Catherine Haley Epstein’s article, Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent makes some interesting conjectures about the social role of scent and art. She emphasizes the prosocial and intimate nature of scent-based work and how it modulates the cultural effects of recent information technology. The article was published on 9/30/2016 in Temporary, a platform with an emphasis on makeshift alliances within the arts/criticism. Epstein’s piece celebrates the growth of scent-based artwork and cites numerous performed/installed projects that work within the medium of scent. Her discussion of the work is enlightening, but I take issue with her exclusion of perfumery from the discussion of scent-art. Perfumery per se might not have been within the scope of her intended discussion, but by specifically rejecting it as art, the door is open.
Epstein considers the work of visual and performance artists who incorporate scent as art, but perfumery and the work of perfumers as non-art. She states unequivocally, “When assessing whether scent is art or simply a product, it really boils down to the thinking behind the making.” (*) Citing the historical conundrum of “fine art versus applied art”, Epstein categorically lumps the fashion designer and the professional perfumer together, stating that, “neither…is an artist.”
The art/non-art discussion tends to be circular, but in this case, it also perpetuates the greater than/less than premise of the art-versus-craft canard. Perfume gets relegated to the ‘applied arts’ bin at best. In this scenario perfume can convey aesthetics but it lacks the significance that fine art using the medium of scent has. Similar arguments have been made in the visual arts, music, dance and theater. It’s a spin on the art/entertainment chestnut that gets kicked around every decade or so. Until now, there was never a high olfactory art to balance out perfume’s lows.
Epstein’s argument has three premises: 1) Scent-art is possible, though the rules of high/low art apply. 2)The paucity of perfume’s language prevents it from reaching an artistic threshold. 3) Perfume lacks the critical framework to be an art-form.
Premise 1: Concept leads, form follows.
Epstein’s valuation of olfactory work has an all-or-nothing quality. She praises the conceptual nature of scent-based art and chides perfumery. “There is no real dialog yet about scent as a fundamental art medium.” Art ‘rescuing’ a deficient form to create a ‘real’ dialogue highlights an unfortunate artistic presumptuousness. The myth of art-theory, like that of management-theory, holds that the form is subservient to the concept. A person trained in artistic theory can master an unknown form and make it more meaningful than a person trained vocationally in the form.
Epstein points to visual artist Kiki Smith’s collaboration with a professional perfumer Christophe Laudamiel as an example of scent-based work that is “less like art.” The commercial nature of the work (“merchandise”) is apparently the limiting factor.
Laudamiel is one of the most provocative and progressive contemporary perfumers. His work with Humiecki & Graef and S-Perfumes has pushed the boundaries of commercial perfumery and his olfactory installations have influenced the state of scent-based art. He founded the non-profit Academy of Perfumery and Aromatics, America’s wing of l’Osmothèque, the prestigious fragrance research center and the world’s largest scent archive. As a statement of artistic defiance and open-access education he recently became the first perfumer to allow the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), the EU’s infamous regulatory agency of fragrant materials, to publish the complete formula of one of his perfumes. He is the only perfumer Epstein cites by name. If she knows his work and reputation, she’s making the point that perfume isn’t art as forcefully as she can.
Contrast Epstein’s treatment of Laudamiel with her praise of Norgegian scent-artist Sissel Tolaas, whose projects are sponsored by International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), one of the largest international producers of fragrant materials. The commercial nature of Laudamiel’s work is the strike against him, but Tolaas’s affiliation with a multinational, publicly traded corporation is praised.
“On no uncertain terms, by associating themselves with such an independent thinker and artist, IFF (revenues of over $3 billion USD) will keep their pulse on scent as an art medium for some time.”
Incidentally, IFF might might have taken Laudamiel’s pulse when he worked for the company from 2000-2008.
Premise 2: Epstein states unconditionally that, “…there is no vocabulary for scent.”
As a commercial product, much of perfume’s technical language is obscure—more a trade secret than a discussion. But language is also embedded in the perfume itself. Perfume is created using complex materials and advanced methods and techniques of formulation. It is a social and historic artifact that offers an angle of interpretation that few other aesthetic items can. Perfumes, like other aesthetics artifacts, are devices that connect the process of the creator to the experience of the audience. Like other art objects it derives from the fundamental tools of communicating creative intent–consideration, abstraction, dynamics, self-reflection, risk.
It is true that olfactory language is complicated and far less easy to elucidate than visual or aural language. Because it lacks the ‘data’ aspect and repeatability of written/spoken language, scent is falsely considered more subjective than the other senses when it is in fact simply more difficult to refer to demonstrably. By categorically dismissing perfumery as non-art rather than accepting the limits—and the benefits—of the medium, the author throws the baby out with the bath water. There is an opportunity to understand the imperfect but detailed olfactory language accumulated through hundreds of years of perfumery.
Premise 3: The author makes a fair point that the state of theory and the body of criticism on olfactory art are at an early stage of development. I share what I see as her excitement and optimism that the field is wide open and that there will be more exciting and challenging work in olfactory art in the very near future. Still, deliberately avoiding the history of perfumery and the thoughtful/subversive/surprising work going on by artists within the form, Epstein does artists approaching scent from outside perfumery a disservice.
“The very reason that their is no lexicon makes the medium one of the most exciting to practice today. There is no beginning or end, no edges and no movements in scent.”
By telling artists that there is no dialogue, history or foundation to the artistry of scent, she limits the inspiration they might find in perfume, whether they consider it art or not.
I am as encouraged to see art that employs the olfactory as much as I am to see people responding to it and writing about it. I’m thrilled that the article highlights The Institute for Art and Olfaction. As an organization and as a community of fumies (fragrance fans), students, artists and researchers, the IAO seeks to expand, not limit, the potential of the accelerating scent-arts movement. It matches an open-ended exploration of ideas to the joy of community, an ideal approach to an expansive new field in the arts.
My concern with Epstein’s article, Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent is that it deliberately excludes perfumery and its rich, though admittedly arcane, history and present from the discussion of olfactory art. To dismiss it because it doesn’t fit meet criteria or the expectations of a monolithic art world is regrettable. Epstein implies that perfume is not art because it lacks a critical canon, but she looks past the historical contribution of perfumery because it doesn’t meet the criteria of established convention. She implies that an olfactory language does not exist because the art world has yet to weigh in on the matter. This sort of argument misses the art of perfumery that I experience daily as an audience member.
I disagree with Epstein in this case, but am excited to have found her artwork and her writing, both of which are insightful and inspiring. I’ll be following her at catherinehaleyepstein.com, Point + Line and Mindmarrow. I write anonymously because it suits my desire for privacy, but don’t want my inclination to get in the way of taking responsibility for my criticism of Catherine Haley Epstein’s writing. I’m willing to respond to comments here at my site or elsewhere.
(*All quotations from Epstein’s Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent)