The Art of Artlessness: Notes on the Met Gala
By Elliott Eglash
On Monday, actors, musicians, designers, assorted other artists, and the Kardashians descended on the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the 2019 Met Gala, which is to say: they came to walk the red carpet. Or possibly, depending on their get-up, to sashay / stumble / tap dance / slither / striptease the red carpet.
This year’s theme was “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” which sought to define a certain ineffable sensibility: camp is “one of the hardest things to talk about,” she writes, but its essence is “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” To that end, much of the evening resembled a hallucinogenic costume contest. Cardi B came in a feathered, sequined gown of bloody burgundy, with a three-meter long train that rippled behind her like a river of bodily fluids. Katy Perry showed up as a fully-functional chandelier, perhaps hoping attendees would confuse her for Sia. She later pulled a mid-party costume change, appearing afterward as a human-sized hamburger—an outfit so unwieldy that she reportedly fell over and rolled around on the floor, in the process breaking the five-second rule. I hope she saved her McDonald’s receipt—maybe they’ll refund her the cost of her Big Mac. Solange strutted in a snakeskin bodysuit with matching knee-high boots, looking something like a desperado crossed with my grandmother’s purse. Janelle Monáe came in a Cubist-inflected dress, replete with asymmetric mouth and blinking eyes.
Impossible as it may seem, Monáe was upstaged by actor and LGBTQ-heartthrob Ezra Miller, who toted a death mask of his own face, and sported a shimmering array of painted-eyeballs on his actual face. What did it mean? No one can say. Was it camp? I say: two thumbs up, and two eyes transfixed. Miller’s multi-eyed look offered a much more concise summary of the camp aesthetic than Sontag’s sprawling notes. It’s eye-catching in its extremity.
Indeed, the most successful campers of the evening were the ones who brought their own backdrops. Jared Leto showed up wearing a red-silk Gucci gown and carrying a disturbingly lifelike replica of his own head, which he indulgently posed with. Holding his own head aloft, gazing into his eyes, he looked like a cross between Hamlet talking to poor Yorick and Narcissus falling in love with his own face. Lady Gaga came with an outfit that unfurled in multiple stages, like a rocket launch.She gradually stripped from her billowy pink ballroom gown to her lacy black undergarments, basically hijacking the MET’s entryway for a centerfold photo-shoot. And Billy Porter arrived with an entourage—or, rather, on top of one. Dressed like a serenely gilded pharaoh, he showed up carried by six shirtless and masked attendants, perhaps suggesting that the evening’s opulence was supported, in a rather literal way, by the back-breaking labor of underlings. (Slaves are never camp, but owning slaves might be.)
Sontag writes that the “camp” sensibility is “disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.” Many attendees took that mantra as a motto, though Porter’s entrance suggested that royal nonchalance, no matter how opulent, is still a political pose. The decision not to make political statements is itself a political statement, and not a very good one.
This perhaps explains why a few of the attendees showed up on the opposite end of the camp spectrum, wearing no costumes, no gimmicks,. Kanye appeared in an aggressively casual all-black get-up (including a Dickies jacket that cost less than $50), and Frank Ocean sported a black suit and tie beneath a black Prada anorak. Did they somehow miss the memo?
Trevor Noah’s outfit, however, revealed one possible rationale behind the non-outfit trend. Noah wore a black jacket, which he repeatedly held open to reveal a white t-shirt with a simple claim in all-caps: “This is all a formality.” It attempted to get at a fundamental contradiction of the evening. Camp is often glossed as a kind of parody, but that’s mostly because it’s so easy to parody. In fact, it’s closer to a kind of deadly seriousness about things that high-society might consider unimportant, low-brow, or “silly.” A human-sized hamburger get-up is intentionally absurd, and unintentionally boring—it looks like a child’s store-bought Halloween costume. A non-statement in all-black, however, is intentionally serious and stoic, in a way that both appears silly on a red carpet replete with sequins, feathers, and rainbows, but also underlines the essential silliness of the whole enterprise.
Ocean, in a small gesture of individuality, brought along a small digital camera, which he pulled out and used to snap pictures of the paparazzi, who, of course, snapped right back. These pictures of Ocean as a photographer are subtly subversive, and perhaps the best example of camp from the entire night. They suggest that, while the world was busy watching celebrities, we were also being watched. These pictures insist that the real spectacle wasn’t that the stars walked the red carpet, but that the whole world gathered together for a brief moment to watch them walk. As Sontag writes, “we are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own.”