann’s goofy paintings, K8 Hardy’s fashion show, Kai Althoff’s curtain/painting/sculpture thing. Without the concessions these artists and others like them make to the power of evocation in their works, what is left is basically a set of strategic complicities, i.e. neo-camp. And while these can be clever, brilliant even, they will never be the subject of Forrest Bess’s dreams.