A Renaissance of Salon Culture

What is the history of salon culture? How did the salon contribute to the formation of a European public sphere? In what ways did salons create new forms of community through culture and ideas? What lessons can be learned for communication, discursive action and human interaction today? These are questions we must consider in envisioning new forms of participatory democracy in the 21 st century.

In the 17 and 18th centuries, a culture of salons flourished in Europe. Salons were social gatherings in which individuals engaged in the art of conversation in pursuit of knowledge and fellowship. They took place in the private homes of bourgeois women opened to a public, and occurred regularly, usually every week but sometimes every day, often over an extended meal for a group of approximately twenty to forty people. Salons typically had a dedicated core membership, but were always open to new participants and contributors. Ideas and works in various subjects from science, philosophy, and politics to literature, art, and morality were vigorously debated in the salon. Some salons were focused on specific philosophical, cultural and political themes, while others remained generic. These spaces for discourse created a culture of sociability in which the individual cultivated his or her rational, moral, and aesthetic faculties in a community committed to humanistic ideas and intellectual enlightenment. Salons were far more than pleasant social gatherings; they were serious spaces for intellectual projects and advanced ambitious utopian ideals. Perhaps most significantly, as Jürgen Habermas argues in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 18th century salons were critical to the emergence of a democratic, debate-driven public sphere in Europe. There were a number of cross-cultural features shared by many of the salons that help explain their nature, functioning, and contribution to a public sphere that I will elucidate here:

Proponents of the Enlightenment salon believed that every individual had a range of innate abilities and cognitive faculties that could be cultivated and should be developed beyond formal education for the entirety of one’s life. The salon provided the space for informal learning in which those who attended could improve their minds and acquire knowledge in a variety of subjects. The salon was highly interactive and depended on the intellectual contributions of each of its members such that everyone had the opportunity to engage with the subject matter and further his own potential. Those participating in a salon understood that they were entering a space in which typical forms of valorization such as wealth, social status, or family lineage were not prioritized, or to a far lesser extent than in other forms of social interaction. What mattered most were the ideas and knowledge that could be gained from contemplation that benefited the collective. Erudition, wit, inventiveness, the ability to poetically capture an idea or elegantly communicate a concept, these were the cardinal virtues of the salon. Equally, the manner in which ideas were pursued was of great importance. Self-love and arrogance were discouraged for they signaled the wrong motivation for participation.

The ideal salon participant was a person who was uniquely interesting and offered fresh ideas that were well communicated and advanced the conversation. He or she possessed an innate love of learning, exhibited a reflective intelligence, firmly held principled opinions but also demonstrated the utmost sensitivity and thoughtfulness towards others. To be a good listener was as important as being a good orator for it allowed more people to reach their own potential in engaged conversation. Of course, many individuals who entered the salon were not committed to these selfless ideals; their true motivation was self-promotion, as is often the case in any form of human association. But because they were required to adhere to a principle of sincerity to participate in this community, self-adulation was tempered and the space itself maintained an authenticity. The salon favored those individuals who were genuine in their effort to reach their own potential and help others do so in the process.

Unveiling and developing the best qualities of each participant in the salon was feasible because of its intimate scale. Everyone understood the core belief system and character of other participants, and thereby could overcome the constraints of superficial, idle conversation. The salonnière had the opportunity and responsibility to acutely analyze the strengths and weaknesses of her guests and reveal their intrinsic virtues while gracefully challenging their limitations through discourse. Guests had the opportunity to share their personal projects and ideas and receive feedback from the group. Often before a novel was published or a painting displayed, these works would be taken to the salon for assessment. This positive, critical response encouraged the sharing of projects and promoted a culture of creativity and collaboration. Since salons were enjoyable social gatherings that focused on the happiness and pleasure of their members, sharing was most often a positive and self-affirming experience that encouraged and facilitated self-development.

In this respect, the salon was a rehearsal for reality, a space in which participants could test creative projects and ideas in the process of self-cultivation. Equally in the context of the salon, salonnières could experiment in their utopian project of enlightenment, goodness, and human understanding, unrestricted by the conventional boundaries of society. The intimate, theatrical and imaginative space for discourse provided by the salon became a vital test bed for the values that the salonnières desired to promote in society as a whole. Most salons occurred regularly, usually at weekly intervals and even in some cases on a daily basis and their core membership offered continuity for the intellectual interactions. They therefore evolved quickly from a rehearsal for reality into a reality in themselves, forming a self-selecting community that became an important fixture of daily life and a vital organ for public discourse. Salonnières and their guests were expected to act as model citizens, exercising the virtue and compassion practiced in this space in all areas of their lives. Thus the salon’s value system became the larger normative framework of the Enlightenment.

Salonnières emphasized the meticulous refinement of the character and capabilities of each person in society because they believed that an enlightened public would more meaningfully contribute to the commonweal and the Good. The Good was the impetus for all salon activities and was reflected in its foundational ethos and structure. The exercise of human virtue, etiquette, sensitivity, and kindness to others were the paramount rules of salon interactions. The institution of the salon became a model for new forms of human association that produced distinct social benefits. The abstract, philosophical conceptions of the Good were examined in conversations on ethics, normativity and through epistemological inquiry that informed the utopian projects that took place in the salon to create a better and more just world through sustained discourse and social interaction.

In the salon, the good was in many ways achieved through art and aesthetic experience. The visual arts, music, poetry and literature were all important elements of this space. These aesthetic forms did not require extensive background knowledge in a specific intellectual tradition. They provided a shared experience and lexicon that facilitated communication and catalyzed meaningful conversation amongst a diverse public. In keeping with ideas of the time and the philosophy of Kant and Schiller, it was believed by most salonnières that art and aesthetic experience cultivated the senses, thereby making one more sensitive in social interactions. By refining the ability to differentiate color or composition in a painting, for example, a person exercised the acute perception necessary to interpret facial expressions or to consider the significance of word choice. Reading passages from a book that presented the compelling story of a protagonist induced empathy for the character and the author in a way that a non-aesthetic form could not. Aesthetic activity eschewed hierarchy, for everyone could share equally in its enjoyment.

Cultivation of taste and sensibilities meant cultivation of social perception and processes of communicative action. In light of the dominant belief that people were inclined towards goodness, this led to sympathy for others and to mutual understanding. Furthermore, by opening her home to a public and providing cultural experiences, the salonnière revealed her inner psychological state through aesthetic choices and made herself vulnerable to the world. This proffered intimacy opened guests to the possibility of representing themselves authentically, which contributed to the depth and meaning of conversations. The convivial act of sharing an aesthetic experience, in other words, created a foundational atmosphere of mutuality, collaboration and respect for others in a refined environment conducive to productive discourse and reciprocal exchange.
Accounts of the public sphere often present communicative action in abstracted, sterile terms shorn of its pleasurable context. But if non-obligatory forms of association are not enjoyable, then people do not have the incentive to participate. Simply, but perhaps most importantly, aesthetic experience made the salon an ultimately fulfilling and pleasurable institution that enhanced its popularity and contributed to its social impact. Fruit bowls on tables carefully composed as a mimetic representation of a still life, chamber music that filled the air perfumed by elaborate floral arrangements, paintings strategically hung on the walls to evoke admiration and contemplation, and verses elegantly spoken were just a few of the aesthetic details that composed this world, delighted guests and served as a respite from stark reality. The magical, aestheticized space of the salon sparked one’s imagination and excited the emotions. Intellectual exploration was enhanced by full engagement of the senses; social interactions were stimulated by the powerful experience of the beautiful.

For the salonnière of the Enlightenment salon, art and aesthetic experience were considered immediately beneficial and subjectively pleasurable. They were also pursued with the intention of serving the social good through the elevation of culture. Analogies drawn from cultural ends were often used to describe the salonnière. For example, she was compared to a conductor. She was sensitive to the character (instruments) of each of her salon participants (the musicians). Her responsibility was to conduct discourse (the music) in a way that encouraged the best performance and harmonized them in a cultural product that was both beautiful and good for society. Furthermore, the salonnière incorporated past cultural ideals into her philosophical framework and contributed to the creation of a future tradition. A whole genre of salon music, literature written expressly for the salon, and paintings created for display in the salon, as well as countless intellectual encounters that occurred in this space, would forever change the course of European culture. By emphasizing and contributing to cultural production the salon moved beyond its own parameters contributing not only to the lives of its participants but also to the rest of society as the salonnières had intended.

The extent to which the salon could contribute to a larger social good through the elevation of culture might be questionable had it not been grounded in principles of universality, openness and egalitarianism. At a time when social and class divisions were deeply entrenched, the salon was revolutionary in promoting an ethos of inclusiveness. Rights to entrance were based on merit and an inquisitive spirit, not solely on wealth or power. Often for the first time, people of different genders, socio-economic status, religious proclivities, and political orientations came together as presumptive intellectual equals. The women who ran the salons overcame the barriers they faced deriving from little or no formal education, legal rights, and a lack of intellectual, social or political influence in society. They self-educated in their salons, elevated their status from second-class citizens to venerated members of the public sphere and penetrated the male-dominated world of ideas by independently creating an institution that was at the heart of the intellectual and cultural projects of the time. In the German case, specifically, not only were the hosts of salons women, they were also Jewish at a time of significant anti-Semitism. By bringing Christians and Jews together for conversation, they promoted social cohesion in a way that had never before been attempted.

Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, egalitarianism was a goal that was not always achieved and most salon participants still came from relatively limited circles of the elite and bourgeoisie. Likewise, simply because people of different social status congregated in the same space did not mean there was total equality in their interactions. However the fact that openness and egalitarianism were even aspirational principles is in itself revolutionary. Likewise the fact that men submitted to the intellectual leadership of women salonnières and were willing to enter and be associated with a space of (relative) diversity is extraordinary for the time. There are also countless empirical examples to demonstrate that a spirit of equality was indeed accomplished in certain fundamental ways, which are recorded in much of the secondary literature on salons. Furthermore, the salonnières ideological concern for inclusiveness in culture and ideas contributed to a larger paradigm shift from rigid class and status hierarchies towards principles of equality, solidarity and fraternité. By creating an institution of their own that became indispensable to society, salonnières planted the seeds of a new, more progressive reality that is still in the process of becoming materialized.

Although the salon had a social and cultural force, it did not begin as a social movement or political revolution. Its original ambitions were modest, simply to bring people together for meaningful conversations. Salons did not dictate the ends of conversations, nor impose a political agenda or worldview, rather they embraced difference and contrasting ideologies. Their power, interest, vitality, and political efficacy depended upon this difference and diverse salon participants worked together to define its ends. The salon was a microcosm of life; the grief, the beauty, the intellectual thirst, the banality, the joy, the courage and weakness of humanity were all represented, but in a concentrated form that seemed to spontaneously induce personal revelation. False ideas and prejudices could not be left unexamined. Predominant belief systems were challenged and in being confronted with new perspectives and ways of seeing the world, society and politics had no other choice but to evolve accordingly.

Because salons were technically removed from politics by taking place in the private homes of women, they initially escaped censure. Salonnières worked to create an affirmative and trustworthy environment in which participants were able to express themselves in ways that they dared not risk in other social contexts. Countless important political discussions on the state of local and national politics and representation occurred weekly in salons focused specifically on the topic of politics. Salons on other subjects such as literature or philosophy also had a political cast by contributing to debates on political theory and practice. The free speech facilitated by the salon kindled radical political disagreements that often brought prejudice and deep-rooted social problems to light, which was the first step towards their resolution. The graceful touch of the salonnières’ moderation allowed for political discourse to become impassioned and controversial while still remaining civil. The aesthetic dimensions of the salons both facilitated and masked their underlying political potential so that, for a time, the salon was able to flourish relatively uncontested. This reflected Schiller’s sentiment that precisely that which is aesthetic and apolitical is best suited to become political. By the late 19th century, however, the popularity and radical potential of the salon became subsumed and coopted by power interests eventually leading to its demise.

Nevertheless, the history of salons attests to the fact that political influence does not always derive from exerting brute force and that political discourse is not always achieved in a sterile and uninspired environment. Political efficacy can take a more holistic approach incorporating aesthetic sensitivity that inspires the capabilities to listen, to learn, to understand, and to empathize with others. The process of enhancing and refining such human capabilities generates forms of association that contribute to individual flourishing, shared structures of sociality, and a deeper reflection on the purpose and significance of human existence.

Understanding and developing the important connection between communicative structures in physical space, community shaped through culture and ideas and continuous forms of social contact grounded in a spirit of egalitarianism, as represented in the history of salon culture, is, perhaps now more than ever before, critical to the progression of human sociability, discursive action, and participatory democracy. In the hyper-accelerated world in which we live the internet and social media “connect” people on an unprecedented scale, but can also isolate them in an endless chain of transient exchanges. It is increasingly clear that many members of the millennial generation crave vibrant face-to-face conversations in concrete space not only connections in ephemeral spheres of cyber-space. Young people want a connection to their friends deeper than a happy birthday note on their Facebook wall, a voice in politics greater than a “like” on a Facebook page, and a more in-depth development of ideas and belief systems than a 140 character tweet will allow. There is a palpable sense of fatigue with a society immersed in vacuous social media posts and narcissistic presentations of self. But few institutions exist that offer an alternative culture, form of community or voice in society and politics. Seeking deeper meaning and more profound connections with others, in an often self-absorbed society, is a daunting and at times disparaged pursuit.

Salons are one way of addressing this modern dilemma of isolation and malaise. They evidently do not replace the internet, social media, or other transformations in communication, which undoubtedly also have great benefits, but they offer an essential foundation for communication that has been corroded in the process of technological advancement, by creating communities around ideas in the real world where they matter most. One of the many problems that salon culture addresses is that unlike internet exchanges veiled in an anonymity which often fuels hatred, ignorance, and misunderstanding, in a salon, one must argue cogently for and publicly justify one’s ideas. Relatedly, since an ideal salon facilitates sustained contact with people from diverse backgrounds who think differently, there is a greater possibility to overcome false biases and wrong assumptions. It is easier to feel compassion for, understand, and responsibly act towards a person (and the groups that he represents) when you look him in the eye, interact with him on a regular basis, and have a more developed knowledge of his personal history, lifeworld, and underlying motivations. A salon offers people a positive and vital opportunity to engage with their fellow citizens through a subtle balance of sensitively structured interaction, self-development, empathy, and collective understanding, which is the basis for a more just, equitable, and secure society.

In a world divided, at a moment when political discourse has taken a decidedly negative turn, threatening social stability and international diplomacy, in a time when prejudice, racism, and intolerance are deeply entrenched, a renaissance of salon culture offers a vehicle for reviving principles of participatory democracy, the social and political emancipatory potential of which is limitless.

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