Conundrum: Is Perfumery An Art?

Mark Rothko. Jackson Pollock. Robert Motherwell. Pierre Bourdon?

I've been reading a lot of airy banter on how aspiring perfumistas should quit trying to foist uninformed opinions on others and heed the extensive expertise of "senior" fragrance aficionados, those who know far more than "newbies" could ever deign to. The supposition here is that there is a sphere of knowledge within which fragrance-loving entities circulate, with the ignorant wooshing around the outer rim, and the enlightened hugging the nucleus of . . . what? A philosophical embrace of the metaphysical? An intellectual framework from which creative impulse is drawn? The perfume equivalent of Tachisme?

This sort of attitude presupposes that perfumery is something one can be an "expert" in. Naturally expertise applies to perfumery, as it takes an expert of sorts to create a fragrance, and another expert to market it. But I ask you, as a casual appreciator of all things fragrance, can someone removed from the profession of perfumery ever truly be an expert in perfume? If so, to what can we compare this lofty status? Or, to put it more concisely, what is the standard for being a "senior" fragrance connoisseur?

There are several avenues to explore, so let's see if we reach a satisfactory answer at the end of one of them.

To be an expert in perfume, but not directly involved in professional perfume-making, one should be compared to an expert in fine art, someone like an art historian. Such historians study not just the images produced by artists, but the philosophical engines of thought that drive artistic movements throughout periods of human history. 

Art historians are usually not artists themselves, but their understanding of art transcends the act of art making because they analyze, contextualize, and understand the fundamental process behind a finished artwork. To an art expert, a Pollock is not just a painting; a drip canvas holds the invisible tension of visible poles, acts as a beacon for automatism, relies on primitive imagery to supply a modern take on the limitations of humanity, and the fatalistic hand of the divine, without representational trappings. 

The hoi polloi of gallery-goers sees it and says, "I could do that." This distances them from actually being capable of painting like Pollock, simply because they cannot emulate what they don't understand. They lack the understanding, and are that much further removed from having any expertise on the subject. 

Conversely, a person who studies primitive images, and has conscious theological considerations of himself as he relates to the universe, is much closer to grasping the fundamentals necessary for recreating something like a Pollock painting. An understanding of the Big Ideas that fueled Pollock's creativity can help immensely in replicating his visual language on a layman's scale.

Can this apply to perfume connoisseurs? Let's take Pierre Bourdon's famous skankfest, Kouros. First, a basic understanding of what Kouros is: a musky fougère with a noticeable (and intentional) tension between its bracingly clean citrus and floral heart, and its dirtier, civet-laden underpinnings. Smelling Kouros is an exercise in free association - one generally thinks of air fresheners, toilet pucks, urine, raw incense, and mentholated clove. From there, the imagery can be further contextualized. 

I've often read that Kouros is evocative of a sex-tussled bed, or a shower-steamed locker room. For me, it invites memories of sun-baked avenues in an Italian village. It's amazing how easy it is to extract personal associations from Kouros. It's also interesting how easy it is to agree with the millions who think Kouros smells "dirty." Kouros is at once a very literal and subjective experience.

At first glance, one could say that one's Kouros experience correlates with one's Pollock experience. There is the sensory comprehension necessary to fully appreciate what one is experiencing (Kouros' olfactory structure/Pollock's drips and color choices), combined with more tangentially subjective musings about how the experience relates to one's own life. 

There are the less-informed who view a Pollock and cluck their tongues, thinking it is simplistic crap, and the more-informed who are transported to the Depression era and consider the raw and unprecedented randomness of an avant-garde style. There are the less-informed who smell Kouros, wrinkle their noses, and proclaim "this smells like piss," and the more-informed who sigh in rapture as their imaginations are flooded with all sorts of good things. Those who thoroughly understand Pollock's genius can still hate his work, while those who suddenly made the leap from a steady diet of comic books to the elevated abstraction of drip paintings can be endlessly inspired. 

Likewise, those who understand what Bourdon has achieved can still suffer bouts of Kouros-induced nausea, while those who know nothing about it can love it unconditionally. The same response mechanisms apply. But there is one key difference between the intellectualism of Pollock's work, and the intellectualism of Bourdon's - that of artistic motivation. Motivation, as they say, makes the man. So the question now becomes, is Pollock's creative drive comparable to Bourdon's? Are these men operating on the same hemisphere of thought? And does it even matter?

To answer this, we must look carefully at the cultural context in which the respective creations of these men have been placed. Jackson Pollock's work fits neatly into the academic world of Abstract Expressionism, a higher plane of modern painting and sculpture that spanned a generation and brought us thousands of masterpieces. His work is art, and is defined as such.

Bourdon' work, on the other hand, is a product, and is essentially a chemical construction. However, his role is multifaceted, and doesn't abruptly stop at these definitions. In creating Kouros and many other perfumes, Bourdon has done two things, (1) fulfilled an assigned brief, and (2) tapped into a current fashion trend. His work, while often culturally significant, is not recognized as being artistically significant by scholars, or the masses. It is recognized as being fashionably significant. 

Kouros helped to illuminate a revival in the late 1970s and early 1980s of sweet musks for men, which were the mode for adult males during the 1950s. Bourdon then helped redefine this trend toward fresh (read: less musky) fougères with his biggest and furthest-reaching commercial achievement, Cool Water.

A realization is made - the work of these men inhabits two entirely different worlds.

In investigating his body of work, it becomes clear that Bourdon, like all perfumers, has never achieved an intellectual, emotional, or theological expression through scent. He has achieved accords that are reminiscent of theological environments - the incense in Kouros, for example. I have heard people comment that Cool Water smells like Holy Water, which is a strange consideration, but could have something to it. However, these are subjective projections based on free association. There is no philosophical anchor to which an intellectual can chain these associations, and therefore not enough material with which to flesh out Bourdon's personal motivations in creating his scents. 

Furthermore, there is a conflict of interest in Bourdon's creative process that never existed in Pollock's - the perfumer's brief. Pollock was largely self-motivated, with guidance from Clement Greenberg and other colleagues. Bourdon, however, is motivated to fulfill a brief, with restrictions on expression, and the materials for expression, as dictated by a business entity. Bourdon's process is the gestation of personal skill and public mission; Pollock's was the release of inner mental, physical, and spiritual tension. One is flat; one is multidimensional in scope.

Thematically, Pollock deals with Big Ideas, which are necessary for great art. Life, death, god, the abyss, the electrical tension of existing in an organized void, all are manifest in his work. These themes are stated. Pollock himself describes the act of integrating with his art, of standing within it, searching for subconscious answers to conscious questions. Bourdon's themes are primal (anything dealing with the olfactory sense is primal), sometimes primitive, but do not transcend the sphere of fashion. It is, unfortunately, a mode of expression that is not stated. The intent is vague at worst, and commercially astute at best. This doesn't mean that his work cannot hold greater subjective meaning, but the objective truths are simply not there. Intellectually speaking, there is a lack of intent. 

One can wonder if such intent is even possible when appealing to the most primitive of the five senses, but this is a subject better left to biologists. However, it is clear that Bourdon is not operating within the same hemisphere of thought at Jackson Pollock. It's also clear that it doesn't matter - his work is far enough removed from Pollock's, and no comparison is truly apt.

Now that we've established the difference between perfumery and art, the question remains: can a perfume connoisseur ever be a senior "expert" in perfumery? The answer is built into our discoveries regarding the Great Divide - if understanding the intellectual motivation behind art is necessary to make one an art expert, then one must understand something more than the intellectual motivation behind perfume in order to be a perfume expert, for there is little to no intellectual motivation behind perfume. The motivation behind perfume is invariably linked to fulfilling a request, usually commercial in nature, and is therefore not enough to flesh out one's expertise.

In order to become a perfume expert, one must possess something more than a fundamental knowledge of what drives the creation of perfume. In order to be a perfume expert, one must possess a fundamental and first-hand knowledge of the perfume-making process itself. This is in stark contrast to the expertise of an art aficionado; the Pollock expert doesn't need to be skilled in drip painting to claim intellectual territory, but does need a thorough understanding of how Pollock influences the larger modern and postmodern cultural aesthetic. This understanding makes one well-versed in the before, during, and after effects of Pollock's creative process, and it is this arch that enlightens us.

The perfume expert, however, cannot draw from a before, during, and after process because the motivational impetus behind his work originates with other people, for reasons that are usually non-creative. To have expertise, or any kind of "seniority" of knowledge, this expert must have a hand in chemistry, and be capable of accomplishing the chemical constructions of more established perfumers. Anything short of this is simply perfume enthusiasm. And there is nothing separating one perfume enthusiast from another, except perhaps patience, money, and access to a broader range of scents. 

One enthusiast may be limited to drugstore scents like Aqua Velva, Brut, and Old Spice, while another may collect a wide range of perfumes by Lutens, Creed, Montale, and Amouage. One may have the predilection to explore the extensive backstories behind famous perfumes, while the other may be content to settle for marketing blurbs. The two are basically the same person, with Woody Allen's equation of comedy equalizing them (comedy = tragedy + distance). It is tragic that one is financially limited and could have a much broader range of olfactory experiences, if only he had more money. It is remote aloofness that allows the wealthy to revel in the exotic expressions of various niche houses unhindered. It's funny that both are, in the end, situated in the exact same place, often without ever realizing it.

So there you have it. Perfumery is not an art after all. I can't tell you what to do, but I recommend that you challenge anyone who suggests it is. And the next time someone tries to intimidate you with their "expertise" in perfumery, remind them that we all have the same primitive olfactory epicenter in our brains, but not all of us have the ability to create the things that tap into them. Those that do are the real "experts." The rest of us are just enthusiastic admirers from afar.