THE DESIGNER TOM FORD sometimes recalls a peg-legged man he would see at Studio 54 in Midtown Manhattan. The man was memorable—“sexy,” Ford said. He was flawed and incomplete but still beautiful, pivoting on his peg like a top. Later, in the 1990s, the designer Alexander McQueen fitted the Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins with prosthetic legs that seemed part climbing vine, part scrimshaw, part Viking boat. She seemed to float as she walked.
How to understand this prosthetic mystique? Why was there beauty in truncation and lack? The sentiment crops up across eras and genres. Some of us feel it when we contemplate old, tragic archetypes—legendary martyrs, sacrificial heroes, consumptive maids, banished kings—figures whose stories were cut short, whose timelines were somehow incomplete. Others feel it before certain crucifixes (the really grotesque ones), or Victorian paintings of street urchins, the war-wounded, and blind maidens under brilliant skies. This fascination with the marred and pathetic, and with our efforts to gild it, inflects myriad subcultures: consider the goth aesthetic, for example, which covers death with archness, or steampunk, whose brazen and mahoganied encrustations heighten the fragility of human flesh. Needless to say, none of this is considered tasteful, so we rarely theorize it or celebrate it. Instead we hide it or dismiss it as entertainment, not worthy of thought.
In fact, we are often secretly ashamed of it—shamed by the highbrow gatekeepers. And we can’t muster the defiance to own it, so we keep our mouths shut. Because ours wouldn’t be a delicious, winking defiance (“Get over your scruples”), but stammering and shamefaced (“I like it. So what?”). We would suspect ourselves of being sentimental: maudlin, voyeuristic, indulgent. Or we’d think ourselves morbid: worshipping a dried-flower fragility ripe for control. Or perhaps we’d feel like pie-eyed futurists, indulging a cyborgian flesh-hatred, a fairy-tale transhumanism. We might think ourselves campy, but not in on the joke.
Yet actually, we wouldn’t be any of these things. Because sentimentality, morbidity, and aesthetic gnosticism are all corruptions of a purer impulse, intrinsic to humanity since the beginning of time. This is the impulse to draw near the place where lightning strikes and trace its golden path upward. It is the impulse to look into the roaring cataract to find the depths. Put abstractly, it is a reverence for natural voids that make space for the supernatural, so that spirit can rush in with a thunderclap. Prosthetic legs can be a figure of this, but they are only one of a million such figures. And if the human form is a god-form (as the Christian idea of incarnation promises) then the prosthetic is more than a figure—it is a prophecy. And it manifests what I call an aesthetic of lack.
All of the phenomena and subcultures I mentioned before have a kind of additive mania: detail piled upon detail, bottomless echoes descending, surfaces blazing with bespoke virtuosity and dense texture. Thus they all strive to fill a lack, like the madman who can’t help repeating the same phrase until he is satisfied (but he will never be satisfied). And such effusion used to be everywhere. It lent prosthetic aid to everything. In many ways it was beauty—the beauty of the European Middle Ages, the walls of Hindu temples, the carved whorls of wooden bell towers on dry mountains in Japan, calling and calling the faithful to never-ending supplication. In this spirit, such supplementing beauty can still be seen in rural shrines or glimmering from flea markets in treasures of “tramp art” or needlework. It’s sometimes even seen at truck stops and drugstores, in masterpieces of cheap kitsch spotlit in plastic vitrines.
And how should we formally describe it? Well, first, it is an aesthetic of the horror vacui—of endless repetition, ornament climbing and tumbling, hidden corners enlivened with runic surprises, so that nothing is empty. And it is also an aesthetic of the compound: rising, conglomerate spires and pyramid-temples in infinite, modular steps. And it is an aesthetic of the radiant and radiating—of dark centers from which splendor shoots like projectiles. Thematically speaking, it often bears witness to death and rebirth—like piled paper flowers, soiled and wilting, or barnacled ex-votos tarnishing on velvet walls, or overlapped, fading photographs. It’s a style of faces grinning from carven leaves and grapevines engulfing sarcophagi. And what it says is this: “I am incomplete; we all are incomplete; our lack can never be filled. Though we stoke our fires, they always consume. We can only be completed in God.”
But modernity has favored an aesthetic of sufficiency. When it comes to the human form, this is the aesthetic of the complete outline, gravitationally anchored in its center, suffused with the golden mean and lacking nothing. This modern form is galvanic, muscular, godlike, its movements effortless. It needs nothing from you, and its friendship is condescension. Practically speaking, it is the aesthetic of the shell-pale Greek statue that wears no clothes because it needs none—it’s impervious to the cold. It is also the aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (a film of fabricated Nazi body-perfection), or of the gargantuan, bare-chested George Washington at the Smithsonian, or of numerous civic monuments made in Washington’s wake. And today it is the aesthetic of smug, vampiric Vogue photo shoots, gleaming dancers in music videos, and certain incongruous Christmastime ads for perfume.
In architecture and design, too, the modern aesthetic of sufficiency reigns triumphant—in two forms. More traditionally, it is the neo-Doric sanctum, all marble and affectless and supreme, like the Lincoln Memorial in its brooding severity. But it also manifests as a self-satisfied minimalism, replacing marble with slate or steel but keeping the heroic proportions intact. Both say with their very simplicity: “I am complete; I am all-in-all. There is no need, with ornament or symbol, to point beyond the boundaries of me.” Both are vaguely fascist in their force.
In abstract modern painting, this aesthetic tendency found its mathematical formula—its perfect boiling-down into an infinitely permutable principle. For though modernist abstraction may not represent bodies, it does figure self-sufficiency as a concept in its purest form. Mondrian’s calibrated grids never reach beyond their frames; each provides its own center of gravity (the Dutch Mondrian spent his late career in New York, where he found a rhetoric of order in the gridded streets). Despite their gestural softness, the works of Mark Rothko are like this as well. Even the drips of Jackson Pollock, if one looks closely, seem vomited from a black hole that could retract its effluvia at any minute, everything leashed by forces of centralized, self-generating power. Among the heirs of Mondrian and Franz Kline are our familiar corporate logos, marvelously scalable in their monumentality, as perfect in miniature as on a skyscraper’s side.
This aesthetic of sufficiency is the aesthetic of America, the Modern Nation. It is a style of natural superiority, fluid and self-evident, equal to every challenge and never in need of aid. It says, “I am this and no more, for I need nothing; bow down before me and my self-generating power. Worship my boundaries, perfect and complete.” It is the aesthetic signature of the age of revolutions, and of our founding. It is the dome of the US Capitol building, inviolable and seamless as a fresh-laid egg. It is the gilded Sherman monument in New York’s Central Park, its hero-general ramrod straight in a heavenly wind. It is sexy female personifications of victory. And it says this: that America, as a nation, needs no monarchs or priests, because all of its people are (of course) already gods.
And so its golden outline has graced many of our archetypes: both the confident, Waspy oarsman on the Charles and the rugged, homesteading individualist on the plains. (Beneath the latter’s flannel and suspenders are the muscles of a god pulse—we can see, we can know.) Both of these, in their own ways, are self-evidently complete and sovereign manifestations of the American ideal, despite their positions on opposite sides of a politico-cultural divide: rural/urban, rustic/savvy, conservative/liberal, rugged/refined.
This is an aesthetic of whiteness, too. Of pure white marble, of blankness and generality, of infinite potential, like embryonic stem cells. It has no patience for marks, shadows, specificity, specialization, nuance. And it is also an aesthetic of whiteness, racially speaking. For in its conception of what is godlike and complete, it makes use of certain imaginative precedents that were always pale of skin: that Ivy League rower, that homesteader, that Zeus-like George Washington. These were the aspirational figures that have helped shape and guide and goad American striving, lashing us all with longing and guilt and greed for our own glory—our chance to be this particularly American version of holy.
In his mind, the rural patriot (the good ol’ boy) was such a god once, when he played football and skinny-dipped and foot-raced under the moon. It’s in him yet, like a Michelangelo sculpture still cocooned in its marble. Once a god, always a god. The ex-cheerleader mom was this once, too. She once felt the holiness out to her fingertips.
The urban soccer mom was this once, she reminds us. Maybe she is a little like this still. Her expensive athletic clothes sculpt her body to be sleek like marble, and her hair is brushed with chemical gold. Her eyebrows are wonders of aerodynamism symbolized; she wears the rune of power on her face. The sleek socialite is this still, too, in her little black dress that accentuates and never obscures. Short of impervious nakedness, the little black dress is the perfect uniform of self-sufficiency. It says, “I require no ornament or contextualization. My value is self-evident. My outline contains all there is.” There was only a little distance, after all, between Leni Riefenstahl and Coco Chanel.
The peg-legged man danced at Studio 54 and felt his lack celebrated. And indeed, the short-lived Studio 54 had been a famous incubator for flagrant artificiality—for an aesthetics of lack that highlighted dissonances, grotesqueries, and voids. Founded as a low-rent opera house and later used as a sound stage, it had a strident theatricality in its plaster bones. And in the anything-goes environment of 1970s Manhattan, that theatricality could open a space for something older: a resurrection of premodern gods of specific animistic potential, blazing in their complementarity and lack. Thus at Studio 54, there was something like shamanic transformation, the calling-down of small spirits. On some wild nights, socialites, athletes, and celebrities morphed into animals, suns, and primitive deities, their earthly forms distended by piling bulbs and protuberant rays. One New Year’s Eve, the whole space was dramatically supplemented and thus transformed: at the stroke of midnight, tons of glitter were dumped from the ceiling, making a four-inch crust of stardust on the floor.
Studio 54 was also a haven for drag culture. And drag, too, seems to call the old, folkish limits down—seems to create a void into which supplement must rush. In drag, so proudly artificial, there is no attempt to seem edenically perfect and complete. There is no attempt to appear innocent and unmarked. No, there is only the harsh, the bright, the opposite, the flagrant, the flamboyant. There is only reaching, adorning, and stretching until the natural, the given, the native, is overshadowed with a flashing, grasping glory of a different kind.
Drag culture, the peg-legged man, carven water-waves on dry mountains—these are all prosthetics. Fill-ins for a lack. And in old religious art, in fact, there was a supreme prosthetic that supplemented the body, reaching outward in gilded glamor, figuring the spiritual substratum for all we perceive in the flesh. It was the halo, and with its flagrance and upward pull it said (says) that no one is naturally complete; to each one is born an intrinsic need, a yawning lack.
In the tiny chapel of Saint Zeno in Rome, encrusted voluptuously with chunks of gold, the earnest Pope Paschal had his mother figured in mosaic alongside great women saints (Mary, Agnes, Praxedis). The mother’s halo is blue and square, not round and gold like her companions’. For Paschal’s mother was no saint, the pope admitted—at least, as a living woman, she wasn’t a completed saint yet. But Paschal could not leave his beloved mother’s head bare. How could he? For he knew that nature gapes with lack. He knew that we’re meant to be hooked up to something else, as if our skulls were plugs. Or to put it another way: he knew that all of us are amputees from moment we’re born.
Elite culture disdains the aesthetics of lack. Though Studio 54 attracted elites, its manifestations were relatively secret and ephemeral, not to be taken seriously—momentary amusements for the decadent. Meanwhile devotional art, folk art, fantasy subcultures—all of these have been greeted with elite incredulity and condescension, as either the products of the naïve or of flights of bad taste.
Thus drag, ex-votos, and glitter-dumps are “camp.” In 1964, coming off perhaps the smuggest period in American culture, when the implicit rhetoric of completeness Americans had worshipped for two hundred years had achieved its final theologization, something called “camp” was wittily defined, confining much of what we love to the shadows. And most appropriately, it was defined by an elegant New Yorker who, like a time-scrubbed Greek statue, needed no ornament. She was thirty-one and wore tight, monochromatic clothes. Her hair was rippling, her brow serious, her breasts firm, and her name alliterative. She was Susan Sontag, and because she was at once young, intellectual, and beautiful, she seemed complete. Her credibility was unassailable. She knew whereof she spoke, for she was the antithesis of camp as the light is the opposite of the dark. With her luminous person she searched the dark and squalid corners of this, the low.
“Camp” is a word for something tasteless yet amusing. It is associated with queer culture, but it also reminds one of the childlike, the naïve, and the carnivalesque. According to its most distilled formulation, camp is excess, “too much.” It is disgusting in its decadence but amusing in its earnestness. It offers bracing sensations like a strong gin.
And according to Sontag, camp is not off-limits for people of good taste. Indeed, to “get” and appreciate camp is to be humorous and broad-minded—but one must not take it seriously. One must stay at an aesthetic remove, tempering enjoyment with mockery. Camp is like a trashy one-night stand; one’s tenderness and respect must be reserved for something more metaphysically correct. Much pop culture is camp, and folk culture before that. Much religious culture is camp, with its passionate gestures toward apparent nothingness. (Think old men in brocades, Marian dolls dressed to the nines, bronze Shivas wrapped in ribbons, or lacquered temple guardians with theatrical scowls.) Really, anything truly luscious is camp. And all of this is “low” and slightly nauseating if consumed too much.
For Sontag, a whole universe of aesthetic phenomena qualified as camp. Indeed, camp seemed to encompass more types of things than not-camp—it was most of what humans had historically made. Ballet and opera were intrinsically camp. Camp may have originated with the baroque (according to Sontag), but then she found it in the early Renaissance, too. Anything flagrantly aristocratic was camp. Anything that grandly gestured was camp. Tiffany lamps were camp, and Versailles, and Alexander Pope. Art nouveau was camp, and Henry James, and Charles Dickens. Since Sontag, theorists have proposed that sacred ceremony—a bit like opera—is intrinsically camp. It is no coincidence that the Met Gala foundation preceded its celebration of “Camp” with a riff on “the Catholic Imagination.” Sontag would surely have approved.
“Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken seriously because it is ‘too much’,” wrote Sontag. But what is “too much”? Sontag did not try to define too-muchness, but left it to “taste” to descry. Yet taste and ideology have ever been coconspirators. If it has been in America’s best interest to preach a rhetoric of self-sufficiency, could “too much” be anything that undermines that cause? Could it be anything that transgresses the boundaries of self-containment—that denies our aspiration to burn with self-life like gods?
Because notions of self-sufficiency are modern and proud—are not rooted in ancient wisdom. Those impervious Greek statues were not meant to be shell-white and generic and rhetorically complete. No, at first, they were flashy and camp. They were limited, proliferating parts of a social-visual mesh, part of a flickering fabric. They were members of a chain of sacred symbology manifest, wearing the flamboyant regalia of station, taking part in a bigger tapestry. Their patterns transgressed their boundaries, and their colors blinded. Scholars have shown how they were painted brilliantly and gaudily, crowned with gold, strident with color like drag queens under theater lights.
The gaudy monarch butterfly and the garish zebra vibrate with patterns that reach out and link each individual, visually, to both its larger tribe and to the biome on which it depends. A single zebra, a single butterfly, does not, somehow, seem complete. One’s gaze transgresses the outlines; one looks and desires to see more and more.
Look at the ancient Greek Peplos Kore as she is now (on the left), and as she once was (on the right). She is tasteful now, but then she was tacky. Now she is understated, smug, dignified, self-contained. But then, her colors stung the eyes, and golden rays sprang desperately from her head, reaching toward a transcendence that exploded visual boundaries, that declared her body incomplete, that said “she as you see her is not enough—there is more.”
Is the starburst crown of the Peplos Kore “too much,” gesturing toward a transcendent else-ness? Is the “too much” of camp, then, only defined by the modern eye, under the American spell of the modern material god? Would pious Italian villagers, raised under the eyes of saints whose voluminous garments ripple in angelic winds, see the same kind of too-muchness? Or the Mexican devout who craft ceremonial biers from a million flowers? Or the Japanese woodcarvers who, even today, lacquer and gild a thousand oceanic swirls on the walls of mountain temples?
Sontag also wrote, “the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” But what is unnatural and what is exaggerated? Is it unnatural for a bishop to wear a miter, distending his outline upward toward the source of his purpose, gesturing toward the engine that invisibly completes his role? Is it unnatural for a queen to wear her crown? Is it unnatural for Carlo Crivelli (Sontag’s bête noire) to revel in mad detail beyond the scope of the human eye and then crust it over with jewels? Or is all of this natural, actually, in a way we’ve forgotten, because our dogma won’t allow us to see it? Does camp merely say, like every culture in the history of the world before ours, that humanity lacks?
As I sit here, I am camp. I am wearing a glossy pink wig, and my left breast, impossibly perky, is made of silicone. I am incomplete, and I signal this with flamboyance that does not lie—that does not masquerade as godlike, natural self-sufficiency. I can no longer pretend I am a modern, material god. When I announced my cancer to my university students, one of them brought me a rainbow wig donated by a drag queen. Another gave me images of “wigs throughout history,” including pharaonic crescents, jaunty perukes, and powdered towers bedecked with ships. All of these things showcased my lack and did not hide it. That was just right.
Things are falling apart, and the modern god is questioned. The consensus of taste that could not articulate the good but could only feel it, and that relegated everything else to the outside, the folk or the camp, is crumbling. This is only the outward symbol of a deeper consensus that crumbles: one of every type of normalcy and taken-for-grantedness and obvious virtuousness. The field upon which we emerge is dangerous indeed, and likely to be inflected with much terror and strangeness. Yet God will glorify himself. The enemies of the smug and complete, the modern material god, are many, and they may sometimes see each other as foes. But all, I think, are agreed that we are not enough, and all long for something better and higher that our lips can’t speak, that is above us and to which we appeal. This is a religious impulse, cast abroad everywhere, and it burbles, lava-like, out of a billion mouths. We all seek gods now; may they not be false ones.
So we are learning that unity must come, not in flawless sameness, but in lack. All of us lack. And so it is not in our bodies that we are the same but in the fact of our gesture and the direction of our gesture—our upward gesture of lack. Like the Peplos Kore, all of us have desperate rays emerging from our heads, reaching, reaching, for what will make us complete, for what will connect us to the whole.
Let us wear regalia then, pink wigs if we must, as children unfinished, yet destined for a high purpose. Let us march about as maiden sacrifices trussed up for the killing, for all of us will die. Let us worship in our camps, our pavilions girding the holy mountain, as peoples strange and waiting. And let us see also that token of fraternity, gleaming and throbbing above every head: the halo (distraction, distension, prophetic glow) that says, “I am not, therefore—and none of us is—fully human yet.”
Katie Kresser’s most recent book is Bezalel’s Body: The Death of God and the Birth of Art (Wipf and Stock). She is a professor of art history at Seattle Pacific University.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.