3/25/12

Conundrum: Is Perfumery A Craft?



This week on basenotes there is a thread addressing the topic of whether or not perfumery is an art. It is a spirited debate that remained fair and genteel for the duration of my participation in it (I go by MOONB on basenotes). After two days of input, I have decided to step back and let other members hash it out. It seems to be a topic for which no minds can really be changed, and I have said all there is to say.

Let me distill some of the points in this thread down for you. One particular basenoter contended at length that perfumery is most certainly an art. He pointed to Hammam Bouquet - the original 1870s toilet water and the Penhaligon's scent - and likened its orientalism to a painting by Ingres called The Turkish Bath.

He wrote:
Isn't Penhaligon's Hammam Bouquet as powerful a statement olfactorily as Ingrès Turkish Bath is visually (=Hammam). Are they not enmeshed in the same cultural discourses and Victorian politics of sublimated desire? Isn't Jicky's masterful conceptual abstraction a breakthrough similar to the Nude Descending the Staircase?
Interesting questions. I tackled them both with the most concise answers I could provide:
I ask you: if Hammam Bouquet (the original 1870s scent that you refer to) is comparable to Ingres, then do you consider a fruit salad comparable to Cezanne's Still Life With Fruit Dish ??? And why would it be different from attempting to replicate the smell of Turkish bath oils? I can take the same fruits and concoct a dish that contains the same natural components that are represented in the Cezanne. And taste is related to scent, so I would think this comparison would seem apt to you(?) Jicky will always smell of its core components, but Nude Descending a Staircase will look differently to different people based on their orientation to the subject matter. And their perspectives will not necessarily be wrong, or right.

Conversely, if I told you I smelled oud in Jicky (even if I really do smell it), my interpretation is based on an error in my olfactory sense, and you would surely disagree if I told you there's oud in Jicky. If I told you the Nude is a woman - now you must consider why you do or do not disagree. There is a different access point for your perspective on the painting, versus your perspective on Jicky
It's an important conversation, contrary to what others on the interweb may think, because this question of whether perfumery is an art cuts to the core of what perfumery really is, and what its appropriate context and role in modern society should be. Definition is important here, to better understand that which we so love and write about.

So, considering the importance of definition in this debate, I'll include this exchange between myself and another basenoter (different from the above). He wrote:
Most say that film is an art, but we all know of an innumerable amount of examples that certainly don't feel like they should be called art (Gigli). It's definitely not a simple answer. I looked up the definition of perfumery, and quite a few use the word "art".
To which I replied:
Film making is a craft. Writing is a craft. Craft, like design, is different from (but similar to) fine art.
This prompted a response from the basenoter that I quoted first in this post:
Sorry, but you've utterly lost me. Film not an art? Drama? Poetry?
To which I said:
I think you're lost because you're having definition problems here. Movies are about writing. Writing is about crafting sentences. The difference is in what is acceptable - imagery and materials of traditional and non-traditional art can range far and wide (earth art, performance art), but writing has strict rules for coherence. There are radical styles in writing, as in art, but in the end there must be a subject, verb, noun, etc., to form a proper sentence. Then the sentences themselves must be arrayed appropriately to convey a limited degree of information. Big difference between this, and fine art.
Indeed, there certainly is a big difference between this, and fine art. My point attempts to illuminate what craft is. Craft is the adherence to strict guidelines, within which a personal expression is made, either for entertainment or functional purposes. Cabinet making is a craft. Writing is a craft. Film making is a craft. There are rules. There are specific guidelines. You are not allowed to stray too far out of any of them, lest you lose the impetus of craft making.

This applies very rigorously to film making. There is a misguided notion out there that any old sap can write a screen play, and turn it into a movie. I guess the viral spread of reality TV shows is to blame for this. The truth is that screenwriting is extremely standardized. There are very rigid rules as to how the words are allowed to go down on paper. Formatting is essential. Word choice is everything. Saying more with less is crucial.

One should ask, given an understanding of this, if the same standards apply to perfumery. Are the guidelines so rigid? Do famous perfumers have to adhere to these rules in order to create something that is legitimately perfume?

Simple answer (which is all I'll provide - I'm entertaining guests today): No. Not really.

Case in point: Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecules. The fragrance employs one note: ISO E-Super. There is no adherence to any structure, no conformity to any academic blueprint. The conventional idea of top notes, middle notes, base notes, goes out the window. If one were to suppose these conventions were the standard by which one could relate to perfume as a craft, then this fragrance, and indeed this entire fragrance line would disappoint. Furthermore, Molecule 01 provides insight into how far from craft perfumery truly is - by abandoning structure to a single aromachemical, Escentric Molecules proves that avant-gardism in perfumery involves providing less, not more. In other words, to think outside the box, one should just fold the box, and not attempt expansive olfactory experiments.

I rest my case.









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