The Pleasure of Tchotchkes
by Tom Leddy, Karen Haas, Apr 20, 2019
We all have them: those irrepressible objects that gather and reproduce themselves in bookshelves or on the tops of televisions, the little items bought on trips, wind-up toys mom gives you during holidays, collections of ceramic this and that. Who doesn’t know what a tchotchke is? The term comes from the Yiddish word tshatshke.1 It also may appear as tchatchke or tsatske (and is usually pronounced “CHOCH-kah”)—a trinket, knickknack, trifle, small toy, little plaything, bauble, or gewgaw. One thinks of something frivolous or glittery.
Evan Morris writes, “Today the word is usually applied to small decorative or whimsical items that usually are meant to be displayed on a shelf or mantel.” Morris describes his own tchotchkes as follows: “four mechanical cows, a small rubber walrus, a rubber cat, several decorative carved African letter openers, two plastic lobsters, a half-dozen dysfunctional clocks, an extensive collection of gargoyle figurines, and a small plastic toaster which, when wound, marches across your desk waving slices of toast and rolling its eyes.”2
Recently we visited a sister-in-law who, though unfamiliar with the term, had been collecting tchotchkes her entire adult life. Mostly she had imitation American-folk objects and decorative items based on early American designs. In the ten years since our last visit, her accumulation had taken over every available space of wall and countertop. These objects were artfully arranged in categories, such as angels, rag-dolls, and hearts, or were combined in miniature stage-sets.
We carefully moved aside objects to set down our toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste. We lifted objects off the bed to turn down the sheets. It was amazing. Our first reaction was private humor, but we could not help but feel awe for the energy and passion exhibited.
Though individually, items may have been of questionable taste, taken together and arranged in one’s own way, the result was so mysteriously personal that it achieved a powerful effect.
Perhaps it’s not polite to call someone else’s collection “tchotchkes.” The term is somewhat of a put-down. Tchotchkes may take the place of finer quality art or craft objects we feel should grace our home or office. Wouldn’t one rather have one Vermeer than a room full of tchotchkes? Not everyone.
Are tchotchkes aesthetically bad?
They seem to be linked to kitsch, and we still haven’t decided about that. Much of what is called “kitsch” is disdained because it's mass-produced and cheap. But terms such as “cheap” and “sentimental” have often been used to attack the tastes of the lower classes, the feelings of women, and the art of nonwestern cultures. The term tchotchke is open to these charges, too. As Lucy Lippard argues, it seems ridiculous to say that people who fill their houses with pink glass swans do not understand “art” when “art itself uses so much of this paraphernalia (and not always satirically or condescendingly).”3
There is something comforting about having many little things collected on a shelf or in a corner that have personal meaning or some slight aesthetic value. Perhaps tchotchkes represent something universal. These objects can return us to childhood through their emphasis on the little, the toylike, the cute, the pretty, and the sweet. Moreover, one might argue that the urge to collect is timeless—a manifestation of an urge to pick and choose, perhaps more basic even than such paradigmatic artistic activities as painting or shaping and firing clay. In some contexts, it is an artistic activity itself. Think of curators who, in the contemporary art world, have become important centers of creativity, becoming artists in their own right. The concept of “visual culture” allows them to “pick and choose” from high and low art, and even from non-art, to make expressive points about diverse groups.
How do artists use tchotchkes?
We tried to think of how our Bay Area artist friends use tchotchkes. Although the term seems connected to New York, since that is a land of Yiddish words, we asked ourselves, “What are West Coast tchotchkes?” Items related to Hollywood, San Francisco, the beach?
Some of our friends collect and arrange tchotchkes on mantels and home “altars” in such a way as to make them into works of art. What better place to put that small statue of Buddha that has been kicking around the house? Yet, in the course of being appropriated, these objects lose some of the qualities valued by the original owners. They may no longer be as touching, inspirational, religious, wise, lovely or patriotic as they once were. All that is replaced by irony, and it is the ironic attitude that makes them tchotchkes.
Of course, generations of artists have been going to Goodwill stores for inspiration and coming home with tchotchkes. Gradually, these are being incorporated into works of art. They have formed parts of assemblage. They have been represented in photographs and paintings. As a result, there are more tchotchkes in art galleries and museums. Their presence refers to our ongoing fascination with the balancing point between high and low art, between art and the visual culture of everyday life. And tchotchkes tie into certain current trends in art. Their displays present no grand narratives, do not pretend to high art. They do not even pretend to be formal collections.
Tchotchkes are not to be taken seriously, and there’s the rub. It's likely that Lippard would see the current ironic use of tchotchkes in art as objectionable slumming, an embarrassing “choice of poverty” expressing an ineffectual middle-class guilt. We might respond that using tchotchkes in art attempts to reconnect with the aesthetic pleasures of everyday experience. But Lippard would reply that contemporary avant-garde art, for all its attempts to break out of the gold frame of traditional high-culture art, is necessarily class-bound.
And so where are we? We continue to experience various sorts of pleasure in tchotchkes by way of our understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. Still, we worry that a turn to low-art items for incorporation and appropriation is simply a co-option by high art for middle-class considerations. We find ourselves worrying a lot about taste, especially when ironic appropriations of bad taste become examples of good taste. Yet “tchotchke” is a playful term, perhaps not something to take so seriously.
1. The Word Detective. http://www.word-detective.com/
2. Robert Solomon. “On Kitsch and Sentimentality” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49:1 (1991) p. 3.
3. Lucy R. Lippard. The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art (New York: The New Press, 1995) p. 120.