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(image Kathleen Gije, “Rosalind Krauss in the Manner of Degas,” 2006)

I’ve been giving some thought to perfumery and art.  Below are some questions and comments. While I have a lot of questions I don’t mean the overall tone to be pedantic.  The use of questions rather than statements is just a reflection of my inability to write better.  It’s a cheap shorthand and I apologize.

Is Perfumery an Art Form?

Perfumery has some degree of formal recognition:  preservation (l’Osmotèque), curation (Museum of Arts and Designs’s Department of Olfactory Art), criticism (a New York Times perfume critic), training (ISIPCAGivaudan’s school, etc.). These structures are similar to other historically accepted forms of art, ie. painting, music, dance, literature, etc..  Do social recognition, identifiable organizations and the means of proliferating a form (schooling/training) constitute an art form?  What else is missed? What other social affirmation is missing?  A few would be the mainstream academy (eg. universities, not simply ‘technical’ schools), the gallery, the collector, the cultural role of the artist.  All of these point to the overall missing attribute: the widespread discussion.  This is where the enthusiasts fit it.  This is where the discussion takes place.

How is perfumery an art form?  How does perfumery as a form differ from other historically recognized art forms?

How do we take in, process and act on perfumery?  How is an olfactory art form performed, enacted, executed?

Perfumery is distinct from other forms, principally in that it is olfactory in nature, a sense that, in terms of intention, is solely read-only for humans.  We sense the world in an olfactory manner, but scent is not a means of ‘dialogue’:  there is no conscious back-and-forth.

What can we learn by comparing perfumery to other art forms?  What is the bias toward the visual?  What is the bias to spoken or written language?  Is a form necessarily less rational if it doesn’t employ word form?  What does image mean?  Advances in technology and television favor visual/aural.  We privilege the visual image in advertising and bottles.  Ads never actually allude to the scent itself, just the lifestyle/experience that it will ostensibly give you.

Perfumery may not convey political meaning or social implication as theater and visual arts have historically.  Does this make it less than those forms?  Is it less valuable?  Is it in fact loftier as it can be cut free from the dogmatism of so many spoken/written forms?  Must we choose?  How does art enrich us in ways that we don’t know, plan or understand?

What does the form itself tell us?  Perfume is created and then given to you to fulfill the experience.  In this sense it is like a book or a read-only digital medium.  In music there is a score; in perfumery there is a formula.  How does form’s structure inform the implicit goal?  Is there an implicit goal?  Does any art form have an intrinsic goal?  Two wearers will experience the same perfume entirely differently.  Does this make perfumery necessarily abstract?

What discourse or exchange is created?  Taken on the olfactory level, perfumery does not allow for dialogue.  My response to Patricia de Nicolai’s perfumes is not to make her a perfume in return.  Internal dialogue?  Between perfumer and wearer?  Among wearers?  Between perfumers?

The discussion of perfume often relies on allusion and creative description. While it favors the engaged, well-spoken wearer, a less articulate wearer doesn’t change the fact that the experience, the creative execution lies with the wearer. The perfumer makes the perfume, the object; she creates the formula. The wearer becomes the subject.  He is the locus of the experience of the perfume.  Perfume takes place with the wearer. The act of experiencing/consuming/wearing occurs against the backdrop of one’s experience, perspective and temperament.  Perfume doesn’t simply happen to the wearer. Chose your own construct: the wearer performs / enacts / executes the perfume.  Regardless of the phrasing, the wearer is the subject of the experience of perfume use.  What is perfume without the wearer?  What is the scent of one hand clapping?

The construct of perfumer-as-auteur implies activity/passivity, the receiving and consumption of a product made by experts.  It echoes many similar power dynamics and misunderstandings (lover/beloved, top/bottom, leader/follower, missionary/savage) and carries with a fundamental bias toward the auteur as possessing all the creative power.   Add to this the secrecy of the perfume industry, and its ensuing disinformation (marketing) and the scenario created is one of a passive wearer relying on the noblesse oblige of the perfumer.

The issue in deciding where the the locus of the experience is found, or how you value the different experiences comes down to one principal question, phrased in two parts:

How is meaning created in perfumery?  What is meaning in relation to perfume?

This question can be looked at from two perspectives:

Is intention the point?  Is the perfumer primary?

Is interpretation the point?  Is the wearer primary?  

Are these two perspectives mutually exclusive?

Unlike other forms of art that may prompt emotion or thought, perfume is used by the wearer as an aid to the manipulation of self reflection and self image. ‘Am I attractive, do I feel good about myself?’  Similar notions happen with all other art forms.  We see ourselves as more sophisticated, intelligent, hip etc. when we identify ourselves with particular works of art, books, music.  This is simply using art as fashion.  Product affiliation is a means of social identification.   Perfume can be likened to fashion, signaling association through brand.  Wearing an identifiable designer perfume is comparable to wearing clothing with a prominent logo.

So as members of a society or a culture, how do we join/support the collective using perfume as a means of expression?  How do we dissent or part from the collective?  Apart from group signaling, perfume can provide a less mediated experience, providing the wearer with tools to manipulate self-image.  ‘Am I handsome?  Am I attractive?  This perfume makes me feel confident.’  In this capacity perfumery is more akin to both grooming and pornography/sexual fantasy.  Each is used to formulate or modify self-image.  While this may not meet the qualifications of high art, it does favor the wearer as the locus of an experience that neither the perfumer nor the producer envisioned.

How do we communicate gender?  How does gender become apparent in perfumery, other than the obvious marketing?  Most people don’t or can’t communicate gender intellectually, but they are highly aware of conforming to or diverging from gender norms.  People are usually aware of the presence of and even the exact location of the gender line in all instances.  They tend to become anxious when it is lost or vague.  They become agitated when they see themselves too close to it or crossing it.  How is this manipulated in perfumery?  What does a perfumery that doesn’t perform this functions look like?

What does it mean to experience scent as the means and vehicle of art or meaning?  While sight might be a dominant means of getting information, scent, for those who are not anosmic, is tied to life itself.  You can close your eyes for as long as you choose.  And while you can plug your nose, how long can you go without breathing?  Whether a scent is pleasing or unattractive, it is tethered to the experience of breathing.  Spiritual and meditative practices identify breathing as primary and sacred.  Is perfumery enhanced or constrained in its relationship to the transcendent?

If perfumery is an art form, what is functional fragrance?  Is it simply below a quantitative or qualitative threshold of artistry?  If not art, is it entertainment?  Is the difference merely context and/or intention?  What are the unintentional yet complex and meaningful scents that we encounter outside of perfumery?  Flowers, garbage, regional/environmental scent gestalts?  How is the commonplace different from the artistic to our senses of smell?

Re. perfumery, what is art versus:






cultural artifact?

Is perfumery fine art?  Is it performed?

If scent is an intrinsically non-verbal form, do we principally experience it consciously or unconsciously?  Rationally or irrationally? Though it may not convey literal meaning, how does it reflect other aesthetic principles?  By what means?  Representational?  Expressional?  Formal?

Without words or identifiable visual symbols, how is repeatable meaning created in perfumery?  That is, can an intelligible message be conveyed through perfume to all who smell it?  Perfume can be reproduced, but can the meaning of perfume, or the meaning created by perfume for the wearer and more broadly by wearers of the same perfume be recreated?  How do wearers gain or lose from this predicament?  How do perfumers?

While perfumery may not possess all the attributes of other artistic paradigms, it has properties that qualify it as art—complexity, coherence, originality, intention, expressivity, aesthetics.  Does perfumery merely lack some of the “institutional features” of established forms, particularly a focus on category and defining principles such as genres, schools or movements.  Have classical western categories (painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, music, theater, poetry) been shown to be arbitrary?

Does form alone define art?  Is it defined specifically by content, with form merely being style?  Is there a threshold between art and non-art?


These general questions concerning form lead to the broader question:

Is perfumery art? 

My answer up front is yes.  Perfume is created with and possesses aesthetic significance. If these points are held to be criteria, perfumery qualifies as art.

Where you find the locus of the artistic experience will inform your understanding of how you consider perfume to be art.  Do you see the person wearing perfume as simply experiencing  it, coming to understand it?  Is perfume the art object and the wearer simply responding to it?  If so, the perfumer is the artist and the wearer is the audience.  But if you allow a broader definition of art, a broader understanding of those who create meaning through perfume should follow.  The wearer’s tools of understanding and interpretation are as critical to the process as the perfume.  While this stance prompts questions (Does it matter that the wearer is not consciously intending to create a work of art?  Does this mean that the reader of a book is an artist?) the proposition is valid.

I’d be willing to grant that perfumery (the creation of the product, perfume) is the realm of artistry and that wearing it is just the realm of aesthetics, except for the implicitly non-verbal nature of the olfactory experience.  Our perception of perfume is sensory, but the processing of the experience happens in a mind that is prepared to understand and communicate based on the visual and the aural.  We communicate in many ways, but the principle means of intellectual communication is through verbal/written language.  We cannot perceive or communicate the olfactory with the degree of meaning, precision or relevance that a dog can.  The dog reads a factual and social world through scent and communicates shared meaning with other dogs and other species by scent-based expression.  A dog’s understanding of the world is essentially unintelligible to us on the olfactory level.  A complex and active social interaction is reduced to, ‘This smells like piss.  That smells like shit.’ by our limited, comparatively rudimentary olfactory capability.  While a dog may not be intelligent, what it communicates by smell is both rich and precise for the dog, yet flat and unintelligible for people.

People share the same smell when they smell perfume, but the other component in the creation of meaning around this perfume is the person herself.  We each create significance through experiencing perfume.  The scent is not subjective, it is a shared object, but we don’t derive or attribute the same meanings to the perfumes.  It is by then verbalizing our experiences that we come to share, or not, meaning in perfumery.

It is not to say that we have one more degree of removal in experiencing scent than a dog does, but we are not neurologically prepared to process this sense as a dog does.  The extent of a dog’s intelligence aside, a dog hearing a human conversation will not draw the meaning from it that humans do.  Even though the dog has more acute hearing than the human, it cannot process the significance conveyed in this sound in the manner that humans do.  The distinction in the human/scent – dog/conversation comparison is that the human can create meaning from scent by creative and reflective thought, juxtaposing the scent to previous experience.  The dogs will not come to understand the conversation better after consideration.

Is complicated meaning built from smaller abstract bits, or do abstraction and emotional/intellectual/rational/narrative meanings exist independently and are conveyed whole?  Is one or the other method more implicit in perfumery?  Can this complicated meaning in fact be created at all in perfumery, or is it derived in conjunction with the  allusion to ideas (mores, norms, cultures, stories?) existing outside of perfumery? I suggest the latter, giving more credence to wearer as the ‘site’ of creativity.  Can meaning occur by accretion and use of perfumery over time?  Again, the locus becomes the wearer who experiences the work of many perfumers, whether they are know to the wearer or not.

Next installment:  perfume criticism.

A note:  I’m exceedingly late to the game, just having seen the ruckus that followed perfumer Francis Kurkdjian’s comments in an interview with Persolaise in March of 2012.  I’m thrilled to see him engage in discussion of his work vis a vis the perfume enthusiast and hope that he’ll continue.  As a talented artist whose work goes a long way to defining the contemporary state of both large-scale and niche perfume production, his point of view is valuable. (More, please.)  His words, and the context in which Persolaise places them urge me to write about the topic of critical thinking in perfumery, a topic that has long perplexed  me.

It is hard to draw any conclusions from Francis Kurkdjian’s brief comments and questions in Persoalise’s interview.  I also take what others have apparently considered offensive as good natured chiding, more bonhomie and a challenge than an insult.  From my perspective, where the perfume wearer is categorically engaged in the creation of meaning through perfume, I think Kurkdjian makes a false distinction, seeing the artistic intention of the perfumer as the matter rather than the aesthetic engagement of the wearer.  Would perfumistas benefit from more education on the concepts, componentry and creativity involved in the making of perfume?  Likely.  In fact, they would also likely welcome it.  But this education would not conclusively change the wearer’s creation of meaning through perfumery.  Given the sparsity of effective, pertinent information from the perfume production side of the equation, perfumers included, I find many of the perfume enthusiasts who write about perfume (and therefore themselves) very well considered.  Their thoughts give me more information about perfume use than the words of any perfumer save Andy Tauer who is exceptional among perfumer in the open public discussion of his work.  The discussions of perfume enthusiasts are certainly more valuable to me than perfume marketing.  I don’t say this as a provocation or defiance.  It’s simply the case that while I get perfume from perfumers, with the exception of a few interviews or discussion with bloggers/journalists, I don’t get any tools of understanding from them.

My proclivity is not to seek out explanation from an artist about a specific piece of work.  I want to see the dance, see the painting, read the book, smell the perfume and then take if from there on my own.  This does not mean that I don’t want to be involved in the greater discussion of dance, painting, perfumery.  Both the specific and the more general discussion is lacking from perfumery as an artistic field, as an industry.  The onus should not be on the perfume enthusiasts to educate themselves in order to engage in the discussion of perfume, though we do it regardless.  We do it happily.  It would, though, behoove the industry to change its custom of secrecy and fiction to court an informed wearer.

Nothing in the above couple of paragraphs is new by any means.  Fortunately this is a topic that has been discussed recently.  Let’s keep the discussion going.  More to follow.


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