Miami Beach native Mitchell (Micky) Wolfson, Jr. was determined to find his own voice, and more importantly, to get people’s attention. He tried his hand as an artist, taking lessons at a young age, until his art teacher politely suggested he try something else. Intent on engaging others in a unique way, he moved onto writing. At Princeton University, under the tutelage of the famous Irish short-story writer Sean O’Faolain, Wolfson continued to search for a means of expression – until he was told, in no uncertain terms, that he “didn’t have a creative bone in his body.” Unfazed and ever optimistic, Wolfson sought out new ways to share his vision with the world.
Fascinated by the creative processes, influences and motivations of other people, Wolfson embarked on wide-ranging international travels, amassing an impressive collection of diverse historical objects. For Wolfson, each object represents a unique aspect of human behaviour and process. His calling was cemented by a simple fascination with “what other people make.”
After decades of collecting, Wolfson established The Wolfsonian Foundation in 1986 – a research center and museum in Miami Beach – and began publishing The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts; The Wolfsonian-FIU opened its doors to the public in 1995. Beyond its carved sandstone entrance, visitors can explore the meanings and legacies of modernity through 120,000 objects originating from the height of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the Second World War. From decorative, graphic and fine art objects, to rare books and furniture, each piece reveals as much about our times as they reveal about their own. We met Micky in the Wolfsonian’s Downtown space to find out what sparks his interest in collecting.
What would you like to say to people who come to The Wolfsonian-FIU for the first time? Any words to the younger generation?
You know, I have a kind of mission and it is to correct the misuse of history through the language of objects. History is always written from a point of view, and language is easily manipulated. You can even – for a time – convince people against their will, if you have control of language. So one must be aware of language because it can be so misused. History is also ofttimes a product of misuse, because it is always written from a point of view.
Human creations lie less. Because what we make is spontaneous and comes either from the heart or the soul, or sometimes from the heart and the soul. We pour our energy, our craft, our art and our – if you will – ambition, into an object. Objects, like a novel, have requirements. You can’t have a novel unless you respect the form of a novel. You can have poetry, or a play, or something else. But for a novel to be successful it must appeal to everybody. It must have a universal appeal. And it must fulfill certain requirements to take the form of a novel.
For objects to work, especially utilitarian objects, they must be recognizable. The collection of objects you see here are easily identifiable to anybody who looks at them: a bowl, a table, a chair, anything you see in here is usually recognizable. And thus we can all agree, you can design a chair in many, many ways, but if it doesn’t function as a chair is doesn’t get the title of ‘chair’. So I believe that what we make, really is more truthful and honest than official history. It has an immediate reflection of time and place. And so, that is why I think that objects lie less and novels don’t lie at all, because novels are fiction and they tell a story.
Which is shaped…
And has a form that is like life itself. The author gives birth to all those characters, to all those people, to all those situations, and we all read it and we all share in the story because it’s a form that we recognize, like the form of a glass.
How do you make your selections? What sparks your interest?
If it’s made by men or women, it is interesting to me. Human behavior is best understood, by what the species attempts to make – as opposed to the finished product. Because the finished product appears to each person who views it differently. You interpret the product. And some of the products are evil and some of the products are good. But we all judge what has been made. So that is not the truth. That is how it is perceived by the viewer. What we attempt to make is the key and the process of how we make it – that tells you about us as people. Not the finished product, or how we perceive the finished project to be. I am interested in the process and the motivation and craft behind the object.
That means a commitment to research…
Yes, it’s elaborate. I am not interested in the finished product. The finished product can be commemorative, celebratory and it can be destructive. It is how you judge it. But you should never dare to judge the creative process.
You have said that you never made anything yourself?
Never. I tried…
Yet you have always been interested in what other people make?
I’ve always been interested in what other people make. It’s interesting, I took art lessons until my art teacher once said to me: “Mr. Wolfson you are not going to be either Rembrandt or Jackson Pollock, why don’t you do something else?” So I said, “Ok, I am going to be a writer, and with my writing I am going to influence people, I am going to reform things.” So I started to write. I had very brilliant, famous writing instructor at Princeton – Sean O’Faolain. He was an exceedingly famous Irish short story writer. Unfortunately I was a kind of a goof-off at university. I would always get my papers in late. I had to go to the back door of his house where his wife Mrs O’Faolain was cooking dinner for herself and her husband to hand in papers. She would say, “Oh God, Mr. Wolfson, why are you always late? You disturb my poor husband, you disturb me, why can’t you get your papers in on time?” I would say “Mrs O’Faolain, I am so busy, Princeton is so exciting”, etcetera, and she would say “Alright then.”
How were your grades?
After two years we were told what the professor thought about our writing. We were not graded, but we were judged and he would say what he thought. He said to me: “Mr Wolfson, after two years of reading all your initiatives, my wife and I have come to the agreement that you don’t have a creative bone in your body.” So, I was a wise ass, and as I looked to see where the front door was and checked to see if it was unlocked, I stood up with a big smile and said, “Mr O’Faolain, after reading your short stories, and all your initiatives, I am of the opinion that you are nothing but a cheap Summerset Maugham.” Following that I took off and ran out. But that was the end of my writing experience. So I could not paint, I could not write. How was I going to reform, persuade and share the truth – my truth – with my friends and family?
So I went to my parents and ordered them around. Until my mother said to me one day, “Micky, neither your father or I have ever imposed anything on you, we let you develop, we let you learn about life. We have not told you what you had to do and how you had to live. We are very upset that you are trying to impose your opinions on our lives. We don’t see things the way you see things and we are not going to. We would like you to leave us alone. We are not going to see things the way you see things, but you go ahead, just don’t include us in your reforms and use your persuasion on us.”
I was absolutely speechless. I was rejected. I could not boss my parents around, obviously I could not influence Sean O’ Fallon… So I said to myself, “How am I going to do this? I know how I am going to do this: By collecting design that reforms and persuades.” This is where I came up with this idea of decorative and propaganda arts. I present the public with a kind of special presentation of objects – a language – and let them judge. The curators and the professionals make sense out of it initially, and then it’s presented to the public. It is up to the public if they like it or not. I do my duty and they do theirs.
We return to my initial question, what shaped your interest in propaganda?
Well, I wanted to know how people were influenced and why people did things – both good and bad.
Does that also mean specifically with the Wolfsonian collection, you are interested in how change and innovation occur and why transformation and new movements come about?
No, remember with the collection it is a specific inquiry into a 60 year period – from 1885 to 1945. But, I am very personally interested. The Wolfsonian oddly enough has a very important ethical stance. It’s a moral collection. I even dare say it’s spiritual.
Now, neither the word moral or spiritual are particularly fashionable today. Because with the word ‘spiritual’, one uses the word and immediately thinks of religion, and with ‘moral’ one thinks of moral platitudes. I am trying to revive those words too. Because moral is a kind of correctness of behavior among human beings. Spiritual is the expression of your innermost thoughts, your beliefs and your soul in a way. I think you best express this through the language of objects and reading of objects, in telling a tale; a moral tale.
So I think it is a very optimistic collection, a very positive collection. It’s a collection that celebrates and commemorates. There is nothing negative here, there is nothing evil or malicious, there is no attempt to persuade people against their will. They are free to accept or not to accept, to judge or not to judge, to be stimulated or not. My job, and that of the Wolfsonian in general – the staff, the curators, the education and all the departments – is to share this knowledge within the objects and make narratives so people can better understand the human condition and behavior through what men or women make.
Was that articulate and clear? Not too ambiguous?
Yes very clear, thank you.
Micky thank you for sharing your ideas on the human condition. To find out more about the Wolfsonian FIU in Miami Beach, visit the website here.
Photography: Gesi Schilling
Interview & Text: Viviane de Kuyper