What Is The Smell of Social Unrest?

"This is something essential to art: reception is never its goal. What counts for me is that my work provides material to reflect upon. Reflection is an activity."
- Thomas Hirschhorn

Michael Brown and Eric Garner are household names in 2014, with headlines about racial inequality and police brutality continuing to ripple across front pages of newspapers and the very fabric of American society, yet the fragrance world remains unmoved. Despite all the unrest and injustice, the protests, the riots, the commentaries on television by people like Bill O'Reilly, Joan Walsh, Jon Stewart, and even athletes like Derrick Rose, who recently wore an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt to a game, headlines in the perfume community remain quietly mundane and oblivious. I do not say this as an indictment of perfumistas, because I do not think it is appropriate for our culture to attempt a politically-motivated olfactory response to racial injustice in American cities. This blog post is simply meant to further illustrate and reinforce my position that perfume is not art. To see and think about art is to reflect on ourselves, our pleasures and our pains, yet perfume does not initiate reflections on pain and suffering.

If perfume were art, we would not be reading blog posts like Persolaise's December 3rd interview with Kelly Kovack of Odin, in which the most socially aware question asked of her was, "Are you worried about the opportunistic proliferation of niche?" I actually enjoyed this interview, because Ms. Kovack reinforced one of my staunchest opinions regarding the importance of fragrance blogs to the perfume industry when she said, "Online press has been huge. I think that blogs are hugely important for us." Of course they are! Without online press for perfumes, there is no press for perfumes. Our words as bloggers are what motivate and disenfranchise the industry, in equal measure, often making or breaking fragrances (so be careful what you say). But Persolaise's interview is understandably tone deaf about what's actually taking place in New York, despite being titled, "Something Very New York." Right now, something "Very New York" would have excerpts of people's grief over the Eric Garner killing smattered across its page. We would be reading about anger, confusion, resentment, and not Ms. Kelly and Odin.

I could list a few other blog headlines, but you get the drift - Persolaise is not alone in prioritizing perfume stories over political events. He and others who type blithely on about new niche brands are not wrong in doing so. They are merely examples of how far removed from artistic discourse perfume writers actually are. It would be tedious of me to expound on how art contributes to our definitions of time periods, with movements like "Socialist Realism," and "Dadaism" being obvious, well known examples, but one example of art reflecting pain is Thomas Hirschhorn's famous 2002 installation "Non-Lieux," or "Non Site." In this work, we see the disintegration of American ideals in a semi-abstract representation of Ground Zero in NYC, with social and political progress heaped in the rubble, symbols of religious and secular worlds reaching for our attention, and for dominance in the newly-destroyed landscape. Flags labeled "Democracy," pornographic images of women, and an electric train celebrate the contradiction of America's patriotism and its need to "connect" imagery to its physically and morally ruined landscapes. The nation's pain in the months following that colossal tragedy cannot be channeled in its entirety through a work like Mr. Hirschhorn's, but facets of it resonate years after the healing has begun.

Certainly perfume can be viewed retroactively as stylistic prose on the cultural mood of an era, and Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko are prime examples. The first perfume was released two years before the start of World War I, and stands as a delectable pre-war ode to Impressionism's last gasp before the rise of the great twentieth century industrial war complex. The second was issued at the end of the war, a peach-infused chypre that smelled wistful and vain in ways only the French can conjure. I suppose the argument can be made that this is as close to political discourse as perfume can come, to trace changes in the human condition at historical divides, but there is hardly enough content in a smell to decipher what has changed, and why. There is only a vague thematic shift, something that either retains clarity through continuity, or loses it when other products enter the fray. How much iconic truth can be gleaned from two perfumes released by the same house?

And how does perfume ever expressively resonate on a political level? This is a question for people like Chandler Burr, who continue to propagate the relatively unchallenged notion that perfume is fine art. All forms of fine art can be modulated to fit a political narrative, be it painting, sculpture, performance art, Earth art, etc. Take for example an early "body work" by artist Ana Mendieta, in which she responded to a rape on her college campus by inviting people to her apartment, where they found her stripped, tied, and smeared in blood. Or consider Ilya Kabakov's The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, an absurdist emblem of Soviet inefficiency, and part of his "Ten Characters" series, showing how nationalistic aspirations like winning the "space race" can go awry. Not only are talking points addressed, but emotionally-charged intellectual musings, humor, and naked despair are all tangible elements in the visual languages spoken by these artists.

Design, on the other hand, simply functions, and the mathematics of aerodynamics, architectural geometry, chemistry, and three-point perspective are the main schematics for success. Political and social discourse are at most marginally involved. Perfume is design, a very functional, superficial form of design, and as such serves the purpose of helping us smell like something other than our natural selves. Expression is limited to fragrance choice, a fashion statement by proxy.

In 2014, a year where social, political, and financial inequality are at an all-time high, we face some inconvenient truths: the rich are responsible for a negative, damaging dichotomy; the poor will not escape their terrible class bracket; the only thing that creates wealth is wealth itself; those wealthy enough to afford the entire Creed range can not possibly understand the family that relies on food stamps and charities to put meals on their table. Chandler Burr fashions himself as being some kind of "zeitgeist shaper" who invents coded terminologies and maps out cultural territories of thought, but look at who he is - a wealthy guy who hobnobs with wealthy people. He probably flies first class, eats fifty dollar meals, wears $150 shirts, lives on an 1800 sq ft floorplan in the city. He's a "New Yorker," as in he represents the One Percent.

Is it any surprise that he believes perfume is fine art? He considers all art "artificial" by definition. If a great swath of art deals with pain, suffering, disenfranchisement, moral failure, the irony of poverty in developed nations, then labeling it "artifice" is very convenient to his upper-crust worldview, isn't it? Maybe that sort of art does not speak to him, so he turns to perfume, products of luxury and sometimes exploitative greed, and calls it art also. To posit that the beauty of a great perfume is fine art is a clever way to bypass the social realities being dissected by real fine artists, and ride into culture-ville on the Ivory Tower Express. Most people won't know what that $600 Guerlain or Dior smells like, because they can't even afford a sample of it, but Burr calls it art. In fairness, he also considers $30 perfumes like The Dreamer to be art, but even that price-point is a luxury that the super poor, who number in the millions, can never afford.

A common misconception among middle class people is that the wealthy pay a lot for luxuries because they can afford them. In truth, the wealthy often pay nothing at all for ultra-expensive things. These things are given to them, because they're part of "the club," that tiny class of people who consider it an insult, bordering on obscene to be asked for money in exchange for a service. Burr's power to announce that perfume is fine art, and then have a New York art museum grant him a show to prove it, is an incredible luxury. Did he pay for it? If so, how?

Does anyone really subscribe to his school of thought anyway? It doesn't matter. What disturbs me is that people in Burr's class have become so detached from those in every other class that they aren't even asked these kinds of questions anymore. Historically, fine art represents the sacred and profane, the basest human needs, most sophisticated desires, cross-cultural tribulations, elevating human devastation with the power of raw beauty via refined intellect. We are facing a replay of the 1960s with poor black Americans being murdered in broad daylight by well-off white policemen, and it is incumbent on fine artists to filter this aspect of their lives and exposit meaningful, self-expressive works. Their creations are important in shaping our nation's dialogue on race, prejudice, and social injustice.

If perfume is fine art, then perfumers should create fragrances that express the rage, the oppression, the injustices of racially-motivated slayings. Perfumers will not do this, of course, because they can't bottle such things, and people can't wear them. You can't smell like social unrest, because no one wants to smell like tear gas.

If you believe that perfume is fine art, I challenge you to look in the mirror and ask yourself how you came to that conclusion - how you, personally, came to it. In what way are perfumers currently contributing to the social upheaval going on in the world, in America, in 2014? How will these contributions shape 2015? I'm willing to bet that you can't name a single perfume that deals with murder, or rape, or poverty. Perfume is a luxury, an unnecessary appurtenance to our daily lives, and only the most comfortable among us consider it to be anything else.


  1. Bravo! I speak of course as someone who is in the design rather than art camp, as you know.

    I have come across a few perfumes with charitable overtones, eg the 7 Virtues range - 'Make Perfume Not War' - and there was one whose proceeds went to Wateraid, I think. And a couple of others are in the back of my mind, though I can't name them, so you are right there! And together they don't even account for a 'drop in the ocean' vs the rest of the market, so I am broadly with you on this one.

    Ref the Garner case, there was an interesting analysis of the video by our Radio 4, by an experienced detective. It seems that in the UK, police are taught not to apply so much force on top of a person, as that can constrict their breathing. I am not saying people don't get killed by rough handling in British police custody, because they do, but the detective was surprised and dismayed to see the different holds being used by the New York police compared to over here. He also said that when a suspect says he can't breathe, the police must desist from whatever they are doing. So even if the physical approach is ill judged due to poor training, they should not have followed through to this unfortunate end.

    1. There are certainly some perfumes that are cradled in a political activist's commercial guise, true. But how do their fragrances alone convey a political message? As for the Garner case, as an American living but a stone's throw from NYC, all I can do is hang my head in shame.

    2. Ah, good point, and possibly not at all, though I must say I haven't smelt any of them!

  2. Well, once again I’m late to the party, but I am interested in the subject so I think I’ll give it a try anyway. I will say straight away that more than anything, I am interested in the question you’ve raised and appreciate your raising it. I’ll start by trying to address the more personal challenge you put forth at the end of your article, and consider why I care at all about fragrance. I became interested in the subject then more interested, and then almost obsessed over the course of about eighteen months. There were several superficial reasons. For one, I often worked as an art critic, and found it interesting and refreshing to read such judgmental, taste-driven writing (kind of the opposite of art writing, wherein no one will render a judgment nor will they acknowledge that something as bourgeois as taste could be a factor in why they prefer some works over others.) For another, I had started writing poetry based on transient, materially grounded experiences and found the notion of olfactory accords an interesting way of thinking about the way clusters of associations can combine and overlap around a single image. But the real reason (which I scarcely recognized at first) was that I had hit an all time low, a period of self-destructive behavior followed by a trough of depression so deep and long that for almost a year there were days I thought of myself as already dead. Fragrance, with its extreme artificiality, its rhetoric of raw materials distilled and abstracted, became for me a way of picturing myself as having a body, like some awkward digital avatar being clumsily manipulated at a distance. Of course other side interests followed, but I think they all sprung from that. Relating personal memories to pleasurable smells for example, seemed to be a way of programming myself to give a damn about time at all (depression tends to flatten out one’s perception of time, just as anxiety agitates and elasticizes it). Modeling myself as a person who wears X fragrance and puts on Y suit, is, I think, something of a workaday narcissism that many of us use to cope; becoming very interested in fragrance from an analytical perspective gave me another way of thinking about this behavior that on bad days reinforced the narcissism and on good days gave me a way of thinking detachedly about what I was doing. Finally, scent’s invisibility and relative obscurity as a subject gave me something to care about that was private. One of the tricky things about being unstable is the constant sense of shame and mortification of exposure. Anything that provides privacy is indispensible. Living in my nose was like having a soundtrack playing that for the most part nobody could hear, and it did, I think, help keep me steady.

    Does this mean that fragrance is art? I think it depends on how we talk about art, and how we talk about fragrance. Poor people use scent and arguably always have… Working class Cubans or Dominicans might use Florida Water in a Hoodoo ritual, for example. Plenty of working class men in America still smell like Old Spice or Brut, and not a few seniors living off of a state pension in Germany leave traces of 4711 in their grandchildren’s olfactory hippocampi. Luxury, as something whose value is superfluous to utility, is not something only the wealthy enjoy. But of course I agree with you that the co-opting of the dialogue by people who are clearly responding to ingrained messages about wealth and hierarchy is something to be scorned. But I will also say as someone who regularly dips into Art in America or Modern Painters that that same use of an abstruse language of refinement to blandly forward an oligarchical agenda is present there too, though I would never be so cynical as to suggest that that is all that one finds there.

  3. Having said all of that (and it was a mouthful –sorry), I don’t know if I’m really addressing many of the points you’ve made here or elsewhere when you talk about perfume vs. fine art. Undeniably, we are in the territory of fine, vs. applied art, the latter of which I think runs into two categories that themselves overlap, sometimes in unhelpful ways: craft and commercial art. “Unhelpful” because we are living through a moment in which commercial products are being aggressively marketed as artisanship (craft) as a selling point; thus the (sometimes relatively genuine) promise that niche perfumes offer not just higher quality materials, but a sense of authorship and integrity we associate with the craftsperson.

    I think that we tend to judge objects of craft on the basis of utility first and authenticity second, though as commercially produced goods become just as effective at delivering on utility, so authenticity becomes a more special and fetishized category. Fine art, on the other hand, need not offer utility (“all art is quite useless really”, said Wilde, echoing Kant), but historically has promised some kind of palpable authorial intent (as you reference in your piece about Kouros and Warhol.) I want to be clear that I am really not disagreeing with your article, especially not with what sounds like indignation leveraged at people embracing frivolities in the midst of emergency. But I like keeping the question open because I want to believe that art is a moving target, feeds off of the good and the bad in culture, and so that something of what makes art urgent might come out of as artifice-driven an industry as perfumery, even if it is just a conversation.


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