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Garden gnomes

When trying to understand the parameters of kitsch or trying to identify an object as such, it would be limiting to give a definitive definition. For example, when you type “kitsch” into google the definition it gives is “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way”. This definition is not only diminishing to kitsch, but are also inherently wrong due to the lack of explanation. For instance, this definition implies that all bad/ironic art and objects can be considered kitsch, which is not true at all, just because something has been created in poor taste does not mean that it would qualify as kitsch. Kitsch may have a reputation a being created in poor taste, but this is due to our societal understanding of what good taste is, those who appreciate catch kitsch do not necessarily see these items as tacky or tasteless, but genuinely enjoy the type of it aesthetic that kitsch offers. Kitsch is better understood and identified through a set of conventions that would then reflect if something qualifies as kitsch or not. With the use of Thomas Kulka’s three conditions which he states in, What Is Kitsch, I can identify and defend that garden gnomes belong to the category of kitsch. His conditions of kitsch are, Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charges with stock emotions, the objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable and kitsch does not substantially enrich our association relation to the depicted objects or themes” (pg 37-pg 38). Based off to these conditions and other popular characteristics that the kitsch possess I will break down the relationship garden gnomes have with the kitsch. These conditions along with other popular characteristics possessed by the kitsch will prove that modern Garden gnomes belong to the category kitsch.

To prove garden gnomes standing within kitsch it is important to start with their origin story. Gnomes originated through very old fairytales and mysticism, this type of magical being has been found to be represented in multiple cultures. The common description of gnomes were that they were very small creatures, no bigger than two feet, and were said to have worn conical hats. Gnomes were commonly believed to have lived in nature and mainly underground, the tales of their purpose varied depending the on culture. European cultures considered gnomes to be protectors of underground treasure or to be part of a hidden process to promote plant life. There was also a strong belief that if gnomes were to surface during the day that the sun rays would turn them into stone. These internationally known tales of gnomes as magical creatures lead to the creation, mass production and popularization of the modern garden gnome.

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The company Baehr and Maresch may have been the first to make ceramic statues of “drawfs” or “little people”, but Phillip Griebel is the one who is credited with the production of the first garden gnome. Phillip constructed hand painted terra-cotta statues of animals and human-like figures, to represent the stories about gnomes and cater to the German people’s fascination of these legends. Sir Charles Isham bought twenty one garden gnomes from Grieble, that he took back to his home in England and scattered them around his lawn and garden, quickly after the popularization of the garden gnome took off in England. During this time in England it was common for wealthy landowners to hire people to be “ornamental hermits” in their gardens. This job would entail wandering around the land while wearing rags, living in a rustic shed, isolated from communication and to reach the appearance of a hermit with lack of bodily upkeep. The introduction of garden gnomes in England created a more accessible, humane and cheaper way for people to imitate and replace that degrading practice. The mass production garden gnomes then took off in Germany and the love for gnomes spread through Europe.

The origin story of garden gnomes may not seem like much, but its beginnings are rooted in the heart of kitsch and as the love and development of garden gnomes progresses it is hard to deny that the modern day garden gnome is a kitsch object. Phillip Grieble’s reasoning and execution of the garden gnomes align with Kulka’s three conditions. Grieble created them for the enjoyment of those who were already infatuated by the legends of gnomes, therefore he created an object that already had a strong emotional charge. These lawn ornaments were not created to represent or achieve status but for the pure enjoyment and appreciation of the German people. Grieble’s gnomes where created around the mid-1800’s, which was right around Romanticism movement and in the height of germanys industrialization, which according to Kulka are the two main factors that bring forth the development of kitsch. Kulka states, “Kitsch as we know it cannot be divorced from the socioeconomic conditions described by those who see this phenomenon as a product of industrial revolutionary. It also seems true that of all artistic movements it is the Romantic movement that created the most fertile grounds for kitsch (pg. 15)”. Grieble’s construction of the gnomes also followed the conditions of kitsch. He made them accurate to the legends which made these terra-cotta statues easily identifiable to the masses; a small statured human-like figure with a pointy hat, basic colored clothing and the appearance of being frozen in place almost like they were turned into stone. As stated earlier the production of these objects were not for a higher status or meaning, they were made as visual representation of an already existing idea. The statues themselves were not made to elevate or dramatically change the mysticism of these creatures, but purely for enjoyment, which follows the last condition that kitsch does not enrich our relation or understand to the objects depicted.

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The interest of a garden gnomes has various spikes of popularity and decline due changes in socio economic structures, art and culture. For example, there was an extreme decline of production and interest due to WWI, but around the 1930’s there became a huge spike of interest again because of release of Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. The depiction of the dwarfs starts to influence the appearance of garden gnomes, they’re clothing becomes brighter and their expression become more cartoony. The 1960’s and 1970’s brought more to the kitsch aestheticism into the appearance of the garden gnome, with even more emphasis in their expression, poses and outfits this becomes the major transition of how we depict garden gnomes today.

In Susan Sontags, Notes on Camp, she gives an extensive break down of the sensibility of camp. Camp, very much like the kitsch, cannot fully grasped through a singular definition, but is better understood through a set of standards or common themes. There are a couple points that Sontag gives that about camp that can give a well rounded view of the genuine notion of camp. They are; “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques (page 1)”, “ Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman (note 10)”, “ Camp rests on innocence. That means Camp discloses innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it (note 21) “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much (note 26)” and “The whole point of Camp is 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 (note 41)”. This list is a simplification of understanding Camp, but still captures the essences and intentions of camp. With these ideas I will draw the connections to how the modern garden gnome can be seen as camp.

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The garden gnome was originally created by Phillip Grieble’s reasoning for making the gnome statues was for the enjoyment of the German people who were already infatuated by the myths and stories of gnomes. He designed them to be accurate description of the legends, gnomes are historically known as small statured human-like figure with a conical hat, basic colored clothing and the appearance of being frozen in place almost like they were turned into stone.

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