Most people misremember what Oscar Wilde actually said as he lay dying in Paris as “Either those curtains go or I do.”
But it was the wallpaper with which he was “fighting a duel to the death” and it was indeed he who departed — though weeks later. (That posterity adopted this critique of furnishings as his deathbed confession, even though it wasn’t, was more a vindication of Wilde’s philosophy of art than any epigram could ever be.)
John Waters was once asked how he avoided running afoul of community standards in his underground cinema. The short answer, he said, was that he always pled guilty. But then he explained the difficulty of straddling mainstream career success and the statute of limitations on acts of public indecency. Following the box office smash of Hairspray, Waters said, unsuspecting families would seek out his filmography at their local video shops and inevitably come away with Pink Flamingos. “They would always get half way through and say they’d call the police. And I knew halfway was the singing asshole, and I’m glad I ruined their night because, you know, why didn’t they just turn it off? I mean, I didn’t call the police when Forrest Gump started running.”
It wasn’t so long ago when subversiveness of this kind, more commonly known as camp, was rejoiced in rather than policed by its intended audience, which also happened to be its intended quarry: the educated liberal bourgeoisie. If you laughed at the juxtaposition between death and decor, or a musical sphincter and a handicapped boy breaking free of his leg-braces, it was because the boundary between good and bad taste had been erased or confused. You felt uncomfortable, guilty and provoked. You were drawn in and offended in equal measure.
There were three sensibilities for Susan Sontag, as laid out in her famous essay on camp. First came the moralism of high culture, or the pedantry that Great Books and classical painting and sculpture imparted; then came the extreme emotionalism of the avant-garde, the world of Kafka and Rimbaud; then finally her subject, the whole point of which, as she put it, was “to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”
Although Sontag insisted that the camp sensibility was always politically disengaged or disinterested, we tend to associate the dethroning of seriousness and moralism with radicalism. Camp’s stock-in-trade, after all, is irony. Conservatism’s is literal-mindedness.
The velvet-jacketed Wilde, to whom Sontag dedicated her essay, disdained the soapboxes of Hyde Park for the wealthy drawing-rooms of Chelsea to advance his case for socialism.
When Jessica Mitford applied for American citizenship and was asked why she was doing so by her prospective government, the English muckraker and niece-in-law of Winston Churchill answered that it was the only way she could legally join the Communist Party USA.
In his life and his writing, Christopher Hitchens made a mantra of Sontag’s inversion of earnestness and frivolity, whether he was going after Saddam Hussein, God, or the waiter who poured his wine unsolicited. To know him was to know that Jeeves’s commitment to Bertie Wooster’s tailoring was as grave a commentary on the British class system as anything to be found in The Daily Worker.
All of these examples, I realize, are imports from across the Atlantic. So what, then, to make of that sorrier commodity, Milo Yiannopoulos, whom Bill Maher mistakenly compared to Hitch two weeks ago, setting into motion a sequence of events that would have him disinvited from CPAC (which suddenly discovered a baseline of ethical behavior) and lost him a book deal?
In an era of cloying political correctness and identity politics, we are invited to believe that the proper assault on seriousness and literal-mindedness comes from a foreign-born race-baiter who goes on endlessly about his love of “black dick,” dresses alternatively like Enoch Powell and Boy George, and appears to admire most about the Catholic Church its predatory priests.
The new Victorians, according to this perspective, are the campus committees on public safety adjudicating on trigger-warnings and safe spaces — not to mention the entirety of the media, Hollywood and Democratic Party. Milo, who wore a pearl necklace in his appearance with Maher, is thus presented as the sharpest counterpoint to those who clutch at their pearls over the new war on “values” or the lack of “civility” in politics — the angry Clinton voter who finds Andy Borowitz funny.
Whatever is happening to the American right, ideology, as it was once understood, has very little to do with it. At most it has become an afterthought, an improvisational wardrobe for the playacting that constitutes contemporary conservatism. Milo represents the transformation of a politics into a pure aesthetic, a self-conscious elevation of style over substance, the apotheosis of reactionary camp.
Perhaps this isn’t so counterintuitive or surprising as it first appears.
As defined by Steve Bannon and Breitbart, the new political force that has swept Trump into the White House borrows far more from the epater le bourgeoisie toolkit of 60’s counterculture, which the Reagan Revolution was once ranged against, than it does from the writings of Burke, Kirk or Friedman. The only discernible goal now is to undermine and upend rather than defend and preserve. Flawed institutions exist not to be reformed but dismantled. All in the name of tradition. If “Make America Great Again” seems a parody of Stephen Colbert’s parody of a rightwing blowhard’s slogan, that’s because it is.
Even the Trumpian recourse to falsification and the rejection of empirical evidence finds its moorings in the funhouse mirror-image of camp.
In “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde suggests that facts are the enemy of art and must therefore be abandoned as a corrupting influence on society. They are far uglier than what an enterprising mind can dream up, which is why life imitates art and not the other way about. The London fog, Wilde’s alter ego Vivian tells his shocked interlocutor Cyril, has grown to resemble its representation in Impressionist painting, just as Twitter now seems to be discovering migrant crime in Sweden after Trump claimed that it had been covered up by the fake news media. Vivian had the industrial blue-book statistic as his bête noire. Trump has the brute materialism of Big Data, which makes everything from immigration to healthcare reform complicated. The “chilling touch” of facts, Vivian laments, “is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind.”
The ground zero of this tyranny of the self-evident? Not England but America, with its “materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals.” The rot set in with the foundational myth of George Washington and the cherry-tree, glorifying as a national ethos the first commander-in-chief’s supposed inability to deceive, which has “done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.” (Vivian even rails against journalists as being too hidebound in their commitment to the truth to be worth reading anymore; he yearns for alternative facts.)
The course correction, then, was always bound to be a knowing, winking cultivation of lying as a pleasurable pursuit in and of itself, which means that liars and bullshit artists were to eventually take on the role of a new cultural vanguard. Society, hip to their game, could not but welcome them after so many years of stultifying realism.
“Bored by the tedious and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance,” Vivian says, “tired of the intelligent person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be present, Society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar.”
If this should apply to art, then why not to politics, which in its 21st century incarnation is the truest form of life’s impersonation of art, from Moscow to Mar-a-Lago? Ideologues have lately given way to ideological poseurs. They are men who ask to be taken seriously but not literally.