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Vive La Conversation

Vive La Conversation

: Sheila Farr, Writer and Arts Critic, talks to student, Niki Mosko (AR '14). Photo by Kathleen Rabel.

Vive La Conversation

: Students Natalie Kubu (AR '14) and Claire Green (AR '14) talking to Sylvia Fisher, Docent of Wright Exhibition Space. Photo by Kathleen Rabel.

Vive La Conversation

: Miles Fortune (AR '15) talks to John Darrow, "Technology Specialist" Principal Engineer from Amazon. Photo by Kathleen Rabel.

Vive La Conversation

: Rachael Faust, Associate Curator of Collections & Academic Programs at Henry Art Gallery, talks to student, Katrina Handler (AR '14). Photo by Kathleen Rabel.

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Innovative Curricula at Cornish: An Art History Class Explores the Art of Conversation with “The Salon: A Game of Conversation”

At a time when public discourse has become often strident and stripped of meaning and as an unending shower of information pours down on our lives from computer screens, telephones, and devices of all kinds, it should shock no one that people are becoming increasingly attracted to slower, more substantive personal exchanges. Witness the surging popularity of TED Talks around the country and purposeful get-togethers such as the “Café Scientifique” cropping up around the world. People are turning back the clock to a time when conversation was an art form and great conversationalists were stars, back to the time of the salon. On March 26 at the Wright Exhibition Space, Elizabeth Darrow’s art history class explored the concept of the salon by participating in “The Salon: A Game of Conversation.”

Initially the word “salon” meant nothing more than a reception room in a large house, but it eventually grew to mean a social gathering taking place in that room. In 18th century Paris, the zenith of the salon, society hostesses staged salons by inviting a wide variety of artists, thinkers and society’s movers and shakers to mix and mingle at their homes. To be invited to a salon, you had to have two important qualities: you had to be interesting and you had to be talkative. In the salon culture of the 1750s, ’60s, and ’70s, the star performer was Denis Diderot, philosopher, novelist, the compiler of the first comprehensive encyclopedia, and — it goes without saying — a masterful conversationalist. So central was he to the world of the Paris salon that he has been called “the great Parisian.”

It is this format that Dr. Darrow’s class sought to imitate with their salon game:  to create a milieu in which “people from all walks of life and professions come together to converse about issues and ideas that matter to them — shared, informed, intellectual, critical interests.”

The “game board” for Darrow’s salon was simple: numbers from one to ten were placed on floor of the Wright Exhibition Space where the class took place, each number in front of an exhibited artwork in the current exhibition 9 from L.A. “Experts” (people chosen by Dr. Darrow for their knowledge in a particular area) were sent to one of the numbered locations and students in the class were paired with the experts. The pairs would converse for 10 minutes, then, at the ring of a bell, each expert would move to another number and be met by another class member. The numbered artworks were meant to be a natural starting point for each conversation. But under the rules of the game, every conversation was free to “follow the first idea, wise or foolish, that presented itself” (to quote Diderot).

By holding the game in a gallery, the class captured another meaning of the word “salon,” which according to Webster is “a hall for the exhibition of art.”  Interestingly, Diderot (on whom Darrow recently delivered a paper in Chicago) was also known for his writing on art, some of the first organized art criticism.

That the Salon game was a success was clear to everyone in the room. There is no mistaking a roomful of engaged conversations; the sound of it is where we get the term “buzz.” The gallery was awash with this buzz of focused speech to the point of being a din. Even given a mere 10 minutes to make contact, participants traversed a great deal of intellectual territory.

The event was entertaining for everyone, certainly, but Darrow’s point in creating the game was much more than to amuse. Dr. Darrow sees the salon as a tool for the artist. “Students need to practice socially,” she writes. “Another objective in the Salon would be to expose students to relationships of power in our own city — with guests besides artists and teachers — like politicians, writers, policemen, scientists, tech world, media, etc.”

Too often we think of talking to one another as a formless pastime or a terse necessity. “The Salon: A Game of Conversation” demonstrates that not only can conversation focus on art, it can, in itself, be an art form.

More reading from the Atlantic: My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation.


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