Why salons?

by Nicole Leapley, Salon Curator

I could not be more excited to be TEDxAmoskeagMillyard’s Salon Curator. As a French Professor and literary historian, I have a real appreciation of the historical roots of the salon, which dates from the 17th and 18th century.

The original salons

Originally aristocratic women would invite the most interesting people of the day into their living rooms—playwrights, artists, natural philosophers—to share ideas. These gatherings or salons may have looked like simple social engagements of the cultural elites, but under the guise of sociability the hostesses, known as salonnières, were actually fostering the convergence of the key ideas of what would become the Enlightenment. The salons created a space where poets could get feedback on early versions of their work in the morning and help hash out the latest theory on natural philosophy in the afternoon. The salons were also a place where people could learn the latest news–the first newspapers were just appearing in France at this time and guests would read out letters they had just received from abroad.

While salons had an air of exclusivity, at their heart is sociability around the exchange of ideas—ideas before which a sort of equality developed. This equality before ideas may even seem radical to us today when we consider that these salons predate our hard division between philosophy, theology, science, and the arts, and our expectations of university credentials. Those who attended the salons were defined by their interest in ideas more than by their disciplinary formation. Salons thus naturally fostered cross-disciplinary discussion and were the incubators of truly diverse and innovative ideas. As time went on, salons increasingly dissolved socio-economic boundaries.

Coffeehouses

With the birth of coffeehouses, there was a new space to exchange ideas, to look at a newspaper or encyclopedia, and, of course, to access stimulants like coffee, tea, and chocolate. Thus, the center of intellectual and social networks moved out from aristocratic living rooms to spaces to which all men (who could afford a cup of coffee) had access. However, women, who had been the de facto creators and leaders of salons, were personae non gratae in these newly created spaces.

The current state of social and intellectual networks

Today we are more tightly networked than ever, and we have instant access to news and ideas, and certainly no shortage of coffee, but at the same time, we often find ourselves feeling disconnected, powerless, and alone. How can we rebuild social networks that really re-connect us to each other and to meaningful ideas?

While we’ve mastered the social concept of the individual, we yearn to belong to and tap into the power of a group. We yearn to get out of our own head, out of our echo chamber.

Certainly, the internet has delivered on its promise to enlarge the circle of great minds who exchange ideas, but somehow many of us still don’t feel invited to the party.

Like the creators of the first salons and coffeehouses, we at TEDxAmoskeagMillyard want to create a space where a heterogeneous group of people can come together in person to exchange ideas and to engage in rational debate.