Thursday, April 14, 2011

Salon Goes Public

A recent biography of Helena Rubinstein by Ruth Brandon reveals that her beauty salons in London, Paris, and New York--subsquently expanded to nearly every other major city in the world--made her one of the richest women in the world. Her beauty products consisted of sixty-two creams, seventy-eight powders, forty-six perfumes, colognes and eaux de toilette, sixty-nine lotions, a hundred and fifteen lipsticks, plus soaps, rouges, and eyeshadows. That's an awful lot of chips off an old block, especially for a lady who was only four feet ten inches tall.

Helena Rubinstein's life was dedicated to beauty, bizazz, and making money. Rubinstein, it seems, bought art by the truckload, and in a single room, she had seven Renoirs hung above the fireplace. Her living room, according to Brandon, sported an acid-green carpet designed by Miro (which makes me positively acid-green with envy), twenty Victorian carved chairs covered in purple and magenta velvets, Chinese pearl-inlaid coffee tables, gold Turkish floor lamps, life-sized Easter Island sculptures, six-foot tall blue opaline vases, African masks, and paintings covering every inch of wall space.

Truly a girl after my own heart. I cite this eccentric description of Rubinstein's digs because, synchronistically, it coincides with a reimagined version of my own living room, currently installed as the center piece of an exhibition entitled, "Conversation: Salon Style," that opened this week in an art gallery on the campus of Virginia Tech.

The situation is replete with irony, since for years, my writing has been dedicated to the proposition that there is a life for art beyond the legitimizing walls of museums and galleries. Instead of the idea of art as monologue and self-expression, I have long championed a more decentralized kind of creativity that is dialogic, interactive, and participatory. I even wrote a book in the form of dialogue called "Conversations before the End of Time," that consisted of a series of conversations in which many voices and opinions were present, not just mine.

So I shouldn't have been that surprised when one day, a woman called me up out of the blue, asking if she could attend one of my conversational "salons.” In fact, I didn’t have a salon, as I explained, adding however that I'd always wanted one. She offered to bring a few other people along, and from that first serendipitous conversation and encounter, our once-a-month Saturday salon was born, about four years ago. On the third Saturday of every month, some ten people gather at my house for food and drink, followed by a more formal hour or two of what we consider to be “enlightened conversation.”

It is this salon that is now both the subject and the object of a mixed-media exhibition curated by Mary Tartaro, director of the Perspective Gallery; the art has been specially created by the salon members themselves. When the idea of creating a show around the theme of the salon was first presented to me, I confess I thought it was one of the worst ideas I ever heard. I couldn't picture how it could possibly work. My bad. Luckily this week I got to eat crow. I always love it when I find out how dead wrong I can be! The show is original, witty, gorgeous--and truly in the spirit of dialogue. If you want a tasty appetizer, treat yourself to this link: a five-minute film by Simone Paterson, created in my living room:

At salon, there is never a subject planned in advance; we view ourselves a bit like jazz musicians improvising music—except that the music, in this case, is conversation. Our free-floating talk over the years has ranged from Benazir Bhutto's assassination to the pros and cons of one-stop Wal-Mart shopping, from life after death to surviving in a political culture of lies, the Sarah Palin effect, synchronicity, optimism, despair, Barack Obama’s presidency, and the sometimes ludicrous prose of Camille Paglia. Shards of recorded conversation and laughter float through the room as you enter the gallery.

Artful conversation is ecologically sound: it doesn’t use up valuable resources or pollute or contribute to the consumer trance. It doesn't cost anything. When unexpected jets of laughter fall like loose change on my living-room floor, it seems to restore the distorted nervous system of the world to normal functioning. We are at a point where the line between our personal lives and the world has become so permeable and nerve-wracking, it helps to have a special time and space in which to clarify thoughts, share anxieties, talk things over.

In his book “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art,” Stephen Miller laments the decline of conversational art in America, defined as “a discussion of great and small topics by people who practice mutual tolerance for opposing viewpoints.” The best conversations, he claims, are playful. Quite often people don’t discuss anything because they’re afraid of offending—or "if they do discuss something, they’re screaming." At salon, we do have rules of the road. People listen respectfully. There is no cross talk, no showboating, no bristling. Just the exhilaration of a wide range of opinions generously offered and gratefully received.

“We are facing our final evolutionary exam,” Buckminster Fuller warned many years ago. Will humanity survive its test? I am the worrywart in the group, who wonders if any new paradigm can save us anymore. The moral of this entire story? Art, like love, is where you find it—insistently offbeat and unpredictable--as when God says "Tell me your plans."

Also synchronistically, in tandem with our invitation months ago to do the show, lethal gunshots rang out at a political rally in Tucson. Unchecked verbal venom had become a bomb with the fuse lit, and the demand for civility in public discourse suddenly became a focus for the whole country. A lack of civility did not cause this tragedy, President Obama assured us, but only a more civil and honest public discourse would permit the nation to face up to its challenges. To sharpen our instincts for empathy, we would need to listen to each other more carefully and exchange ideas without rancor. Salon, we realized, was slightly ahead of the curve: we had already created a template for what the president was proposing.

The exhibition, located on the second floor of Squires Student Center, closes on May 12th.

1 comment:

colleen said...

I'm so sorry I missed this. I belong to a woman's dialogue group with focus on the inner life.

I've been catching up and am glad to see your blog is going strong. I always enjoy reading your perspective.