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 known as 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 surprising realization is made - the work of these two 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 Pierre 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.


  1. Apparently number of posts is the only qualification for seniority and being respected. How disrespectful for new members to have an opinion that may not be exactly the same as the member with 5,000 posts........

    1. Well, some claim that this isn't the case. I think you're on to it, though. The larger question of whether perfumery is art hits on a broader scope of players, including Luca Turin.

    2. Funny though, I notice every time someone presents a good case, threads mysteriously close and feathers get visibly ruffled.

  2. (1.)
    Your piece is long and thorough and addresses lots of rich tangents (would it be fair to say I'm addressing you as one 'enthusiast', in terms of both perfume and painting, to another?), and deserves a longer and more detailed reply, but for now, I'd like to respectfully disagree, firstly on principle and secondly for the sake of speculation. The issue of intent is a great one to grapple with, but not an easy one. Let’s look at Pollock: a career alcoholic since his teenage years with aspirations to avant-garde grandeur that could readily fulfill your Woody Allen-derived definition of comedy were his painting not so substantially supported. He never really was more than a workmanlike draughtsman, and was on a program of tranquilizers (a prescription to help him dry out) when he made most of the work that is now considered, “classic.” Unlike philosophy fanboys Mark Rothko or Robert Motherwell, He was not a sophisticated spokesman on behalf of his own work, although his extant remarks have a directness that, given the complexity of his accomplishment at its best, is articulate. His sensibility, though bracingly raw at times, was filtered through such strange bedfellows as the cowboy El Greco Thomas Hart Benton, and Benton’s hero, Tintoretto, the surrealist Miro and the Mexican muralist Siqueiros, with the shadow of Picasso’s bastard virtuosity looming over them all. Finally, it is now an understood fact rather than a conspiracy theory that the success of Abstract Expressionism full stop was helpfully underwritten by the CIA, who were looking to abstraction to combat Stalinist Social Realism in Cold War culture contest. Pollock’s career-making patronage was a stipend from Peggy Guggenheim that allowed him to move out to Long Island and work undisturbed, but it did not translate directly into popular acclaim, or, for that matter, sales.

    Intention is not a pure product; reading through Herschel Chipp’s Theories of Modern Art (1968), a gold mine of primary docs in the form of letters, statements and manifestos by Modern artists from Çezanne to Giacometti, one is struck by all the historical ironies, personal blind spots and missed opportunities. As a PHD friend of mine from the Courtauld Institute once informed me (speaking as historian to painter), in the post-Duchamp era, artistic intention is the uninvited guest at the dinner table. And, speaking as an artist who moonlights as a critic, I accept that this perspective has its uses, allowing viewers to participate more fully in the work, and our understanding of Pollock to not get too confined by context. Art history is, after all, a history of present objects. I should add that I subjectively love Pollock’s work, and when last at the MOMA a couple of years ago, was knocked over by it all over again after making my way through everything else. At least some part of that joy was not knowing if it would happen, if I trusted him, or myself, or the MOMA, or, in some crazy existential metaphysic, New York City itself, to say nothing of ‘painting.’

  3. (2.)
    Art forms move in and out of relevancy for all kinds of reasons, many of them political and economic, related to patterns of patronage and consumption, etc. When I was in art school trying to teach myself how to size canvas with rabbit skin glue, I was told that painting was likely dead (again), or that maybe it was about to come back. One teacher used to even try to throw us all by suggesting that ‘art’ as such, by its old Renaissance Humanist definitions, anyway, wasn’t long for this world. But the irony is that much of the art we base our modern notions of individual expression and intention on, the work of Renaissance masters, was made to meet a brief. There is no example of an artist working in 15th, 16th or 17th century Italy, for instance, just rolling out of bed and deciding to make art. Most of the Renaissance masters game from guilds that were craft-oriented and incredibly competitive. As the very entertaining critic Dave Hickey (I think you’d like him) points out in his 1990’s polemic, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, most ‘great art’ was advertising, propaganda or both, before it ever got entombed in a museum. The deals made by painters like Pollock, Newman (and later Stella and Johns) that saw their work travel almost directly from studio to institution are indicative of a rare, very politically and economically specific, moment in history.

    Perfumery is something I have a lot less knowledge of, and here I concede to your relative expertise (which, frankly, I put more stock in because it is the product of enthusiasm), but I’d like to at least keep the question of perfume’s being art open to speculation. Some factors to consider:

    1. The transience of so much art in performance, installation, the democratization of generalized, commodified, mass ‘creativity’ in the form of Instagram, et al.
    2. The greater importance of audience involvement, viz. the coming of ‘Relational Aesthetics’ in which an event-based art might be a shared meal or a dance party, something that engenders a specific but often quite temporary community as aesthetic phenomenon.
    3. The more naked relations between markets, patrons, taste and institutions, that leave art critics feeling disempowered by the power of oligarchs to influence museum boards, backed by a market hype machine that employs legions of grad students to churn out densely citation-laden ad copy for an increasingly monopolized gallery system (LVMH, meet Larry Gagosian).

    As an art critic, I kind of relish the flawed subjectivity and nakedly self-serving motives of many fragrance reviews. Reflecting on your latest post (Jan 2016), I find the process of looking for ‘clues’ reminds me of reading multiple reviews of Matisse as an art student. Robert Hughes, Elaine Scarry and David Sylvester each wrote very different things about him, but all of them were clues to help me understand why I needed him. The need came first, last and always, and survived the discrepancies between varied interpretations of his achievement. I’m not sure if I need perfume that way, though, god help me, I do need to find a way to be social, and the needs of social animals are nothing if not complex.

    1. John, I want to congratulate you. You have submitted the perfect comment, which I can not in any way find fault with.

      I can only pivot (indirectly) to the notion that while I agree that art and design are strongly related, and that the social engineering that goes into them are often culturally and politically symbiotic, the commercial aspect of design further fractures perfume's proximity to fine art via the practicality - the "cult of pragmatism" - that people associate with commercial art.

      So while I agree that the psychological process of discerning intent, the many blind spots, which are essentially "holes" in theory, that plague intention are exactly the rich tapestry of human creativity that is lacking in the perfumery world. People are engineering things from a monetary perspective first, and worrying about details and flourishes and harmonic balances of notes and accords later. Accountants, even in small niche firms, are the drivers. The perfumers are merely the producers; the perfume a product.

      Art is driven by flawed intentions, and is often the result of base negligence. But design is driven by math. So is perfume.

      That said, I wouldn't for an instant deign to know more about the art world than you do - I am merely a former art student and yes, a perfume enthusiast, and I find your insights into this subject far more illuminating in a few paragraphs than years of other counter arguments to my positions here. When you do have the time for more analysis of this subject, please do continue - my biggest question to you is, where does the line between pre and post Rennaissance artists' "guilded" and functional artistry intersect with those little bursts of creativity that are harder to account for on a commercial scale? The little sketches by Leonardo that aren't connected to anything but themselves? Michelangelo's Biblical coding with imagery - is one angel too many a statement that goes beyond the commission, and does its presence carry the whole work into another stratosphere of artistic depth and intellectual richness, or are there more clear-cut examples of art for art's sake, fueled by personal motives, five and six hundred years ago (and even further back, for that matter)?

  4. What a great question… Probably too far back for written documentation (the sleuthing tool of art historians) to keep track of… There are so many stories like this in art history, and many of my favorites, from Giotto’s use of blue in the Arena Chapel to Joseph Beuys’ sculptures made of felt and fat, are things I never get bored of despite whatever research has to say on the subject. I think one of the problems with the ‘art for art’s sake’ moment of the 19th century was that, from then on, all art, whatever its original ‘final cause’, is always also going to interpretable as about itself as much as anything else, a problem complicated by our definition of art has shifted from individual disciplines (dance, painting, sculpture, etc.) to a general metaphysical catch-all of ‘art,’ and the expectation that art does not radiate from the midst of a centralized culture, but emerges critically, symptomatically even, from its peripheries.

    Truthfully, what I was writing really was speculative, but I think where I am most interested in the creative side of perfume is in the user’s subjective responses to what is, just a s you say, a highly engineered product. Please note that I say ‘user’ rather than ‘aficionado’ or ‘connoisseur’. The thing I enjoy about this blog is that I think it is made for people who, above all, wear perfume, and whose caring about it is a complex of needs and desires, defense mechanisms and appetites, that are irrational, demanding and not all known nor understood. From this perspective, there are a couple of documents (both free online, for those who are interested) I might reach for in considering why fragrance might do for some, what painting or poetry does for others. Interestingly, both are from the 1960’s, a period when (thinking of Mad Men, or paraphrasing from Andy Warhol), the mass market attempted to become ‘artistic’, and when art market players in the USA (to be shortly followed by everyone) began taking up the mass market as both a subject and (eventually, pacing a track from Warhol to Takashi Murakami) a methodology.

    One is “Notes on Camp” (1964), Susan Sontag’s ode to a new creative sensibility that reinterprets the expressiveness of art and decoration on its own terms (Sontag was cribbing liberally from Oscar Wilde, and anticipating a tsunami of taste-play that would attend the assimilation of homosexual taste into mainstream America during the post-Stonewall, Studio 54 era.) “Camp” as a sensibility, allows us to interpret things ironically but still pleasurably, to take frivolities seriously and to revel in the inappropriateness of misplaced displays of extreme passions (on Sontag’s list of campy things: a lot of showtunes and, “stag movies seen without lust.”) Really, Sontag is relating the way that subcultures map themselves out by subverting language, as a means of creative survival. In this way, even disposable kitsch might become part of a greater artistic experience.

    The other is “The Death of the Author” (1967), Roland Barthes’ argument that a readers interpretation of a text matters too, and might be given more weight than the author’s in fact, if only to liberate us from the belief that authors are ever in complete control of their work. Barthes polemical is still something that students read, though I’m not sure if anyone is ready to abandon the author altogether; instead, the essay is part of a general tide of ideas from that era underscoring collaboration between artist and author, interactivity, etc.

  5. I’d like to imagine that fragrance might be something we experience deeply, even if the market forces that produce it are essentially mercenary. I’m not sure we get to do this alone, however. Thinking of the way smell is such a powerful memory trigger, I’d like to suppose that we are all carrying around these intensely subjective contexts for the smells we are putting on our bodies, trying to find a way to explain to others what these mean to us, despite the fact that these smells, only half-detectable to us, occupy an intimate, immediate space. Probably we need language to complete the task, and are not sure how it might. Speaking personally and selfishly for a moment, I’d always view the arrival of a new impossible, intimate problem for language as cause for celebration.

    1. Perfume has become increasingly about functional association for me. I've noticed over the years that fragrances reminiscent of shaving soaps hold all the charm, stuff like Brut, Tabac, Tuscany, Azzaro PH, Sung Homme, Drakkar Noir, Skin Bracer, Old Spice, etc.

      Their appeal is not "artistic," and only vaguely mired in musings of academic design. Their appeal is familiarity. I like that whenever I wear Rive Gauche PH, I think of Barbasol. I enjoy that Brut reminds me of body talc. I appreciate the frigid mintiness of Myrsol's Formula K; it has a "throwback" quality, (largely imagined), that it resembles oldschool aftershaves of the twenties and thirties that have long been discontinued and forgotten, the sorts of things you might have used if you had a dime to spare in the Depression era and needed a little something to cool your cheeks after a straight razor facial.

      This is the "seriousness of frivolity" that Sontag refers to, perhaps, as shaving is a frivolous luxury made all the more lush by things tangential to it, like aftershave and talc. But art? Is there any art in making your skin smell like flowers, beyond the obvious need to know how to synthetically articulate the olfactory analogs of floral essences? Maybe. Just maybe there is some art to that.

  6. Art is a long game… Someone has to make the product and someone has to care about it. The familiarity you cite in this regard is important, I think, because (as you point out about Myrsol), some of it may well be constructed (i.e. at least partly all in your head). Wetshaver culture now might be connectable to so-called ‘retrosexuals’ (as opposed to ‘metrosexuals’), an offshoot of the need men have faced, increasingly, to approach, dismantle and reconstruct what ‘masculine’ means to them in the face of eroding or transitioning roles, rights and rituals associated with gender and class. There was a funny piece someone wrote a year or two ago pointing out the correspondence between the popularity of beards in the 19th century (concurrent with the rise of the Suffragette movement), and ghosts of those 19th century whiskers reemerge now in Williamsburg or Green Point (or Portand, or… you get the idea.) So if a product like Rive Gauche, as you have pointed out, isn’t just making you smell like shaving cream, but like fragrances from the past, and perhaps its existence argues for a correspondence between user and maker that was not entirely market driven (did we really *need* Rive Gauche? In a mass-market-survey kind of way?), but constituted the gesture of a discreet brand of expressive consumer tribalism?

  7. Granted, all this is just subcultural activity, not necessarily ‘art’, unless you feel, as some do, that subcultural bricolage is itself constitutes art. I don’t think it does, personally, because it is not artificial *enough*. Objects, performances, sculptural monuments, theatre, etc., all, in my experience, succeed as art when they have that slightly inhuman character of ritual. I could try to relate its characteristics (the apprehension of meanings that haven’t entirely been translated into language, the feeling of the unknown, the sense of agency that combines but also transcends artist, medium and audience) but I’d rather do so anecdotally than theoretically. This is why I’d rather not insist that fragrance could never be art. There is a history of crafts and commercial objects and services transcending their intended usages or cultural interpretations, sometimes because a certain audience ‘rediscovers’ and recontextualizes it (for example, the way that Western artists in the 19th entury prized and copied from Japanese Ukiyo-E prints that had been used as wrapping paper for trade goods, or the debate over whether a Norman Rockwell illustration for the Saturday Evening Post should be considered fine art rather than commercial illustration.) It’s quite possible that some ‘classics’ of perfumery have become artworks by virtue of being rediscovered by so many different audiences… Their original reason for being has become an opaque abstraction that can now be understood only in ritual terms; as compositions they embody a vanished context (a message in a bottle, so to speak) so completely that a legible comprehension of that context no longer matters to the audience that has recognized it.

  8. But it should also be said, maybe a bit pessimistically, that the kind of deep humanism that underwrote the western conception of art we are talking about (from the Renaissance through Pollock, et al) is not guaranteed to last forever. Already, we have quite a priesthood of interlocutors telling us what our art meant or should mean now; producing and consuming culture is arguably not the individualistically demanding experience it once was. Maybe that in part explains our nostalgia for throwbacks too?

    1. I can only speak for myself when it comes to assessing the cultural quality of the "throwback," and how it relates to art. If we consider time a linear path, then art is an ever-evolving, materially cumulative, and intellectually expanding universe. I, however, do not consider time to be linear. The clues to how time interacts with us (via spatial inferences) are manifest in the divine proportion, which is essentially the spiral, seen in all aspects of nature, from the rings of trees to the icicles of snowflakes, to the Milky Way galaxy. "Though changed, I rise again the same." A shell simply grows by spiral. It remains the same, yet changes. The same applies to trees, to star clusters, to everything our eyes can see and our senses can feel - yet we doubt this. We cling to religions, to linear thought processes, to the cumulative comforts of all that is familiar about the past, and potentially nostalgia-worthy in the future.

      Perfume is transient, and unfortunately over the decades it has proven to be less than a reliable record. We can not refer back to late 19th century perfumes on a cultural level, simply because there is no reliable source for a 19th century perfume. This is not a restored painting or a preserved bronze sculpture in a museum. This is something that is used, and used up. Twenty years from now, I fear that men half my age will have no conception of what Davidoff's Cool Water smells like. By then it will either be gone entirely or reformulated into something tangentially different from what it was in my day. I might not recognize it, yet its de facto creators will swear that Cool Water exists. And when it is demonstrated to exist, it will be just as ephemeral and unconvincing as it was the day it hit European shelves in 1988.

      Lastly, what is art without artists? Are perfumers artists? Is that how they perceive themselves. You say it is the long game - if we're thinking linearly, does that mean that 100 years from now, perfumers will approach the trade believing it an artistic calling? Or will they have self-serving, entirely unilateral motives? Does this sway how the finished product should be categorized? I believe so.

  9. There are so many interesting things to pick out in this response that I guess I am just going to have to perpetuate a conversation on an old post with two readers (probably unpreventable, but you can always write a new post about this topic…)
    The spiral model of understanding time (or let’s say history, in the broadest sense), a Yeatsean spiral staircase, intersecting gyre kind of thing, is something I can completely get behind… Linearity in art history creates so many problems, and tends to (depending on who’s drawing the lines) run afoul of structures that are relics of colonialism and patriarchy, yes? Here is one problem, though: our using a term like art is very western and canonical. Plenty of cultures that produced things we might admire as art (as Albrecht Dürer did when he first saw works of the Mexica in the palace of the Spanish Habsburgs, in 1520) would not have considered what they were producing to be ‘art’… The conception of what art is and what it’s for is uniquely western and modern (that is to say, post-Renaissance Humanist), so imagining whether perfumery will be an art in 100 years supposes that this definition of art is unchanging, an idea that I don’t think connects meaningfully to the spiral model of what I’ll refer to (for lack of a word like evolution or development) as a contingent relationship.

    In any case, lots of people we think of as artists might not have thought of themselves that way. I cannot imagine why someone would want to grow up and become a perfumer, but I imagine that the connections between the complex, worldly, historicized, and embodied knowledge that constitute what a good perfumer must know aren’t that different from what I might study about iambic feet or enjambment as a poet, or linseed oil glazing and the facial anatomy as a painter. In fact I’d go further and argue that the relationship between specific knowledge like this and the dynamic transpositions of form that inhabit an artist’s sensual memory are exactly why fragrance may survive as an art form despite the fact that perfumes and their formulations are temporal phenomena… That these experiences pass from knowledge to embodiment to formulation to knowledge, across generations (or the lapses and fluxes of those spirals). When I read an interview with Thierry Wasser, and he is going on about how important Caron Pour un Homme was to him in the beginning, I can think he is blowing smoke or I can go along with him, but if I don’t, just on principle, try to reach what he was smelling through what he is doing now, then what the fuck am I reading Dante for?

  10. One (last?) bump: what does art 'lose' if some perfume is considered art? More importantly what do *we* lose? What if we have to distinguish between perfume that is really critical or aesthetically experimental vs. that which is (to borrow from Greenberg, whom I know you've read) 'kitsch', vs. that which is (again, Greenberg) 'Alexandrian', meaning just good-old middle of the road culture, a supposed happy medium that is forever being engaged (and threatened) by the first two categories? I think Chandler Burr is a blowhard (his comments about Kouros raise arguments he doesn't have the scope to engage about datedness and style, IMO), but I guess I have to ask whether asking these questions is better than assuming they needn't be asked because someone is gatekeeping our definitions of art and culture and has politely declined to admit perfume to the party. Anyway, the study of art history in the long view becomes a study of culture in all of its manifestations regardless of conscious 'intentionality', from coins to comic books... even criticism, busy clearing its throat in a rehearsal for history, eventually becomes a category of literature. There's something to think about...

    1. Is it something to think about?

      The study of art history is the study of the history of art, and such history requires commensurate contextualization within its incredibly broad scope. Therefore when we discuss Keith Haring, we must also consider the AIDS crisis in the East Village in the 1980s. We can't understand Jean-Michel Basquiat without contemplating black American experience through the ages, and Norse mythology. However, these contemplations are succinctly tied into the art itself.

      When we consider Kouros by Pierre Bourdon, are we considering anything in Pierre's life? Are we extrapolating meaning from his experiences? If so, where? Who is doing this? When we study Drakkar Noir, are Pierre Wargnye's messages being broadcast via atomizer into our social consciousness? If Greenberg were to analyze Annie Buzantian's Tea Rose, would he convincingly tie its photorealistic depiction of a tea rose to 1970s 'kitsch' using Buzantian's body of work, or just Tea Rose, and if the latter, would his argument be the same?

      It's not about winner and loser here. Burr may have implied that fine art has nothing to lose, and perfumery has everything to gain by accepting it into the lexicon of artistic theistic doctrines, but that's just his misunderstanding of the big picture at work.

      It's about recognizing where perfume actually exists in our day to day lives. Serious artists work from their personal strategies of being. Serious perfumers work from strategies of function. Which chemicals function better together than others? What function does the finished combination of chemicals perform? Is the performance adequate, or does it need work? Lastly, does it sell? A great artist could live and die without ever selling a single piece of artwork. A great perfumer would not be considered great if his entire life passed without anyone buying a single perfume. Therein lies the rub for those who argue that perfume is art.

      People confuse aesthetics with art. Design is aesthetic. Design is a form of art. Perfume is design; perfume is irrevocably a form of art. However, that doesn't make perfume art. It makes perfume design.

      We should rely on our sense of context to think about this. However, my attitude is firmly that we should not overthink it.


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