In Defense of Salon Cuture: A Bit of Background for This Year’s Brown Symposium

Turning the corner into 2011 means setting my sights on what, for me, will be a defining event of this year: a full-length symposium on the subject of salon culture and, more generally, conversation. As I’ve focused increasingly on that goal over the last few months, I’ve become aware that there’s a significant gap between my own and others’ perspective on that subject. Outreach and enfranchisement have been two of my main goals in directing this Symposium, however, so at this point it seems appropriate to offer a few lines that may help our audiences to be fully on-board with the concept of the event from the get-go. As always, this note is intended not to dictate terms or tell others how to think, but rather to generate conversation – an authentic and reciprocal or mutual exchange of ideas.

Let’s start by clearing the air: like “interesting” or “nice, “salon” is one of those words that have come to mean so many things to so many different people that they, for all intents and purposes, mean nothing. It’s also one that has gotten a lot of bad press over the years, largely via misconceptions or, in a few cases, deliberate distortions of what exactly transpired in salons.

More bluntly, to most of us in the early twenty-first century – and especially most of us in the U.S. – “ salon” means a basically regular gathering of essentially like-minded people to share activities and talk about something that’s of mutual interest. Even that basic concept has problems (see below), but the connotations are even more problematical: today, the historical ”salon” tends to connote a gathering that didn’t just eschew diversity of viewpoints and celebrate like-mindedness, but also exploited private, residential space as a means of escaping from the real and pressing issues that confronted real people working in the real world. It connotes a space whose safety validated or legitimized frivolousness and idleness, one in which sociability and conversation precluded serious engagement with serious issues. Those common perceptions of what salon culture was and was about are understandable enough, since countless Hollywood films and countless works of literature written since the late nineteenth century have portrayed the salon’s culture and history in precisely that fashion.

They are also wrong. They’re diametrically opposite the How, the Why, and the Who of most of the salons that flourished during the culture’s heyday, the period spanning from Counter-Reformation Italy in the 1560s up to the point at which TV redefined the social dynamic of private life beginning in the 1950s. More on that anon.

For now, let me clarify a few salient points:[1]

First, salons were working spaces, not leisure spaces. It’s true that most were organized by members of the aristocracy who did not have what we might term “day jobs,” but this is because their organizers were women (see the discussion of salonnières below). They were, in fact, frequented by workers as well as independently wealthy aristocrats. More to the point, they were one of very few genres of social gathering of the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century that did not include play (jeu), whether that meant wit for wit’s sake, gambling, or social games. They were much closer to what latter-day academics understand as seminars: earnest, often contentious, and extremely purposeful social gatherings. They took place after hours because that was the only time possible for individuals of both sexes from different fields and walks of life to come together in conversation. And they took place in non-public spaces for one very simple reason: public spaces were the domain of church and/or court, and as such prohibitive to conversation that crossed established political or ideological lines. If one wanted to discuss something freely and with certainty that views other than those of the “establishment” were being aired frankly, that conversation had to take place in “private” spaces. That’s a far cry from hanging out in someone’s parlor because that’s where the food and wine were and where one could escape the burdens of public scrutiny, as the stereotype of salon culture would suggest.

Second, during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries the “private” spaces typically used for salons were not secluded from the public, as the stereotype would suggest. They were both public and private – specially designated chambers (salons) within quasi-public buildings known as hôtels. To understand this architectural difference, consider the analogy to the English linguistic cognates of that word: hotel and a hostel. Both are public spaces that are used for accommodation and typically include public meeting spaces or commons. The salons’ hôtels were the residences of the aristocracy, and the salons themselves were intimate spaces in which their residents met for egalitarian conversation with others — outsiders, members of the public — who otherwise would not have access to such conversation. I’m posting a floor plan for the lower level of the Hôtel Desmartes (Paris, 1704) for anyone who’s interested; see here. Again, this is diametrically opposed to the stereotype of the salon as an elitist institution that convened members of the aristocracy for idle, self-affirming chit-chat.[2]

Third, the stereotypical image of salon culture being one in which frivolous rules of politeness and civility took precedence over substance, subverting substantive conversation precisely when things got interesting, is one born of anti-feminist (and occasionally outright misogynist) politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As recent scholarship has noted, the progressive Enlightenment – what Jonathan Israel terms radical Enlightenment, as opposed to the more conservative backlash that produced the counter- backlash of Romanticism – accorded separate but theoretically equal spheres to men and women, with educated women (the salonnières) occupying roles that were intellectually equal to the philosophes but superior in harmonizing contentious discussions; by virtue of the supposed predispositions of their sex, women governed the affairs of men in the private sphere of the salon, whereas men governed women in the public sphere of court and church.

But women’s consensually acknowledged ability to restrain what we might today label “testosterone-driven” (combative, quarrelsome, pugilistic) tendencies in men did not sit well with some men – and these not only formed breakaway (and largely unsuccessful or short-lived) “men’s salons” of various sorts, but also publicly argued against the putative adverse effects of allowing women to govern men. One of the principal culprits in the creation of this stereotype was none other than the philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), whose famous misogynist quote about women[3] finds a worthy counterpart in his 1758 critique of the salonnières:

The most esteemed woman is the one who has the greatest renown, about whom the most is said, who is the most often seen in society, at whose home one dines the most, who most imperiously sets the tone, who judges, resolves, decides, pronounces, assigns talents, merits, and virtues their degrees and places, and whose favor is most ignominiously begged for by humble, learned men. . . . In society they do not know anything, although they judge everything.[4]

This critique is integral to the stereotype of salon culture that the present note contests – so let me set the record straight. As we all know, until the mid-twentieth century women of the middle and upper classes were precluded from pursuing careers for monetary gains. But that does not mean that they couldn’t work or didn’t work. Quite the contrary; they simply received no monetary gain for their labors. The salonnières – the women who created, organized, and led salons, much to the chagrin of Rousseau and others – did so as active and equally influential contributors to the Enlightenment Project. In an age in which women were systemically denied careers, they spent long years of study in private tutelage concerning all the disciplines to which men were privy and devoted many more years to apprenticeships with practicing salonnières, cultivating a well-rounded education and special disciplinary and/or societal interests and goals, which they would eventually bring to bear in their own salons. In cultivating these areas of specialization they were hardly rivals motivated by vain ambition; they knew and admired each other, and regulars of many salons also frequented “the competition.” The issues that they focused on were not narrow or idle; they were real issues of pressing concern.[5] Perhaps most importantly, they did not cultivate clienteles that were carefully chosen for being self-affirming; instead, they deliberately sought out diverse and contradictory perspectives and endeavored to bring people into conversation with one another who would normally be kept apart by the other economic, vocational, ideological, and political structures of public and private life.

These observations are true (in varying ways, as with any generalizations) of the overwhelming majority the gatherings that collectively represent salon culture, from the Arabic mujālasāt of the Islamic Middle Ages, through the Iberian sale and the Italian salone of the sixteenth century, and past the French salons and their German, German-Jewish, Russian, and ultimately U.S. namesakes in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. In Iberia and Latin America they throve in the public sphere in cafés, bars, and other public spaces under the name tertulia. They were also cultivated by imperialist culture and adapted, with local variation, throughout the colonized world. The upshot is that by the mid-twentieth century there was no cultural or political sphere in the industrialized world that was not home to non-hierarchical (egalitarian), interdisciplinary, highly purposeful moderated conversations among individuals from diverse social and economic classes.

So that’s what this Symposium is all about and why I, personally, believe this Symposium should be relevant and exciting to a great many people. Since salon culture was in a very real sense the birthplace of the ideas that have defined the modern world in virtually every discipline – sciences natural and social, arts fine and performing, humanities of every sort – it is likewise the soil in which the modern world is rooted. Any institution that values critical thinking, the pursuit of knowledge both obviously practical and less so, and the betterment of the world we all share has every reason to celebrate those roots,to draw strength from them.

My next few posts will be continuations of this theme, attempts to rehabilitate several areas of endeavor that have, in my opinion at least, suffered in public opinion because of the web of misrepresentations and stereotypes discussed above: music, literature, science, and (if there’s time) political inquiry.

— 4 January 2011 (51 days before the launch of Brown Symposium XXXIII)

A postscript: Please don’t take the fact that most of the above is written in the past tense to mean that I believe the salon is “dead.” It is (as I explained to Katie Mead in an e-mail a week or so ago) no more dead as a cultural phenomenon than Latin or Chaucer’s English are dead as languages. The latter, as is well known, are no longer cultivated in the same form today that existed during their heyday, but they are alive and well – Latin, in the entire family of romance languages and literatures as we know them, and Middle English survives in modern British, American, and other families of English. Similarly, the salon survives in literary societies, book clubs, reading or study groups, and countless other private gatherings as well as in official offerings such as academic seminars. Those progeny are (in my opinion) fully worthy of their progenitors, even though the tone of this note celebrates the latter far more than the former.

[1] Much of the following is derived from the scholarship of Dena Goodman, especially her The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994). See also Faith E. Beasley, Revising Memory: Women’s Fiction and Memoirs in Seventeenth-Century France (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990); idem, Salons, History, and the Creation of Seventeenth-Century France: Mastering Memory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006); Emily D. Bilski and Emily Braun, Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005); Evelyn Gordon Bodek, “Salonnières and Bluestockings: Educated Obsolescence and Germinating Feminism,” Feminist Studies 3 (1976): 185-99; Susan Branson, These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Cuture in Early National Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001); Marjanne E. Goozé, ed., Challenging Separate Spheres: Female Bildung in Eighteenth- and Ninetheenth-Century Germany (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007); Diana Robin, Publishing Women: Salons, the Presses, and the Counter-Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); and Theresa Ann Smith, The Emerging Female Citizen: Gender and Enlightenment in Spain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[2] There is an old academic tradition of professors convening their graduate seminars in their home, often with food and drink; that tradition’s rationale and interpersonal dynamic were, I believe, similar to those of salon culture. A group of dedicated individuals (the students) convene in a comfortable private space because that interpersonal and physical comfort make it easier to “push” contentious issues in conversation, and because the intensity of the experience combines with the familiarity of the company and the comfort of the environs to create a bonding experience that is difficult or impossible to achieve in public spaces such as classrooms. I personally experienced this sort of arrangement only once or twice, and it was never a regular arrangement; but even those few experiences created a significantly different sort of seminar experience than I’ve found or been able to create elsewhere.

[3] “Never has a people perished from an excess of wine; all perish from the disorder of women.” Quoted from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. Allan Bloom, Politics and the Arts: Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre (Ithaca: The Free Press, 1960), 109.

[4]Ibid., 49-50.

[5] Also noteworthy, though beyond the scope of this short note, is that there were also salons in the middle and (sometimes) lower socioeconomic classes. Documentation of these is more sparse, since their participants rarely attracted the attention of biographers and historians, and since for reasons of space they had to convene outdoors and in public places rather than in private residences. But they did exist and flourish, particularly in Restoration society in France, Italy, and the German lands – and their existence belies the notion of salons as exclusively upper-class, elitist gatherings.


About Prof. Michael Cooper

Professor of Music and Margarett Root Brown Chair in Fine Arts; Symposium director, Think -- Converse -- Act: The Salon and Its Histories (Brown Symposium XXXIII) Southwestern University
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