"All art must lie by definition, but in the best possible sense." - Chandler Burr, "A Fragrance Critic on the Problem With Perfume," by Kathleen Hou, nymag.com, October 22, 2014
My boss recently said, "It amazes me how often people come to me with problems that they have not thought all the way through." He is an intellectual person, a doctorate with a few decades of experience in his field, and his message was multi-faceted. In one sense, people do not think their arguments through, and when they approach him with something that they perceive to be a problem, they are usually not prepared to answer his questions as to why they feel it is a problem. That sounds stupid, but I believe him when he says it happens all the time. Usually people don't think things from their cranium to their corns - they're content to stop at their gut and just spout off from there. Feelings, not ideas, reign supreme.
The other sense of his statement is where its genius rests: people must consider an issue very carefully before they can declare it a problem. Usually our perceived problems bite us in the nose, and there is little need to stand around rubbing our chins about them, because their deleterious qualities are readily identifiable. However, we should ask ourselves if we've considered the issues at hand thoroughly enough to actually define them as "problems." With enough careful thought, solutions are generated. The birth of a solution marks the death of a problem. A person who stops to ask himself if he or she really has a problem is likely to weigh its importance against other factors, and consider strategies for dealing with the issue at hand before it can ever actually manifest in the outside world as a definite "problem."
Reading some of the press for Chandler Burr's new book about Dior's perfumes has me believing that Mr. Burr is continuing to behave in a way motivated by gut instincts more than the whole self (mind, body, spirit, etc), and it's troubling, because he is one of a paltry few people who tries, again and again, to generate honest dialogues about perfume, and its place in our post-postmodern world. The problem here, as I have carefully considered it, is that Burr continues to insist that perfume is art, when it is in fact design. That one of the few contemporary voices to define perfume could be so wrong is almost as distressing as the fact that there are hardly any other voices to counter his opinions. The man's logic exists in a vacuum, not entirely of its own making.
The quote that precedes this blog post establishes that Burr believes perfume is art, and thus he also believes that perfumers are artists, their works are "lies in the best possible sense." Does this idea have any intrinsic value, any sturdy basis in fact?
I detected a hint of incredulity in Ms. Hou's tone when she asked Burr about his opinion on perfume as a part of fashion, "You don't think there is a link between fashion and perfume? That is a bold statement coming from the author of a book about Dior."
Burr answers this in the predictable manner, one that supports his Perfume As Art philosophy, which is only remotely tenable if we establish that Perfume Is Not Design, which he attempts to do, rather brusquely, when he answers, "there is no link between fashion and perfume."
It only takes one sentence to destroy Burr's logic: Christian Dior's fashion designs, when presented to the twentieth century fashion world, grew in popularity, which led to his branching into the perfume industry, producing works like Diorling, Diorella, Poison, Fahrenheit, and Dune, all of which irrevocably strengthened our appreciation for modern perfumes with their beauty, in turn creating another way in which people could appreciate the Dior brand.
There. In one run-on sentence, I have established a clear link between perfume and fashion. It is a link any thinking person can make. Except Chandler Burr, apparently.
But Burr's opinion on fashion is not what irks me. I get annoyed whenever I read his canned candy-cane answer, a seemingly stock answer, to the implied question, "What is art?" He constantly spews the same nonsense. Art, according to him, is "artifice." Art is artificial, a sort of intellectual white lie people tell each other to enrich their minds, if that could possibly make any sense. "All art must lie by definition."
First question - where exactly did he get this definition from?
Second question, why doesn't Burr mention specific artists who corroborate his view with their own? Contrast Burr's view of art with Jonathan Fineberg's definition of both art and artists, from the second edition of his book, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. Fineberg writes,
"For all sincere artists, their art is an evolving perspective on events, and it is who they are. 'I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught,' Georgia O'Keefe wrote to her friend Anita Pollitzer, 'not like what I had seen - shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn't occurred to me to put them down. I decided to stop painting, to put away everything I had done, and to start to say the things that were my own.'"
Can an "evolving perspective on events" be a lie? Can it be packaged in a lie? Are all messages inherently lies? Even good lies?
By including the quote from Georgia O'Keefe, Fineberg gets to the heart of the matter very succinctly. Some art is a lie. The lies are those that fail to express the self. They are academic still lives, illustrations for children's books, attempts to mimic style and content using similar styles and subject matter. Even great artists like Georgia O'Keefe go through periods of their lives where they literally live a lie, drawing, painting, sculpting things that are in no way attached to the hand that makes them.
A true intellectual sees past these works, to the very different works that express the self of the artist. This is the "A-Ha!" moment O'Keefe refers to in her own artistic development. It is at this tier of artistic comprehension that the fallacy in Burr's logic is exposed, for if art is a lie, then those telling the lie and perceiving it must be susceptible to something other than the truth, a state which no thinking person finds himself in when he confronts artworks. We do not approach paintings and sculptures and installation pieces with blank slate, filterless minds, absorbing their content through a literal lens, and walking away believing untruths, nor do artists seek to manipulate viewers with their work. Art is an extension of being, and to simply be is profoundly at odds with even the most well-intentioned deception. Art is an expression of self that is also an extension of self, taking the inside and placing it in an outer context, "to say the things that are one's own."
What does perfume say? Perfume says nothing. How do we know? Because perfume, unlike the self, is finite. Great works of art exist on a spectrum of historical space that extends indefinitely into a potentially unending future (several thousand years from now, man will leave Earth, colonize other worlds, and take art and creative impulses with him). Perfume, on the other hand, can be used up, and there must be a conscious and usually commercially-driven decision to replenish it, if we are to continue experiencing it. Words and images about ourselves, once expressed, can not be taken back. Perfume, once made, can be used up. Recalled. Spilled. Forgotten under a medicine cabinet somewhere. Discovered under a medicine cabinet, tested for freshness, and thrown out.
Burr's account of art and artists is very pedestrian, very piecemeal and one dimensional, and what irritates me is that he attempts to elevate perfume to the status of fine art without actually understanding what fine art is in the first place. A rudimentary art history course, conducted by a decent professor with the guidance of a good textbook, is enough to shatter Burr's entire philosophy like an empty perfume bottle. I fear that unless someone speaks up and argues against his nonsense, we'll be subjected to more of it in the years to come. And that, my friends, is a problem.