arts and crafts

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The line between fine art and decorative art is predictably easy to spot. The distinctions are clichéd and the inequalities are conspicuous. Sculpture is fine art. Rug making is decorative. The formula reads: fine art > decorative art. Decorative art gilds daily life with an aesthetic gloss. It’s pretty. Fine art, on the other hand requires intense deliberation to create and should prompt reflection and consideration. It is deep and meaningful. Although the ostensible distinctions between the two have to do with purpose, use and meaning, the blanket-categorization of a form is the overriding guideline. The argument that there is a spectrum doesn’t clarify the situation either. It simply places poetry and portraiture at one end and furniture making and textile manufacturing at the other. In between lies our own indecision.

Finding contradictions in this scenario is like shooting fish in a barrel. The inconsistencies are so loaded that looking too closely at them will make your head explode. The differentiation between the two tends to be arbitrary and for any practical purposes is irrelevant.

The current state of perfumery has revived the decorative/fine arts discussion and given it a new relevance. Whatever perfume was earlier in the century, in the 1980s and 1990s it became a ‘legit’ art when perfumers like Olivia Giacobetti, Jean-Claude Ellena and Mark Buxton questioned expectations and norms. If perfumery had seen itself as a decorative art, an accessory to fashion and beauty products, it was now taking itself more seriously. Niche perfumery had become a stage for the investigation of ideas and the rejection of previously unexamined premises. Beauty? Gender? Meaning? Everything was subject to question. Perfume wearers rejected the role of the passive consumer, instead becoming an informed audience. Fumies and perfumers reached for each other and knocked down the perfume industry’s equivalent of the fourth wall.

Then came Luxury.

Once upon a time niche houses focussed on excellence and compositional integrity, attributes that had lost value in commercial perfumery. Soon, though, niche perfumery was coopted by the luxury industry. In fact, the very houses niche had surpassed (Guerlain, Chanel, Dior, Hermès…) stole back niche’s fire and produced their own exclusive lines à la niche and a race for the appearance of authenticity ensued. Authenticity was manifest as quality, which warranted a high price and fine packaging. Price indicated quality which signified authenticity. It’s the circular logic of luxury. Favoring exclusivity and comfort over investigation and creativity, luxury producers raced back to the decorative arts model and artistry was rejected in favor of finery. Prices skyrocketed, the perfume audience became connoisseurs and collectors, oud became god and quality left the building.

Through escalation and one-upmanship perfume producers fuel the cycle, though they’re not alone. They are enabled by a crazed market. Consumers apparently pay $700 for O’Hira by 777, $800 for Clive Christian no 1 and $1200 for Roja Dove Amber Oud. Modesty is not of value for this set. Apparently neither is a realistic quality to price ratio. Perfume has undergone a leveraged buy-out and ridiculous, exorbitant perfumes are the junk bonds paying for it.

The trend of artisanal perfume brands can be seen as a response to luxe-weariness and it has produced a wildly variable set of perfumes over the past few years. Artisanal perfumery supports the decorative-arts model but comes at it from the other direction—bottom-up rather than trickle-down. The problem inherent in artisanal lines is the learning curve. (Also, the use of the term “artisanal”, a marketing phrase that was tired by the turn of the millennium. Please, lord, don’t let the term ‘slow perfumery’ ever catch on.) “Self-taught” is a tough road in any form that has a codified training system. Lacking guidance or mentorship, artisanal brands often fail to recognize when they recreate the wheel or are inadvertently derivative. Working alone can inspire new ideas and approaches, but exploration without feedback fosters habits and patterns that a more rigorous interaction might bring to light.

Artisanal perfumery is as guilty as the big boys when it comes to the authenticity game. It feigns giving a less mediated experience to the consumer–a ‘green market’ of fragrance. Artisanal is a loaded term with an orbit of ideas that summons local-grown, micro-brewed, hand-made, ethically-significant, heirloom products. The sort of commodities that salute you for living in your own private Silverlake/Brooklyn. At best, and at its rarest, micro-perfumery gives you the real deal–the work of an artist who uses a small scale to align her ideas and work into special fragrances that are odd, daring, evocative and unbalanced in the way the more engaging arts typically are. (Balance is for pussies.) At its worst, the artisan is an amateur who has neither the training, talent nor access to materials that the mainstream perfumer has. This is the if-wishes-were-fishes school of artisanal perfumery and no amount of spin, life-styling and artsy packaging will make the perfume shine. Artisanal perfumery resurrects the decorative arts model by emphasizing craft and limiting the ambition of the work. Risk-taking, boundary pushing and provocation often take a backseat to dull ‘nice smells.’ Phrasing artisanal work as a solution to the corporate juggernauts is an interesting premise but it risks recycling false dichotomies that offer little meaningful information: natural/synthetic, artistic/commercial, heart/head.

I’m neither particularly nostalgic for the more creative-experimental years of niche perfumery nor snobbish about the current state of affairs. There is plenty happening today to capture my interest and keep my brain buzzing. The current body of work is different enough from early-niche that the two can be juxtaposed. It’s worth the effort to examine and contextualize an era that produced such fundamental changes to the practice of perfumery. It’s equally worthwhile to see how the principles that lead to those changes have been altered or abandoned by today’s perfume producers, niche or otherwise.

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