Philosopher as Farce: Artist Immortalizes Marx as Garden Gnome

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Ottmar Hörl gained international notoriety in 2009 by designing garden gnomes giving Nazi salutes. Now he hopes to stimulate debate with 500 gnome-like figurines of Karl Marx in Trier, but he might not hit his mark.

Pedestrian shopping areas in Germany are usually filled with people pondering such mundane issues as which nail polish to buy or whether to grab a pretzel. But who says that these bargain hunters couldn't wrangle with more lofty and abstract philosophical questions, such as Marx's critique of capitalism, especially if they come packaged in something as down-to-earth as the good ol' German garden gnome?

Political artist Ottmar Hörl captured headlines far away from his hometown of Nuremberg in 2009 when he created garden gnomes performing Nazi salutes. And now he's back to making what he hopes will be another controversial statement. In honor of Karl Marx's 195th birthday, Hörl has spread out 500 plastic figurines of the famous thinker in Trier, the western German city near the border with Luxembourg where Marx was born. Each miniature sculpture, which stands less than a meter (3.3 feet) tall, portrays Marx in the exact same pose, but in different shades of red.

A nifty idea, sure. But what could it possibly mean? "I want to inspire pedestrians to think about Karl Marx in a different way," Hörl explains while his installation is being set up next to Trier's historic Roman city gate, Porta Nigra, adding that the German philosopher has often been misinterpreted.

Still, one could say that Hörl himself has fallen pray to this fallacy himself. No matter what we personally think about Marx and his philosophy of history, if he is reduced to the figure of a bearded little chap, the great thinker joins the ranks of other city mascots like the Berlin bear or Hamburg's Hans Hummel. The Marx-gnome may become a popular subject for tourist photos or a favorite for children to climb around on, but it will hardly stir a debate about Marx' ideas -- at least not about anything that goes beyond the simplistic message of Hörl's artwork, which claims that not every shade of red is the same and that Marxism can be interpreted in myriad ways.

The primary insight that Hörl's Marx-gnome communicates is that if Marx is trivialized to the maximum, he hardly even disrupts the consumerist landscape on the shopping mall. Four different shades of red give less food for thought than any nail polish section. Indeed, it would hardly have been possible to ridicule the man who once tried to overcome capitalism more thoroughly.

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